Czech netminder Šimon Hrubec left a struggling Kunlun Red Star for Bob Hartley’s Avangard Omsk late last year, an acquisition he says surprised even the coaches at his new club due to their preexisting stable of goalie talent. In a crowded race that included the likes of Igor Bobkov, Hrubec swiftly proved too good to ignore. He secured the Gagarin Cup Championship with a hard-fought shutout, picking up the crown for best playoff netminder en route to a champagne-soaked locker room. It was both a collective and personal dream realized for the twenty-nine-year-old from Vimperk, who once felt called to Avangard due to their striking logo.
“After the game where I faced sixty shots in Balashikha, I met with my friend and teammate Jiří Sekáč,” Hrubec recalled from Latvia last week. “We were just talking about everything and I told him, ‘You play in the most beautiful logo you can wear. I would like to play for Avangard one day.’”
Avangard packed both style and substance into their stunning upset of Igor Nikitin’s CSKA, an achievement Hrubec admits was unpredictable for a team that had set its sights on a modest top-four finish. When the Hawks squeaked past Ak Bars Kazan in Game Seven overtime, they prepared for a rematch of the 2019 Finals in which Moscow swept the series. Armed with his Czech fortress and Russian superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, Hartley wrote a new ending to a familiar story.
I caught up with Hrubec to discuss his gravity-defying ascent this season. In the process, he shared wisdom gained from fatherhood, a promise Kovalchuk made to him and much more.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You transitioned from Kunlun Red Star to Avangard early in the season. How did that opportunity unfold for you?
Simon Hrubec (SH): When I first arrived, [Kunlun] was full of VHL players from Russia, and I was one of the first imports. That was pretty hard for a goalie because I had an average of fifty shots per game. I was a bit frustrated because we lost eight games in a row. I had never had this kind of record before. A couple of [import] guys started to arrive in Mytishchi, and I was so happy because I felt that the team was going to be much better. But immediately when they came, they got coronavirus and were out for another fourteen days.
My agent called me and said that Avangard were interested in me. I didn’t dwell on it too much and just played. We wound up playing against them and I faced 60 shots. It was almost like three games in a row. We lost 3-1, but I felt good after this game. We played in Saint Petersburg and won for the first time in club history. We had a [National Team] break and it looked like Avangard had signed a goalie, so I was a little bit sad because I was really excited to play for them. I really, really love their logo.
GK: I mean honestly, a good logo goes a long way.
SH: After the game where I faced sixty shots in Balashikha, I met with my friend and teammate Jiří Sekáč. We were just talking about everything and I told him, “You play in the most beautiful logo you can wear. I would like to play for Avangard one day.” And the dream came true just a few days later. They signed me, sent a car, and I just rode forty minutes to another club.
GK: And the rest was history. In light of the fact that Avangard already had a strong goaltending duo, were you concerned about a lack of opportunity?
SH: I was waiting for this chance. I wasn’t calculating, watching to the left and to the right. I said, “Okay, this is my chance.” And I took it. Sure, I did like watching the stats and whether or not they had a problem with their goalies. They had Igor Bobkov and Emil Garipov who were first and third in stats. I said to myself, “Wow, why me?” When I walked into the locker room, the coaches were probably more surprised than me. I played against Sochi in the first game when we won 4-3, and you can imagine how different it was to face 20 shots!
GK: Bob Hartley plays a more open and aggressive game than many Russian teams that sit their goaltenders behind a fortress. You were still put to work.
SH: Yeah. He told us every time that the best defense was playing in the offensive zone. But if you don't have too many shots, the pressure on you is much more because you're just waiting. You have to be focused all of the time. I have a lot of respect for Kunlun because they gave me an opportunity to play in the KHL, but when you play for them, you’re never the favorite. [At Avangard], the pressure was much better.
GK: Not many would have predicted the outcome of the Gagarin Cup Finals. What was the mood inside of your locker room before the series with CSKA? Did you expect to win?
SH: No. They told us before the season that our goal was to be in the top four. When we beat Magnitogorsk, we did it. Then we went to play against Kazan, and we were underdogs too. We won in overtime in seven games, so it was almost 50/50 who would win. But our biggest weapon was our conditioning, definitely. We had a record six overtime wins, and it was not an accident. You have to be in good shape, good condition, have good stamina. Every hockey player feels so bad when the season starts. But I felt in the middle of season, when I came to Avangard, exactly like after the summer. I said to myself, “Wow, maybe this is the difference.” The pace, how the team worked—it was awesome. I love how we play. I love how we practice, how we train. My goalie coach in Omsk was the best that I ever had. He has such an eye for details.
GK: How did you enjoy playing alongside Ilya Kovalchuk?
SH: Yeah, he’s a legend. You always know he is there. When I heard that they were going to sign Kovalchuk, I just knew it was going to be good. Not “it's going to be good” because I can say when I’m old, “I played with Kovalchuk.” But I felt it was going to be good because the gods love him. He wins wherever he goes. And I said, “Wow, it's a big chance to be successful.” When he first arrived in the locker room, I said, “Hey, do you remember—you stole my bronze medal at the World Championship with your backhand!” And he told me, “Yeah, I remember that. But don't worry, we will win a medal here.” So he made a promise, and it happened.
GK: You won more than just a medal! Let’s talk about the amazing Gagarin Cup victory celebrations in Omsk. The fans must have been so thrilled to see you, given how long the team has been away from home.
SH: Yeah, it was amazing. They supported us probably every game. This is one of the really good things about what Avangard does—social media. They bring hockey to their town. We play for Avangard [in Balashikha], but we are still with you, Omsk. When we came to the airport, there was a lot of fans and I said, “Wow, it's amazing. So many people.” And the guys told me, “No, we’re going to another spot.” We had a police car before the bus, behind the bus, and all of the traffic just stopped because of us. We came to a field, and there was a stage like what the rock stars have. I don't know how many people were there—15,000 or 20,000 people—just waiting for us to show them the Gagarin Cup. I had goosebumps. I told the MC to take a photo when I held the cup above my head. I needed to have a photo with all of the fans.
GK: Honestly, that photo is iconic.
SH: And the trophy is so heavy, but I could walk with it all day—I love it. It’s the most beautiful trophy I’ve ever seen. With all respect to the Stanley Cup and the Czech trophy, this is a piece of art. I’m so happy and proud.
GK: You didn’t have much time to celebrate! After the Gagarin Cup Final, you were swiftly named to the Czech National Team for Worlds. How do you assess your chances?
SH: We now have a couple of NHL players arriving, and they will help us so much. I believe we were underdogs for the last few years, but the Czech Republic deserves to bring home a medal. I really don’t want to make predictions because it’s hockey. You can be the favorite and lose. The most important thing is just to play your game, enjoy it, and what happens, happens. It’s like what I tell my son. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
GK: I saw the cute hockey-themed cake that you made for your son’s birthday. You might have a future gig as a baker.
SH: No, never. It was basic—just an ice hockey rink—but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. You can't imagine. I don't even want to talk about it, I'm just stressed. I spent almost one and a half hour working on this. My son was happy and I'm happy to do it, but one and a half hour for this? No, never.
GK: Well now that we’ve covered your least favorite cake, what is your least favorite goal that you’ve ever let in?
SH: Every goal.
GK: Everyone says that.
SH: Not every goal is the worst goal, but every goal will teach you so much. A goal is the best teacher for a goalie.
GK: How do you let it go and reset during a game?
SH: I don't care. A goal is a goal. I know that if I make an awesome save, for me, it's the same—like nothing. If I let in a bad goal, nothing. I still tell myself, "Be in a neutral zone. Not up, not down." Because if you are up, you start to be a little bit cocky. And if you are down, it never helps you to solve the problem. You have to be calm and to be ready for another shot. This is how you help the team the most.
GK: Were you always this level-headed, or did that tranquility develop over time?
SH: A lot of things changed when my son was born. Until he was born, the top of my world was hockey, hockey, hockey. My son was born and I said, "What hockey?" He is the best thing. He is my best win. He is everything in my life. I just try to be the best human being I can because I want to be a good example for my son. After he was born, I just started to be so calm in the net. I'd say, "Okay, I lost the game—but my son is home with my wife."
My grandpa told me a story he read about chess. Just before a game, a player prayed, “Please God, I would like to win, Please, I would like to win." You have two players, and they both pray for exactly the same thing. But what should God do? He can’t split it. So the chess player said, “After I recognized this—I started to pray for my partner, that we will play a fair game.” And this is what I wish for before each game. I wish the referees will be fair. I wish that the game will be played with no injuries for both teams, and that everyone will play fairly. I know that it’s my job, our job, to win. That’s how it works in this business, but winning isn’t everything.
GK: Beautifully said. Now, let’s do lightning round questions. What's the last song that you listened to?
SH: I don't know. It's Russian, definitely. Actually, no it’s not. I just opened my Spotify. In Your Eyes by Robin Schulz.
GK: Next one—what’s the last thing you ordered on the internet?
SH: AirPods. I forgot them at home and I am now in the [Worlds] bubble. I don’t want to have to make calls with my hands. It’s so much easier to just put the headphones on and call.
GK: Lastly—what is one thing that people misunderstand about you?
SH: That I'm so serious. If you know me and you will talk with me, it's good—but on the first look, you will think I am very closed. If you start to talk with me and I feel that you are a good person, I will open up to you and it's going to be fun.