“I think in terms of size and technical skills, I’d name Robert Lewandowski [as a comparison],” Marchenko told me over Zoom, where his efforts in English were impressive. “My favorite team is Bayern Munich. My grandfather visited Germany many times and he would always buy Bayern Munich branded t-shirts and give them to me.”
The KHL’s Lewandowski logged 28 points in 41 games played this season, advancing to the Western Conference Finals before CSKA eliminated their army rivals in six. Marchenko was promptly named to the Russian National Team when the season closed, and logged two assists in a friendly against Belarus on the evening we caught up for the KHL’s official podcast. The Altai native was selected 49th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, and has represented Russia in both junior and senior competition. While he has not been named to the final Worlds roster, he remains in Riga, Latvia and is training separately according to the Russian Hockey Federation.
“Kirill is a talent. Great, great kid, extremely hardworking, very open and humble, and continually working on his game,” said Daniel Bochner, who rose to assistant coach of SKA this season and manages player development for the Russian National Team. “Once he fills out a little bit and gets stronger, he's going to be dangerous, but his level of skill—whether it's his hands, whether it's his shot or his skating ability—is tremendous.”
From his earliest days in hockey to his passions off the ice, I caught up with multi-talented Marchenko from Team Russia’s base camp in Novogorsk. You will be able to listen to an abridged version of this conversation on the next episode of Icecast 2.0.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You logged two assists tonight and a big win versus Belarus. Perhaps you can share some of what the team is focused on in these friendly matches leading up to Riga.
Kirill Marchenko (KM): Thank you. It was a good game today, but the third period was not great I think. We allowed two goals in the last five minutes, which was bad. Our team is now focusing on tactics, individual performance. But it was a game against Team Belarus, so it’s not actually a case in point. I think we will take off from here, as we’ve only had two or three practices all together.
GK: Given that the NHL season is not yet over, you may have some roster changes before Worlds. How do you prepare the team when it’s unclear who will be in, and who will be out?
KM: I think we are having good, normal preparation. Guys here know that there might be some NHLers joining us, but we try not to pay any special attention to this fact. We try to go out on the ice and to enjoy the game—derive pleasure from being here and playing all together.
GK: What are some of the things you’re doing in bubble life in Novogorsk to keep busy? Do you have a ping pong tournament going on?
KM: Yesterday, six of us played some football. Everybody plays tennis. As for me, I like to play football or PlayStation 5.
GK: Who’s your closest player comparable in football? Xavi, Messi, Iniesta…
KM: I don’t know. I’m a bad football player. But I think in terms of size and technical skills, I’d name Robert Lewandowski. I like him very much. My favorite team is Bayern Munich. My grandfather visited Germany many times and he would always buy Bayern Munich branded t-shirts and give them to me. I was around 10 years old at that time. That’s why I’ve been cheering for Bayern Munich ever since then.
GK: The U.S. National Team did not qualify for the Olympics after missing the last World Cup. I usually find myself rooting for Germany in international tournaments.
KM: But I think that the American National Team is better than Russian. Russian football is not that great…
GK: I was at Luzhniki when Russia beat Spain on penalties at the World Cup.
KM: Yes, I know, it was a very big day. But Team Russia played a lot in the d-zone, while Spain was always attacking. Igor Akinfeev [Russia’s goalkeeper] played very well though.
GK: The KHL named your goal versus CSKA the best of the Western Conference Finals—so maybe you can recount for us what you saw on the ice. Did you recognize at the time how important that goal would become in terms of momentum shift?
KM: I do remember that goal. In games like that, individual actions or non-standard plays are decisive. Everyone has a clear understanding of the importance of conference finals. Emotions run high. Every single mistake can cost you a lot. You need to be creative and act the way no one is expecting. I had a chance to do that. I didn’t even expect it from myself—I trusted my instincts, rushed to the net and managed to score, which I’m very happy with.
GK: CSKA lost so much talent last summer, and yet still advanced to the Gagarin Cup Finals. As one of their toughest rivals, why do you think they’ve remained so strong despite lacking so many of their top players?
KM: I think it’s due to their good system of play. They do have good system in CSKA. They are under a strong coach, Nikitin. He’s been with the team for three years. They keep the same tactics, the same style of play that players know and follow. This is where the result comes from—years of practice.
GK: On a happier note, you obviously had a great series against Dynamo. Did you expect to move past such a strong team and the likes of Shipachyov and Jaskin so quickly? I can imagine they’re hard to play against.
KM: Shipachyov and Jaskin are classy players, as well as many other players of that Dynamo team. The series happened to be pretty short, but it wasn’t something that we had expected. Dynamo is a strong team, and I think our management and coaching staff managed to find the right system to play against them. We were guided through it, and we did well with covering some of their players and converting our moments. Things shaped up well for us.
GK: You’re in an interesting scenario, because Valery Bragin has now coached you at World Juniors, in the KHL and on the Senior National Team. How much does his approach change depending on which team he’s leading?
KM: I’ve known Valery Bragin for quite long. Having played under him, I’ve gotten the understanding of his requirements. I wouldn’t say that his approach changes greatly depending on which team he is with. For sure, there might be some adjustments during the game or the series. But in general, we always keep to the same style of play – focus on the attack, good puck control and puck management.
GK: One of Bragin’s achievements was, of course, the Podkolzin, Marchenko, Morozov troika. What drives your chemistry?
KM: There’s nothing complicated here. The more you play together, the better you understand each other. It’s due to playing for a long time together that we have good chemistry. Plus, we are pretty much of the same age, so we are on the same page both on and off ice. This makes things way easier.
GK: Did you wish to play together a little bit more in the regular season?
KM: Yes, of course. I like playing with Morozov and Podkolzin very much. We understand each other well, we do have good chemistry.
GK: You’ve known Podkolzin since you were children. Do you have any fun stories of your life together that you want to share?
KM: Not really. Well, in fact there are no super-funny stories, or if there are some, they are not for a broad audience. So, there’s nothing really interesting that I would come up with!
GK: I am extremely suspicious of that reply.
KM: [Laughs] We’ve been through a lot together. But I think I shouldn’t be telling anything. I can’t recall any stories that I could tell you. We don’t do any bad stuff, but I’d prefer to leave it to ourselves…
GK: You owe me an off the record story. What is your earliest memory in hockey?
KM: I remember my Dad telling me that I was going to play hockey. I was still a little boy aged 4 or 5. He took me to the outdoor rink in Barnaul. I can’t recall anything special, I just remember skating for the first time with a little chair for support, like all kids do. It was fun. In fact, no one thought that I would go that far with hockey. At that time, it was just for good health.
GK: Was your father a hockey fan or player himself?
KM: My father didn’t play hockey himself. He was a volleyball player, but he is a small guy—188 cm in height [around 6’2]. Almost the same as me. He didn’t play in a good league, and now he is a businessman.
GK: Did you ever contemplate volleyball too, or any other sport?
KM: My father told me that football in Russia was not great, and I was too small for volleyball, so there was only hockey left for me.
GK: That seems to have worked out. Good job, Dad.
KM: I know, thank you!
GK: You are from the Altai—one of the most naturally beautiful destinations in Russia. Are you much of a hunter or outdoorsy type?
KM: I like the Altai very much, it’s a very beautiful region. I have some experience in shooting with a rifle and a shot-gun, but the hunting season always starts when I’m busy playing hockey. That’s why I can’t go hunting.
GK: Do you have a better shot in hunting or hockey?
KM: I think I’m better at shooting with a shotgun than shooting the puck. I often hit the post or miss the net. There’s also one reason why I don’t really like hunting—it’s because I love animals very very very very much.
GK: Do you have any pets of your own?
KM: No, it’s hard to have a pet. I love my friends’ pets, but I will have one of my own some time later.
GK: If you could play one night on any hockey team in history, which would you choose?
KM: It would be the game we played against Team Canada during the World Junior Championship. It was a 3-4 loss for us. We had a 3-1 lead, and it ended up with a 3-4 loss. So I would replay that game.
GK: So you could even the score.
KM: I want 3 goals.
GK: A hat trick! I like it.
KM: I like hat tricks, but I haven’t made one in my professional career yet. I did score one in the MHL, but not in the KHL or National Team games.
GK: What do you think was the best or most memorable goal scored in hockey?
KM: There have been many memorable goals. I remember quite a number. I just can’t pick one that is a super-goal. Honestly. Every goal has its beauty. Every great goal is nice and interesting in its own way. I try to remember good goals scored by great players in NHL. At such moments, I have thoughts like, “Wow, that was nice, I need to remember this.”
GK: Was there any one recently that you’ve watched and thought you wanted to emulate?
KM: I’ll name the goal scored by Connor McDavid the other night, when he showed good puck control, passed the neutral zone, entered the offensive zone, made a fake move to the goaltender and scored.
GK: McDavid…he’s an okay player. Not bad.
KM: Yes, he’s not bad. So-so.
GK: What’s the funniest thing that has ever happened to you in hockey?
KM: There have been two times in my professional career when I was on my way to the game having forgotten to take my hockey bag with all my gear in it. I just left it, as if I decided to show up with no gear for the game. And it happened twice – in the MHL and in VHL. There were no severe consequences, but we all did have a good laugh. I was a bit late for warming up, but it was not a big deal. I entered the locker room and discovered that my gear was not there. And I was like “Where’s my stuff? Oh, I see! I forgot to take it.” The good thing is that in the KHL, there are special people who take care of packing and handling our hockey bags. So there’s no chance for me to screw up.
GK: Do you have any off-ice talents you’d like to divulge? I learned this season that Mr. Podkolzin is a pianist.
KM: The only talent of mine is drawing. I’m an artist. It has been a while since I last drew something. but I need to make it clear that I’m by no means a Picasso.
GK: Hopefully we’ll get to see one of your drawings! Let’s play a lightning round of three, final questions. What did you last search on the internet?
KM: I’ll check, if you allow me to. Wait a minute. Hm. What did I search last? I can’t remember. It was yesterday or earlier today. I know it was some minor thing, nothing serious, some funny picture maybe. A meme is the maximum of what I’m able to search for.
GK: What’s the last song you listened to on your phone?
KM: Imagine Dragons. Natural or Believer. I don’t know.
GK: What’s the last thing you ordered on Yandex Edа?
KM: No Yandex Eda. It was Delivery Club. Yesterday I ordered а Philadelphia roll. I like sushi a lot.
GK: As a Philadelphia girl myself, I approve. Your English is excellent, by the way.
KM: Thank you very much, I tried to do my best. But my English is not that good.
GK: Шаг за шагом.
КМ: Daniel Bochner says the same phrase – step by step. He says it all the time.
Thank you to Natasha Kovalenko of Avangard Omsk for her translation assistance.