Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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I have only spoken once with Viktor Tikhonov, Jr., but here is something of which I’m sure: his courage is off the charts. If you know anything about his grandfather’s coaching legacy, then perhaps you will recall footage of the Soviet National Team pooling sweat in the gym of an army barracks, alternating Olympic lifts with calisthenics and sprints for hours on end. Superior athletic conditioning underpinned the ferocious Red Machine, a team that won thirteen-straight Soviet titles, eight World Championships and three Olympic Gold Medals under his watch. So when renowned coach of the USSR Viktor Tikhonov invited his grandson to the gym, perhaps anyone else in their right mind would have passed.

 “I came in pretty excited,” Tikhonov, Jr. recalled, a reaction I still find hard to rationalize. “The first thirty minutes was all body weight: jumping, squatting, pretty much nonstop. The only problem was that after thirty minutes, once I sat down, I couldn't get back up.”

The Ak Bars forward is only 32, but has already clocked nearly seventeen years of professional hockey in both Russia and North America, including an Olympic appearance and a World Championship title in 2014. Drafted 28th overall by the Arizona Coyotes in 2008, Tikhonov logged 111 NHL starts between stints in Cherepovets and Saint Petersburg, winning two Gagarin Cups in the process. With a playoff spot clinched for Kazan and a ten point lead in the Eastern Conference, he may soon contend for a third—a track record that would fill even the most exacting of grandfathers with pride.

From the fondest memories of his legendary namesake to an Arizona prank that went awry—I caught up with Tikhonov from Kazan, where he is preparing for the season’s final stretch.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Ak Bars clinched a playoff spot with several weeks left in the regular season. What are you playing for right now?

Viktor Tikhonov (VT): Right now it’s just about finding our playoff game, really. Once the playoffs start, it's definitely going to be different. Teams are going to be playing harder, and the closer we can get to that mentality and speed of play, the better and the easier it will be for us to transition. I think a big part of [our success] is that the team has been able to keep a good group of its core players for a few years. We’ve just been building on that steadily. The team hasn't changed too much since last season, but the guys that did come obviously play a huge part in the team right now.

GK: One newcomer is none other than Nigel Dawes. How would you describe him? 

VT: Legend. I mean, he’s an incredible player. Not much has to be said about his skillset. He can do it all. Obviously goal scoring is the first thing that comes to mind, but just playing with him, you realize how good he is with his vision on the ice. He can get the puck to you. He battles like no other, he can go into the corner. But I think what he's really added to our team is just how he is as a person. Inside the locker room, he's great. He's not one of those guys that everything always has to go his way. Even if he has a bad shift or something, he'll take responsibility. He’s a lead by example type of guy. He'll work hard every shift, and then you'll see him in the gym after the game on the bikes for an hour, he'll be in the cold tub for fifteen minutes after that. He's just pure professionalism, a team-first type of guy.

GK: The Tatar culture is so unique within Russia, and Ak Bars does a great job of honoring that heritage. Which traditions stand out to you? 

VT: In our locker room, we award the best player like a lot of other teams. The best player of the last game picks the best player of this game. One of the traditions in Tatarstan is that they have a hat called the tubeteika. That’s what our best player gets—so they put it on and make a speech. That’s a cool one. And food-wise, I really like chak-chak. My family just absolutely loves it. Every time I’d get home from practice or the store, my kids would always ask if I bought some.

GK: You know, chak-chak is a controversial topic. A lot of imports are like, “I prefer chocolate…” 

VT: But you can get it chocolate-covered too! That's the best one. It’s basically chocolate-covered bread soaked in honey.

GK: No arguments here — I eat all desserts equally. What will Kazan hope to strengthen up before postseason?

VT: In our last two games, we didn’t perform the way we wanted to. It opened up our eyes to a few holes that we have. We made some mistakes in the D-zone that we're going to try and figure out in these next couple of games. There's always going to be something. It's really hard to be great everywhere. When you have a team that believes, that buys into the training process and our coaches, it makes the process so much faster—just getting better all together.

GK: Let's talk about that buy-in for a second, because Dmitri Kvartalnov is an interesting coach. His style feels North American influenced—faster, more aggressive… 

VT: He's definitely got a lot of that. I have a bit of a different experience with him, because he was actually one of my first coaches when I was younger—maybe 21 or 22 years old in Severstal. His style has evolved so much since that time. Even going into this season, like you said, people know him as playing fast and aggressive hockey, but he actually adapts really well to the team. Obviously it has been a tough year with COVID-19, and we've had guys in and out of the lineup, a lot of young guys. He’s had to shift quite a bit tactically, because there were games when we just couldn’t play that fast. Some guys weren’t in shape yet, and some new guys didn’t know the system. I feel like he's been juggling it really well this year, and playing the right way at the right time. It’s good that we're getting back to our fast game again.

GK: How would you have described his style in Severstal? 

VT: It was closer to the trend at the time, where [the KHL] was a little more defensive focused—make fewer mistakes, get the puck out, short shift, change. Obviously we are still playing short shifts, but now it's a lot more focused on trying to get attacks off the rush. He gives us freedom in the offensive zone to create, but we have to keep the puck, we have to hold on to it. So he has definitely evolved since that time in Severstal.

GK: Would you agree that North America plays something closer to your grandfather’s vision of hockey than Russia does at the moment? 

VT: Yeah, that's actually a great point. It’s sometimes visible you when you watch the World Juniors, or a tournament like that. You see the Canadian team and the American team, especially this past year—they’re basically playing a hybrid of Soviet and North American hockey. It's puck control, a lot of movement, combining skill with grit. You can see the success those teams have had. It’s definitely fun to watch.

GK: I’ve always wondered why the KHL trended stylistically in a different direction, and what role ice size played in that. 

VT: That’s a good question. It could be many things, and I think ice size is obviously a factor. It's harder to make it everywhere in time when the ice is bigger, and the puck travels faster than any player. But then again, I think a lot of teams at the time when the KHL started, they were really defensive. Almost five guys back all of the time in the neutral zone, no pressure at all. The coaches may have seen that as a successful system and started copying it. That started the trend of playing careful, smart hockey—don’t make mistakes, don't get scored on. That could be why we're seeing a lot of that now.

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GK: Igor Larionov expressed a desire to revive Soviet style while coaching World Juniors. 

VT: You know, I like what he's doing. He was one of the greats, and he played that way too. I hope he has success not only with the junior team, but also that [his vision] will make its way back to the professional leagues too.

GK: Your grandfather coached Larionov! I can imagine that Viktor Sr. was eager to get you onto the ice. 

VT: I remember that my grandpa gave me my first pair of skates. I was about two and a half or so. I don't think I was very good, but I used them more off the ice than I used them on the ice. I would pretty much force my parents to put them on me and I'd just walk around in them. I'd sleep with them on. The only thing I wasn't allowed to do was go outside with them. So my grandpa started me off on that path pretty early.

GK: What is your fondest memory of him?

VT: Well, there was the first and last time I went to the gym with him…

GK: I cannot believe you were brave enough to do one of his off-ice sessions. 

VT: Yeah, he was tough in the gym. I think I was about 17 years old and struggling a bit during the season. My grandpa would come to watch all of my games when we played in Moscow, and he just noticed like, “Physically, you can be better. You can be stronger. Come to the gym and I'll show you what we used to do." So I was like, “Alright—let’s do it.”

I came in pretty excited. The first thirty minutes was all body weight: jumping, squatting, pretty much nonstop. The only problem was that after thirty minutes, once I sat down, I couldn't get back up. My legs just spasmed. I don't know what it looked like to him, but I tried to buy some time. I was like, "Hey, can I go downstairs and get some water?" And he goes, "Yeah, sure, come back." I took probably the longest water break of my life, came back up. He asked how my legs were and I was like, "Not very good." And he goes, 'Well, that was just the warmup, we’ve got about two hours left. Can you handle it?" And I was like, ”I don't think so."

GK: Did he let you off the hook? 

VT: He was like, "Yeah, it's okay. Maybe next time." So that left me sore for a couple of days. I can't even imagine what those guys used to do to be so strong. It was mind blowing.

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GK: What was the best piece of advice that he ever gave you? 

VT: He taught me to use defeat as a lesson. When I was younger, I used to think, “I lost, I failed.” I would get down on myself. But instead, he told me to use it as school, as an education—to replay the game in my head. If you have video, see where you could have done better, positional-wise. Or with your linemates, figure out a play you guys could do or something that's not clicking. He always helped me the first couple of times. We’d talk through it play-by-play. But now it’s something I pretty much do myself, every time. It's not even after losses now, it's after wins as well. But he definitely taught me to use something that I thought was bad as something that's good. It definitely helped my career a ton.

GK: Speaking of defeats….I have to ask…did any of your American teammates growing up force you to watch Miracle? 

VK: No, but actually my two best friends back home—we have an ongoing bet. One of them is a goalie, and he has to stop, I believe, five or ten penalty shots in a row. I think it used to be ten, but we moved it back to five. He has to stop five penalty shots in a row against me. And if he does, I will sit down and watch the movie with him.

GK: Do you have any pieces of memorabilia that you cherish? 

VK: For most of his really cool stuff, my grandma opened up a museum. There were so many medals, and now they’re in the museum at the new CSKA Arena. My grandma wrote a cool photo book about him. It’s a collection of photos of the old days—back before he started playing, through junior hockey and when he first started coaching. It was stuff I hadn’t seen before, and it just came out this year. That’s something I open pretty much everyday now. It’s my favorite thing I have.

GK: On my last visit to that museum, I took a photo of your grandfather’s old coaching notebook. I’ve never seen anything so organized or detailed.

VK: Oh yes. Do you know how many there were of those things? There were hundreds, I swear. I saw them at his apartment. They were all filled with his small handwriting, every single page. Every single day he was practicing, he'd write everything down—and they had two-a-day, three-a-day practices. He’d record which guys did well, which guys didn't do well, how much weight they lifted, how many reps they did, every single skating drill. I've tried to read one all the way through, but I haven't managed it yet.

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GK: When I was flipping around Instagram, I couldn't help but notice that your wife is an amazing artist. She made a cool sculpture of a Soviet hockey player!

VK: Before she came to Russia with me, she used to work in industrial design. She worked for Easton-Bell Sports designing helmets for them. She had always been into art and loved drawing, but this past year, she started getting into clay and sculpting. She's been doing faces either from movies or cartoons, and obviously hockey players too. So that's been her thing when she wants to chill away from everyone, we give her a couple of hours. She’s really super talented. Some of the things she does, I can't believe.

GK: Who else in the family has carried on the hockey legacy? 

VK: My son plays hockey too. Actually, my sister Tatiana is his coach right now. She's getting pretty accomplished in her own right, too. She coached a men's team in Poland last year, and this year she's doing a girl's team in San Jose—the Junior Sharks. She’s kind of close to my grandpa's style as well. She can be pretty hard on her players. She demands a lot of respect, and she gets it. I go to her for an opinion on some of my games. She trained me a couple of times this past summer. She's definitely getting out there, and I'm super proud of her for that.

GK: What would you say is the funniest prank you've ever pulled in hockey? 

VT: There’s a tradition at team dinner, where they send the young players under the table to put ketchup on someone’s shoes. It's called a shoe check. Everyone starts ringing the glasses and then everybody checks their shoe. Whoever's shoe it's on has to put it on the table. So one time [in Arizona], I was the under-the-table guy. Our captain Shane Doan sent me to get Mikkel Bødker because we were both rookies that year. It was a pretty easy target because he was sitting at the end of the table, last guy.

So I'm crawling down there, I find the last set of shoes, put the ketchup on them, and get back to my spot. The shoe check happens. Everyone's looking at Bødker, because I guess everyone already knew. He was like, "Why's everyone looking at me? My shoes are fine." And I'm like, "Oh no." My heart dropped. And the guy next to him was Keith Yandle—he’s like, “What the…?” Takes his shoe off. So I hit the wrong target. I guess Bødker got up to go to the bathroom while I was crawling under there.

GK: There’s no way you got off easy for that!

VT: I got pretty swift retribution the next day because we were on the road, and Yandle wasn't playing. When I got back to put my suit on, my tie had been pretty much cut in half. I had to wear half a tie for the rest of the road trip basically, because I only brought one.

GK: That’s my favorite story yet. Last question: what is one song on your workout playlist right now? 

VT: Let me check my music…alright, Miley Cyrus…

GK: Oh please let that be it! 

VT: No, I'm just kidding. I was about to say The Mandalorian theme song. I usually like listening to hard rock, but that one is kind of different. My son loves it too, so we hum it together.

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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