Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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Averaging over a point per game, Salavat Yulaev forward Markus Granlund has maintained momentum after a breakout debut season. Tasked with filling the shoes of Linus Omark—a longtime leader and staple on Ufa’s top line—Granlund entered the turbulent 2020-21 KHL season with a heavy set of expectations. Rising to past glories without Omark aside, the team would be forced to deal with extended departures, curtailed preseason preparations and much more.

Granlund could not have coped with more impressive results, breaking the fifty-point mark for the first time in his career for a total of 61 in 59 games played. The Salavat troika of Scandinavian snipers—Teemu Hartikainen, Granlund and Sakari Manninen—scored 63 goals, surpassing even Dynamo Moscow’s high-octane first line with league MVP Vadim Shipachyov as its anchor.

While Ufa’s 2021 playoff performance may have felt like a letdown from the regular season, they arrived prepared for redemption. Despite an early wave of injuries, the team remains within striking distance of Eastern Conference chart-toppers Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Traktor Chelyabinsk. I caught up with Granlund to discuss his impressive first foray into the KHL, current expectations, and the influence of his childhood rivalry with brother Mikael, who currently plays for the Nashville Predators.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): When you moved to the KHL last season, what expectations did you have about the competitive environment you would find? Did you expect such a seamless transition? 

Markus Granlund (MG): I didn't really have any expectations because I knew that the KHL creates lots of good teams and attracts good players. It’s a little bit of a different game from North America. Obviously, rink size matters a lot in that. You have a little bit more time than you would think to make plays, and obviously it’s more skating here. In the NHL, there are more stops and starts. I think that’s a big thing. There are so many skilled guys in the KHL, and teams are trying to play with the puck more. But it’s hockey—it’s still the same game.

In the NHL, my last season didn’t go as well as I wanted. It was time to write a new chapter and to try something new. I heard about the opportunity to come to the KHL, and I took a couple of weeks to think about it. I knew that this step was going to be a challenge for me, but a good one. I’m really happy that it has gone well so far.

GK: You came into an organization with a Finnish head coach in Tomi Lämsä, and a Scandinavian-heavy import list. How did that play into your early chemistry? 

MG: It was way easier to come here because obviously there were Finnish guys and a Finnish coach. I was able to talk with them, and the chemistry did come in easier that way—but you still need to play well to stay here. Obviously, Lämsä brings the Finnish style of hockey [to Ufa]. Every player needs to play the same way. It is more of a European style.

GK: What makes Ufa so consistently effective in this league, and who would you say is your toughest rival? 

MG: Honestly, I don't know. I think we like the style of how we play, and I think that goes for the whole team. Everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing—where to go and what to do. All of the big teams here are really good. These teams can skate, play hard defensively and also play with the puck. There are always hard teams to play against, and I can’t pick just one. There are no easy nights.

GK: Salavat has had to cope with a lot of early injuries, starting in preseason. Did it interrupt your preparations? 

MG: Yeah, for sure, but I feel like that's part of the business. Every year there's going to be injuries, and there are going to be new guys stepping up and taking those parts. Every player who is here, they have a chance to crack into the lineup and that's their opportunity. You have to adapt to that. I still liked how we worked [in preseason]. All of the guys were working hard. I think we're faster than last year, and everyone knows our style.

GK: You have two high-profile youngsters in Rodion Amirov and Shakir Mukhamadullin. What do you expect from them in the years to come?

MG: Obviously, Amirov is really skilled. He has a really good chance to be a solid NHL player. I really like to watch him everyday in practice and in games, and I hope that he’s going to make it. Mukhamadullin is a great defenseman and still a young kid. He's a really good skater, and I think he has a really good chance too [in North America]. I try to give them some tips here and there. I know what it takes to get there, and obviously to stay there. That's the biggest part, and it’s going to be a challenge.

GK: How have you experienced the cultural shift to life in Russia? 

MG: It can be hard in everyday life sometimes when I don’t know the language, but at the rink, we mostly speak English. I feel like all of the players can understand and speak some of it, so it’s not that bad. I really like the city of Ufa. It’s not too big and there are a couple of good restaurants. The rink is really nice.

GK: You haven’t mentioned chak-chak yet.

MG: Actually, I haven't tried it yet. Maybe I need to…

GK What are some of your earliest memories of hockey growing up? 

MG: That’s a tough one. Well, I remember that I started skating around four years old. My parents took me skating for the first time, and they didn't have any hockey experience before that. I don't know how that happened. Maybe it was just a cold winter and all of the other kids were skating. I can’t remember. Hockey has been around for my whole life. It has been always hockey, and we’re still on that same road.

GK: A non-hockey set of parents produced two NHL players. How much do you think that your relationship or rivalry with Mikael impacted your development? 

MG: It has been huge, for sure. The whole of our childhood, we always played together in every sport—it was not just hockey. We played soccer and everything else too. Every time we stepped outside or whatever, it was a battle. I think that has been a big part of our success. I was younger and a little bit smaller, so usually I didn’t win—but it made me want to win even more.

GK: Now that you are both professionals, how has that relationship changed? 

MG: We call once in a while—maybe three times a week, but we don't usually speak about hockey. It's more about normal life and how things are going. When we were younger, maybe early twenties, we talked more about hockey, but not anymore.

GK: What would you say is the most influential advice that you've received in your career?

MG: Just to always do your best, and I feel like the biggest thing is to enjoy what you do. When you started playing hockey as a young kid, you enjoyed it. Every time you put your skates on, you loved what you were doing. I feel like when you get older, you don't think about it that much anymore. But always, I still love playing. Every time I go on to the ice, it's really fun.

GK: What would you say is a lesson that hockey has taught you about life in general? 

MG: Probably the same thing: enjoy life. I think that's for sure one lesson. And obviously, be a good person—be good to your friends, to your teammates, to your family. Be kind.

GK: Are you ritualistic when it comes to game preparation?

MG: Well, not really. I usually do the same things for warm-ups, but I don't feel like if I don't do some of them, I am going to play worse or whatever. There is just a normal set things that I do.

GK: What’s a song on your workout playlist right now? 

MG: I don't really listen to music that much. When we're working out, there are some tunes going on, but honestly, I don't even know what they're playing. I don't really hear it when I'm working out. If I am listening to something, I like Finnish music, Finnish rap.

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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