Li’s passion for the game and mental fortitude— a gift from his father’s martial arts training—helped the youngster to vault ahead of his peers. Over the last decade, Li mastered his craft under some of Russia’s most recognizable maestros, including Soviet great Alexei Kasatonov and the late Miloš Říha, a celebrated Czech player and coach. The latter instilled an invincible positivity that Li has taken with him across thousands of KHL miles.
“Obviously, working with [Říha] was very exciting to me as a young player,” Li recounted this week from Novosibirsk. “The advice that he gave me was that you should always stay positive—to come to work as if it were a celebration, and to be happy about everything.”
Li made his KHL debut for Atlant Mytishchi in 2010. He has since logged time on the rosters of Admiral, Amur, SKA and Ak Bars prior to his arrival in Novosibirsk this season.
While Sibir will finish the year just shy of a playoff spot, Li has channeled that disappointment into an opportunity for mental reset. We discussed the season’s challenges, his fascinating family history and much more for the latest edition of The Faceoff.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Sibir was on the cusp of playoff contention, but ultimately did not make it. What lessons can you pull from the disappointment?
Oleg Li (OL): When you don’t make the playoffs, you often learn certain things. After the season, you try to figure out what you lacked. I don’t know what happened. We have a good team, but a few things got in the way. Sometimes it was individual mistakes. Sometimes we weren’t focused enough. Hockey is all about the little things. Sometimes we would lose the extra point, sometimes we would give up a goal in the dying seconds and lose the game—it all adds up in the end.
I think we should improve our mentality, first of all. We need to change the way we look at things, how we adapt to what happens and what we learn from our losses. If you look at our roster from the previous season, when the team made the playoffs finishing fifth in the [Eastern Conference] standings, that team didn’t have to worry about the mental aspect. I mean, the guys could lose some games but they still believed that they would make the playoffs and go for a deep run. I believe that’s what we lacked this year. We need to improve mentally.
GK: I read that your car was stolen when you arrived in Saint Petersburg for camp. Hopefully no similar surprises greeted you in Novosibirsk?
OL: Indeed. My wife and I drove to St. Petersburg from Moscow. The camp began. We drove to downtown and decided to stop for lunch on Nevsky Prospekt. Everything went as usual. We parked on the street. We came back from lunch, and the car wasn’t there. We didn’t figure out what happened at first because Nevsky is a pretty long avenue. We went down almost the whole length of it and just couldn’t understand what had happened to the car. It was a bit of a shock for us. Everything is great in that regard in Novosibirsk. There were no surprises (laughs).
GK: Who is the toughest player you’ve faced in the KHL, and why?
OL: That would have to be Pavel Valerievich Datsyuk, of course. I played with him in St. Petersburg. I would often stay on the ice after practice for a little one-on-one, keep-away and that kind of stuff with him. His level is absolutely incredible. It’s not for nothing that they call him The Magic Man. The things he did back in the day on the Detroit Red Wings…he’s really tough to play against. The way his mind and hands work, the way he strips you off the puck – it’s very tough to compete against him.
Having said that, it’s difficult to point out just one player. Because whenever you’re on the ice, you’re not playing against one opponent. You’re up against a 5-man unit. And the better their chemistry is, the harder it is to play against them. But individually-wise it has to be Datsyuk, of course. It’s very difficult to take the puck from him, and at the same time, he takes it away from you very easily (laughs).
GK: What are your earliest memories in hockey? I understand that you came to the game slightly older.
OL: My dad took me to a rink when I was eight. It was kind of late for my age, but the local coach saw that I could skate well and took me into his class. I just enjoyed skating and I didn’t even think of making a professional career out of it. I just loved the game. I improved little by little and I didn’t find it too difficult. I made up ground pretty fast. Even though I joined the team pretty late, I caught up fast enough. I began enjoying it a lot—and that’s pretty much it.
GK: My friend Andrey Osadchenko interviewed you in North America and mentioned that your father was a martial arts teacher. Did you two ever work together?
OL: He’s a judo fighter. He used to be pretty good back in the day—he signed up for a class and just went from there. I was born in Volgograd and judo is quite popular down there. Now he’s a coach and he works with kids. We did train together [when I was younger]. He kept me in shape. I used to practice with him all of the time. But since I wasn’t really into judo, he signed me up for a taekwondo class.
GK: Your great-grandparents came to Russia from Korea. Do you know much about their story, and do you keep any of their traditions alive?
OL: We’d have to dig deep into history. You may know that people relocated from Korea to Russia when things were tough down there. That’s how my family got relocated, and that’s how they ended up in Russia. Some traditions have survived to this day—not all of them, of course. My parents cook both Korean and Russian meals, but I can’t say I have any connection with Korea. To be honest with you, I haven’t even been there. I do want to visit, though, and to see the country myself. But other than a few traditions we’ve kept in the family, there’s no connection.
GK: You turned down an opportunity to represent Korea at the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. Tell me more about that.
OL: I think the fact that I grew up in Russia, obviously, influenced my decision. I was born in Russia and, of course, I wanted to play for Team Russia. But I’m not going to lie to you, were I to play for Team Korea, that would automatically make me an import player in Russia. Consequently, if I were to become an import player, it would have been more difficult for me to find a team to sign with.
GK: I can sense that you picked up a great deal of English in one USHL season. What else did you learn in North America?
OL: Well, the fact that the tempo of the game is very fast over there, obviously. Also, a lot of shots. Of course, it’s difficult to adjust when you come there at a young age and don’t speak the language. We had a new team and it was difficult to learn. Maybe if I would have spent more time over there and had someone by my side to help me with the language and hockey, it would have been easier. But I had to learn from my own mistakes. Obviously, the language barrier was a factor.
GK: There’s a big debate right now about whether it’s better for Russian players to develop away or at home. It seems that moving abroad comes with its own host of distractions off the ice, such as the language barrier—as you mentioned.
OL: I think so too. Especially if we’re talking about younger players, it’s tough. Everyday life is difficult. Everything you’re surrounded by…it affects you mentally. Of course, there’s hockey. But hockey aside, you have to feel comfortable off the ice. You have to feel well. That’s going to make it easier for you to show what you’re capable of on the ice. As you get older, you develop certain habits. If you have a clear understanding of why you’re going there, then, I think, it’s going to be easier. But all these off-ice factors really affect younger players mentally.
GK: After your time in America, you played for Krylia Sovetov under the legendary Alexei Kasatonov. Did he offer any elements of Soviet strategy to you?
OL: He truly is a great player. It was an honor to play under him. He saw something in me when he invited me to join the team. Obviously, he tried to relay some game elements to us and teach us some of that Soviet hockey. However, we played in a second tier league. Consequently, the talent level of the players didn’t always allow him to apply that knowledge. We did our best and tried to pass the puck around more.
GK: Viktor Tikhonov, Jr. and I recently discussed the fact that North America seems to be more influenced by Soviet heritage than the modern KHL in terms of playing style.
OL: I agree. When you look at modern age hockey, especially the NHL, a lot of teams opt to pass the puck around. It’s a blend between Soviet and North American hockey. There’s passing plays and physical plays and lots of shots. It’s a heady brew. Especially when you look at how Team Canada plays at the Olympics—they’re really great at it. Hopefully, we can put the emphasis on that as well. After all, it’s our brand of hockey. We just have to develop it in junior hockey schools. That’s where it all stems from. Canada is really good at developing young athletes. Why shouldn’t we be like that?
GK: You’ve had quite a few high-profile coaches. Strong leaders on and off the ice. What would you say is the most inspirational piece of advice that a coach or a mentor has ever given you?
OL: It’s difficult to remember one solid piece. But the first coach who put me on a KHL team when I was 19 years old was Miloš Říha, may he rest in peace. Obviously, working with him was very exciting to me as a young player. The advice that he gave me was that you should always stay positive—to come to work as if it were a celebration, and to be happy about everything. You should be happy about hockey, your work and practices. When he ran the team, he brought that positivity with him. He had ways to motivate any player. He would never get mad. He would always do his best to pump us up.
I experienced the same thing in Khabarovsk. We had a good season and made the playoffs. Andrei Alexeyevich Martemyanov was our head coach. He was really strong in terms of getting his team on the right mental track. He would also plant that positivity in us. He was good at creating a bonding ambience. He reminded me of Miloś in that regard.
GK: The coach-player relationship has always seemed more stern and disciplined in Russia. Mike Pelino once said that Ilya Vorobyov told him, “It's not all about giving them candies and flowers." And Pelino replied, “It's not all about giving them the iron fist." The bend toward positivity feels more North American in a sense. Do you agree?
OL: I believe so. Judging from my own experience having played in North America myself and from what I hear from other guys…perhaps, in North America, they try to keep positive more. But when you look at NHL, they play a lot of games – 82. And if you get hung up on one of the games, it’s going to be difficult to get ready for the next one. And that’s what I hear from the guys who played there. In their experience, you have to forget about the game as soon as it’s over and stay positive. It’s a little different in Russia, of course. It’s our Russian mentality that coaches are more disciplined. Obviously, team management demands that we produce a good result. Consequently, the coaches have a more disciplined approach.
GK: I just want to mention that you have a very big birthday coming up: thirty! How will you celebrate?
OL: I don’t know. The season is coming to an end and, unfortunately, we didn’t make the playoffs. We’re going to play our last game on the 27th. I believe we’re going to get some days off, and then we’re going to get back together and practice. I think I’m going to go home for some time and we’re going to celebrate my birthday. I’m not sure if it’s going to be wild. I just want to spend time with my family because I don’t get to see them very often during the season. I want to focus on spending time with my wife.
GK: You’ve played in the East for a number of seasons. Some players really struggle with the time changes and recovery. Have you developed a strategy?
OL: Yes, of course. Now that I’m almost 30, I have acquired a certain baggage of experience. I have played in Khabarovsk and [Vladivostok], and now I play in Novosibirsk, which is only four time zones away. This experience helps me to get ready for the games and to keep myself focused. I know when I should rest more, and when on the contrary, I have to work harder. That experience comes with age and obviously, it helps.
GK: What is the funniest prank you’ve ever seen played in hockey—on or off the ice?
OL: It’s not quite a thing over here as it is in America. There were all kinds of pranks when I played there. It’s not quite as common in Russia. I don’t think it’s in our mentality. I don’t think pranks are quite accepted. People may get offended. There’s nothing really I can recall on the matter. In America, I remember, they would tape the blades of skates. Or you would open your change stall and get hit in the face by some powder or something. It was funny.
GK: On a similar note, a cardboard cut-out of you was brought to the All-Star Game one year. Do you still have it?
OL: Yeah—it’s in my apartment in Khabarovsk. It’s still there.
GK: You still have an apartment in Khabarovsk? Do you spend off-seasons there?
OL: My wife was born there, so we have kept an apartment. Last year, there was COVID. We went to Moscow, but we didn’t want to stay there. We [were supposed to] stay in our apartment all of the time and we didn’t want to. We went to Khabarovsk because it was [less strict]—you could go for a walk to some places.
GK: What are your passions off the ice?
OL: I don’t know. I don’t really have a specific thing. I follow sports, I guess. I really like tennis. Even my off-season workout is based on tennis. Obviously, I watch martial arts. I’m interested in certain MMA matchups, but not all that much. I really got into fishing lately, too. I do my best to go fishing with my friends every now and then. You can just get away from everything and have time to think things over. It’s a really calming experience. I enjoy it.
GK: What is one song on your pre-game playlist right now?
OL: Right now—actually, it has been for a while—it’s a popular Russian song. Moya Igra [My Game] by Basta. I remember Alexei Cherepanov listened to it before he passed away. It was popular back when it first came out. I believe everyone listened to it. It’s still popular even after all this time and it’s definitely one of the top songs I listen to. [Recently] I started listening to Kings Never Die by Eminem. I like it.