“I'd be lying if I told you, ‘oh, I knew I would start like this,” Maillet shared earlier this week from Magnitogorsk, “but I could feel that I was getting more and more comfortable. In every league, on every team, I've always been a top producer. That’s why they brought me here. So I'm not surprised, but it obviously feels really good to produce like this right now.”
The Quebec native took an interesting path to the pros—passing through the Canadian university system before his AHL debut with the Ontario Reign in 2017. He departed for the Washington Capitals organization in 2019, logging substantial minutes with the affiliate Hershey Bears prior to signing with Metallurg in July of 2021. From his childhood admiration for Russian NHL stars to his competitive streak in online chess, I caught up with Maillet on all of the above in the midst of his red-hot start.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Tell us the story of how your career landed in Magnitogorsk.
Philippe Maillet (PM): If you look at my path to make it to the AHL, NHL and the KHL, it has been a different journey than most people. I played four years of junior and then I went to a Canadian university, which is pretty unusual for players that make it to the NHL.
I was getting a few KHL offers throughout the season last year when I was up and down between Hershey and Washington. When you get offers like this, you always consider them and you want to make sure you take the best decision for your career. When the Magnitogorsk offer came to the table, I did a little bit of research. Honestly, it didn't take me long to realize that it was a solid team, a competitive team in this league. They said that they wanted to bring over a few Canadians. For me, it was obviously a huge plus. I didn't even know which Canadians they were at the time, and then I knew that there was a Canadian coach on staff as well. I knew the transition was going to be easier for me as a first-year in Russia.
GK: What were those first twenty-four hours like on Russian soil? Had you ever been before?
PM: No, never. It was only my second time in Europe. I went to Barcelona one summer for vacation. We arrived [in Magnitogorsk] at 4:00 in the morning. I just tried to get used to the time change as quickly as possible because I think I got on the ice the day after. As imports, they treat you really well. They know what you're going through, especially in your first year. They want to make sure that everything's okay and that you feel comfortable. Obviously here in Magni, Ilya Vorobyov, our coach, speaks very good English. The level of communication is really good and that always makes things easier. I really like the city of Magnitogorsk, and it’s obvious that their fans are super passionate for the game of hockey.
GK: Did you notice that any immediate adjustments needed to be made to your style?
PM: You try to play your game. You don't want to get away from what made you successful throughout the years, but obviously there are a few adjustments. I think right away, it's known around the world that Russians are very skilled hockey players. It doesn't matter really if you go against a fourth line forward or a sixth defenseman—they can almost all embarrass you. That’s what I noticed right away. You have got to be on your toes, because some good things can happen from anyone, which is always fun for me as an offensive player. You can make connections with many players, and I honestly love the style of hockey here. Looking across past years, they don't score as many goals as you would think across the league. It's still pretty defensive, but I like the way the game is played here. It’s fast-paced and I kind of fell in love with the style.
GK: Your transition could not have been smoother. In the first month of play, you were already contending for the league scoring title with longtime KHL leader Vadim Shipachyov. Did you expect such early success?
PM: I always put high expectations on myself. I'm a big competitor. Obviously, you never want to look at numbers and targets. You just want to play your game. As training camp was progressing, I was starting to get more and more comfortable. I'd be lying if I told you, "oh, I knew I would start like this," but I could feel that I was getting more and more comfortable. In every league, on every team, I've always been a top producer. That’s why they brought me here. So I'm not surprised, but it obviously feels really good to produce like this right now.
GK: How would you describe head coach Ilya Vorobyov’s expectations of you?
PM: I think he's a true coach. He will give you the freedom to make plays, but he also expects you to make the right play and to make the right decision in the right moments, which I really like. He allows you to be yourself out there. Obviously we have our systems defensively and in the neutral zone, which as a team, you have to respect because you have to be on the same page. But I really like the style that we're playing. I think the numbers don't lie. We're on nine wins in a row, 11-1 this year, so it has been working so far.
GK: In your estimation, why is Metallurg at the top of the Eastern Conference right now?
PM: I think our special teams are a big part of it. I think we're the top three in the league in PK and powerplay. In the KHL, the games can be a little tighter—not as many goals. If you can win the special team battles every night, it gives you a really good chance to win the game. Obviously, great goaltending as well. We have a really good import in Juho Olkinuora and then we have a KHL legend as well in Vasily Koshechkin, so you feel comfortable when one of these two are in the pipes. And it's not just one line contributing every night, which is what you need if you want to be a competitive team.
GK: Magnitogorsk lost league legend Sergei Mozyakin, who retired after last season. Has there ever been a discussion about filling his shoes?
PM: I’ve seen the championship pictures and the trophies; the statistics speak for themselves. Maybe they speak about him in Russian, which I would not understand, but obviously he has been a big part of this organization for many, many years. When a guy like that leaves, you don't put one player out to replace him. If you have enough players that chip away at it, you can do something great.
GK: How are you establishing chemistry across the language barrier?
PM: Surprisingly, most of the team understands English pretty well. It's a little bit harder for them to speak maybe, but we find ways to communicate. There are two players that I was actually paired up with since day one—Nikolay Goldobin and Nikita Korostelyov. We spent the first month and a half on the same line, and we've been on the same powerplay unit since the start of the year. They speak perfect English because they've been in North America for many years. These guys helped me a lot with translating and the culture and whatnot. The imports make up a little brotherhood because there are not many of us, and it is pretty much the only English we get around the locker room. We stay tight with each other, but there's no such thing as cliques. I think everybody loves each other. I just wish I could speak Russian so I could interact a little more, but I think we have a really good group of guys in this locker room.
GK: Playing as well as you are, you might have to learn. You may be staying a while.
PM: I mean, I'm trying. I've been watching videos and I've picked up the alphabet pretty well. I can read what's on the board and all that, but I don't know what it means. I can sound out the menu, but I don't know what I'm ordering.
GK: Have you had any lost in translation moments?
PM: It’s a good question. I mean, there have been many small mix ups. Sometimes with the trainers, you don't want to bring the translator every time or try to ask another guy. You try to make yourself understood, but sometimes it's a little difficult. We just have a good laugh about it and try to make the best of that situation. With phones now, you can just get the translator app out and it's fairly easy to be understood.
GK: What are some of the most interesting road destinations you've visited so far?
PM: We were in Minsk for training camp, which was a lot of fun—we were there for almost two weeks. We're actually heading to Moscow in two days, and it will be my first time there. It will be fun to take some pictures and to see what the big cities are all about here.
GK: You’ve played alongside Magnitogorsk’s star prospect, Danila Yurov. How do you assess his potential?
PM: I've had the chance to have him on my line for a few games or some shifts. Most of the time, he's the thirteenth forward, but he's a great kid. I think we have a pretty good relationship because they've been trying to put him in the middle, so we always take face-offs after practice and joke around. Obviously he doesn't speak much English, but you can tell he wants to learn and he's obviously going to be a top NHL prospect. I'm convinced he's going to get his shot, for sure. I couldn't believe he was seventeen years old and already had playoff goals last year. He protects the puck well and he plays confidently too. He makes very mature plays and won’t turn the puck over. Playing on such a good team, sometimes his playing time is shortened, but I think he learns a lot throughout the practices and sees the winning culture in a big club.
GK: Where did the love affair with hockey begin for you?
PM: When I was growing up, maybe around three years old, we had a house without many neighbors. My dad built a rink outside, and obviously I'm from Canada, so the winters are similar to those in Russia. We would just play hockey outside, and I think I fell in love with the game there. Throughout minor hockey, I played in the same hometown for ten or twelve years, and had a lot of good memories there. I can't believe I've been playing this game for almost twenty-five years, but you almost love it even more when it's your job. It used to be just a childhood game, but now it's more challenging and you can set objectives for yourself. I think that's what I love about it.
GK: I have to assume you grew up a Habs fan.
PM: Yeah, of course. I'm French Canadian, so my first language is French. Back in Quebec, we have a small community compared to the United States and the rest of Canada that speaks French. It makes it even more special to be a Habs fan, to have our own French Canadian team in Montreal. We had Alexei Kovalev for a while. I had his DVD and his Warrior stick and he was obviously a great player. My dad would bring me to a few games every year, so I was very lucky for that.
GK: Was he your childhood idol?
PM: My childhood idol was actually Pavel Datsyuk. I was always a big fan of the Russians. Datsyuk, Kovalchuk and Ovechkin— they were my top three. Some of the things these guys pull off in games—Goldobin’s goal versus CSKA, for example. Even some of the things they do in practice. There is more than one way to put the puck in the net, but I think the Russians are just a little more spectacular doing it.
GK: You must have been rooting for a potential showdown with Datsyuk!
PM: Our first game was actually against Avtomobilist, and there were rumors that [Datsyuk] was going to sign. I'm a centerman, he’s a centerman. My first faceoff in the KHL against Datsyuk? Now that would have been something.
GK: What are some of your off-ice passions?
PM: I like entrepreneurship. I have a real estate company with a few friends back home. I like to work on that and then read about investing and all of that stuff. I mean, that is a little more boring, but then I like the normal stuff—playing video games. During the pandemic, I started learning a lot about chess.
I'm a very competitive person, so when I play video games online, I want to be the best. When I play chess online, obviously I want to win every game. I would rather do something and compete than sit out and watch a bunch of movies.
GK: Chess played into the Soviet preparation and has crossovers to hockey in general. Igor Larionov is, by many accounts, a pretty accomplished chess player.
PM: There is a lot of strategy involved and deception. You have to think about offense and defense. It’s obviously not as physical as hockey, but it's definitely mentally challenging, and that's what I really like about chess.
GK: When you get competitive, do you ever flip the board in anger?
PM: No, no, no. I've played many games against my teammates in Hershey, but they actually never beat me, so I never got the chance to flip the board.
GK: What is the funniest thing that you've witnessed in a hockey context?
PM: We had a guy—I won’t say any names—when I was in Ontario who had a brand new pair of skates. I guess he switched them before warmups to break them in, but he actually didn't have any steel in them. He had a good jump, a good couple of steps, and then hopped on the ice and just absolutely Bambi-ed it. He looked like a deer on the ice. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. He had literally no steel. Some guys lose their steel during the games, but they have another one to push themselves. He actually had nothing. We could have left him on the ice for a few minutes, but I was the one that pushed him back to the door because I felt bad after a few laps.