“I did collect the points, but in general it didn’t help the team,” the teenager shared over Zoom this week. “If we speak about me personally, I think I was able to do even better.”
Ovchinnikov logged 51 points in 40 JHL games this season, with the Siberian Snipers finishing tenth in the Eastern Conference. They were three points shy of a playoff berth, ranking just behind the Omsk Hawks, an affiliate of Avangard. As COVID-19 shuffled rosters across the KHL, Ovchinnikov was one of many youngsters who received an extra look from the senior squad. He joined Sibir Novosibirsk for 16 games of the regular season, logging an assist and a valuable confidence boost on Russia’s biggest stage. Ovchinnikov was selected 137th overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft—the second Chita native to be selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs after Nikolai Chebykin (2016), who finished the VHL season with Dynamo Krasnogorsk.
I caught up with Ovchinnikov after a strong showing in Novosibirsk. We discussed his family hockey background, personal motivations—and a grade school prank that went awry.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You logged well over a point per game this season with the Siberian Snipers. I would think that you look back on this year with pride?
Dmitry Ovchinnikov (DO): First of all, the season was not that great, as our team didn’t make the playoffs. I did collect the points, but in general it didn’t help the team. If we speak about me personally, I think I was able to do even better.
GK: I always appreciate that “we” mentality in hockey—but surely you gained something from such a strong personal showing, plus sixteen looks in the KHL.
DO: I did gain confidence. And I believe that I’m better able to decide the moment, to give a good pass or to score a goal. I have the mentality that whatever is there, I can do it. Having moved from the JHL to the KHL, I feel more confident than before, even the last year when I played just two games. Now it’s easier for me mentally.
GK: Did increased exposure at the highest level of competition draw attention to any parts of your game that could be stronger?
DO: First and foremost, I need to improve my conditioning. The KHL is a true men’s league where I’m facing men, not just young guys like in the JHL. I need to build up my muscles. All of the rest is quite good, and mentally I’m fully prepared.
GK: Were there any members of the Sibir squad you looked up to or emulated while in that locker room?
DO: Probably not. I used to follow Kirill Kaprizov, but right now there’s no one specific whom I admire in the KHL. [Kaprizov] always takes good care of the puck. He’s a good passer and shooter, and he can read the play very well. He can play for his partners. I like the way he’s playing, and it’s a true pleasure to watch him playing hockey. You can see that he enjoys the game itself.
GK: Your point average per game in the JHL has placed you in some very elite company. Nikita Gusev, Alexander Barabanov and Nikita Kucherov—to name a few.
DO: It’s nice to be compared to such guys. They are great players who have won many awards, and are ranked high in the hockey world. I’d be glad to follow their path and achieve high goals, too.
GK: Let’s go back to your beginnings in hockey. Who first introduced you to the sport?
DO: I have an older brother born in 1996—he is six years older than me. My dad didn’t play hockey himself, so it was my brother who was taken to the hockey school first. Then I followed him, and that’s how it all started in Chita, Zabaykalsky Krai. I played there until the age of 12. Then my team from Chita came to Novosibirsk to play some games. My parents gave a call to the local hockey school, and were able to get ahold of the 2002 team coach. I showed up for practice at 6am—that’s what I remember. After that practice, I was told to come for a tournament in May for trials. I came there, scored one goal, and was invited to the training camp with the team. That’s how I happened to arrive in Novosibirsk and started playing hockey.
GK: Did your brother continue to pursue hockey, and is he still involved with your career?
DO: My brother is with an amateur team now, skating with some friends of his. He didn’t continue to play hockey on a professional level. He’s got a regular job now. Of course, we get in touch before and after each game, and often discuss some things. He even sends me some video clips of game highlights. He watches my games when he has a chance, but we do talk every day.
GK: He sounds like a pretty great older brother.
DO: He is the best.
GK: Were your parents athletes too?
DO: My parents are not athletes. They just go to the gym every once in a while, but they don’t do any sports professionally.
GK: Tell me a little about your hometown. Did you grow up playing hockey outside at all?
DO: There are two hockey rinks in Chita, so we didn’t have to practice or play outside. Everything is pretty well-equipped. Of course, there is no professional hockey there. There used to be a kids’ hockey league, but there is no JHL or VHL team. You are only able to play there as a kid, and if you decide to continue, you need to move to a different place—like I did. In general, it’s a regular, good city. It’s my hometown, and that’s why I love it. It’s the city I was born and raised in. It has been a while since I visited for the last time, and I’m going to fly there in June. I haven’t been there for four years now.
GK: What is the motivation that keeps you going when times are tough?
DO: My ultimate goal is to be a player in the best league in the world. But before that, I need to do my best in the KHL, become a solid full-time player here, get points, develop my game. There’s always room for improvement in terms of speed, shot, quick decision making. I need to improve everyday, and that’s what I’m practicing and playing for. My biggest dream is to play in the best league, in the NHL.
GK: Do you have any specific coaches or mentors who have helped you to tune-up the more nuanced skills you possess?
DO: I will not go into listing coaches now, because I’m afraid I might forget to name somebody. Every single coach invested something special into me. There have been quite a number of coaches in my life through the age of 18 - in the JHL, the National Team, hockey schools. I am very thankful to all of them. They’ve been helping me a lot. I would not say that I’m that good defensively—in fact, that’s exactly the thing I need to work on. But for sure, if it was not for my coaches and my parents, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
GK: It’s easy for hockey players to define themselves via their positions or strengths, but how would you define yourself as a person?
DO: I think it’s my surroundings. They speak to me as a person. I always try to be surrounded by good people. I treat others the way I want to be treated. Having started to play at a high level, I’m never arrogant. I get texts from my friends in Chita—some schoolmates, and I always answer them back, ask them how they are doing and what they are up to. I always try to treat people well.
GK: What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
DO: Never give up. Just never. Work, work, and work.
GK: Tell me about the worst prank you’ve ever pulled, either inside or outside of the locker room.
DO: Once I committed a prank in school. It was in 7th grade. We had a 200-ruble bet with one guy that I would throw a 15L bottle out of the third-floor window, which I did. There was a girl passing by, my schoolmate, and the bottle neck hit her right on the head. It was such a big issue in school! My mum was summoned to the headmaster. Oh my.
GK: Let me guess, she’s not one of the Chita friends that sends you text messages?
DO: It happened in Novosibirsk, but she’s doing good. We even kept in touch. She felt okay about the situation!
GK: Obviously you will spend your offseason playing hockey, but what is something else you hope to tackle with the extra time off?
DO: I want to learn English.
Special thanks to Natasha Kovalenko of Avangard Omsk who assisted in the translation.