“We had three travel hockey boys going off in two different directions every weekend, and my oldest sister was the biggest trooper of them all,” Agostino shared from Nizhny Novgorod this week. “She would go with one parent every weekend to one tournament. That was probably our life for the next thirteen years.”
Her sacrifice has not gone unrewarded. In his first twenty KHL games, Kenny Agostino has notched 12 goals, nearing the point-per-game mark and placing him within the top five goalscorers in the league. And while Torpedo currently ranks nineth in the Western Conference, they have snatched some impressive wins from league leaders Traktor Chelyabinsk, Dynamo Moscow and SKA Saint Petersburg.
Agostino was drafted 140th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010. He competed for Yale University prior to joining the Calgary Flames franchise in 2013 at the end of his college season. He logged time in the St. Louis, Boston, Montreal, New Jersey and Toronto systems—primarily with their AHL affiliates—and accumulated 86 NHL starts. After eight seasons in North America, he opted to take his career to Russia, signing a one-year deal with Dave Nemirovsky’s Torpedo in June.
I caught up with one of the KHL’s most productive newcomers to learn more about his hot start, early impressions of the Russian people and so much more.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): What lured you from Toronto to Torpedo in the first place?
Kenny Agostino (KA): It could have been a couple of factors, but obviously I wasn't thrilled with the NHL opportunity I had for the two years with Toronto. It's pretty safe to say that the KHL is considered the second-best league in the world, and I felt like I needed a change of pace from the AHL. I don't want to say the word “stale” because I love the AHL, but I grinded up and down trying to establish myself in the NHL for seven or eight years. I thought a new challenge could be nice for me. That was really where I started to get the ball rolling with gauging the interest of teams over here.
GK: What role did your former Yale teammate Brian O’Neill—now known as Mr. Helsinki, of course—play in the decision to come over?
KA: Brian hasn't played for a Russian team, but this is his fifth season or sixth season in the KHL. He was such a great resource to talk to, and he could not have been more helpful while I was essentially on lockdown. We had a few hour-long phone calls where he gave me the whole breakdown of the league, the different dynamics of the teams, cities, everything. One of the teams he mentioned a few times was Torpedo. He put me in contact with [Andy] Miele who was super helpful, and my agents knew David [Nemirovsky]. An English-speaking head coach is obviously a draw. Talking with Miels and some other players, they had nothing but great things to say about him as a coach and a person, which is super important, as well as Maxim Gafurov [the GM].
GK: You’ve dropped two to Jokerit so far. Advantage O’Neill…
KA: For now!
GK: Brian’s helping hand aside, not every import lands in Russia with the same impact. You are among the league’s top goalscorers already. What factors have contributed to making such an entrance?
KA: Our team brought in great imports and great Russian signings. I'm a big believer that you are a by-product of who you play with. I've been fortunate to play with a lot of high-end playmakers who were able to put me in good spots out there, and to capitalize on my scoring chances.
It’s really give and take with David, which is why I love his style. He and his coaching staff will give us parameters for how they want us to play on the defensive side of the puck, but they don't really script how they want us to play offensively, which I think benefits any offensively-minded player. I don't think you ever want to be told, “This is where you have to go and do this, do that.” You want to have the freedom to be creative and to make your own plays, and he gives us that freedom and confidence, which I think has allowed me and our team to have some success. It doesn't feel like a dictatorship with the coach, it's a collaboration—which I think most players would take a liking to, and I certainly have.
GK: Regardless of where Torpedo falls in the standings, one thing I’ve noticed about Nemirovsky is that he is able to coach league-leading performances out of individuals. Whether we look at Chris Wideman’s award-winning season or Damir Zhafyarov’s 2020-21 breakout—even your early successes. What is the secret?
KA: I think it's probably a number of factors. For one, like we talked about, he has a great hockey mind and I believe his systems work. And then, I think he's just a good person. He's easy to talk to, which I think is an underrated quality in this day and age. He has an open door policy with his players, and you don’t feel like you’re being told what to do all of the time. It’s encouraging to play for a guy like that. You’re going into every game together.
GK: How would you compare the competitiveness of the AHL and the KHL now that you've had some experience in Russia?
KA: I don't want to say anything to discredit the AHL because I absolutely loved playing there. I think it's fair to say that it's turning more and more into a development league, which I totally understand from the perspective of an NHL club. It's a great league with plenty of great players, and it's always competitive. The last few years—and I think a lot of players around my age and older can probably attest to this—it’s very much catered toward young prospects getting their reps in, which is great. But I feel like the KHL might be a little bit more of a mature league and probably a little deeper in terms of skill and quality players. You've got older players, more men I think in this league, and that probably gives it a slight edge.
GK: Torpedo is sitting in nineth place after approximately twenty games played. Is consistency the focus for the next twenty?
KA: I think it's surreal for someone that's probably seen all of our games. From speaking with my driver, I learned that a local nickname for our team is the Robin Hood of the KHL, because we'll take points from the top teams and give them back to the bottom teams. Simply enough, we have a tendency to play up or down to our competition, which is on no one else but us.
I know it's easy to say that you're in control of your results always, but I really believe that we're a much better team than our record indicates. We have a tendency to not close the door on teams when we're up on them, and maybe a tendency to not play to the consistent level we'd like against teams that we believe we're better than. That is what we need to improve on.
GK: Give me the lowdown on your regular linemates, Damir Zhafyarov and Andy Miele.
KA: I actually met Miels for the first time on the plane at JFK Airport. He was connecting from Charleston. I’ve been a professional for eight plus years, and there's never more than one degree of separation between you and any player. We've both played with mutual friends, and everyone I know spoke so highly of him as a person. He has his whole family here and his dog, and it has been great having another American family here as a home-away-from-home. As a hockey player, I think his resume speaks for itself. He plays like an experienced professional. He's very smart, always on the right side of the puck, can make a high-end play that not every center can. He's got such a great motor where he can always move.
Zhafy’s skill is elite-level. He can do things that I just don't think anyone else can on our team with the puck. It’s really no surprise to me what he did last year. He’s a gamebreaker. There are certain plays that only he can make to create offense. I think he was with Dave for several years [at Admiral], so it’s no surprise to me that Dave told you he saw this coming. He obviously believed in him—as rightfully he should have—when he got to see firsthand how creative and high-skilled this guy can be. He's been a treat to play with so far this year.
GK: Your general manager, Maxim Gafurov, is among the youngest in the league. I can imagine that has implications on team culture.
KA: It is super refreshing to be a part of an organization that believes in a younger GM like that. Just from talking to him about what he's trying to do here, it's super encouraging. He's trying to establish a more new-age style in this league, and like David, I think they're both on the same page with creating an open-door culture. He's in the locker room before and after games. Even in the NHL, there is a stigma around having a conversation with your GM about anything on game day—there’s a fine line where they try and separate business and everything else. It has been a really great experience so far with Maxim because he’s such an approachable guy.
GK: Have you been able to debunk any myths or stereotypes about Russia during your stay so far?
KA: First and foremost, I think you have this stigma that Russians are all very serious and don't like foreigners, which is almost completely the opposite. I feel like once people can pick up my foreign accent whenever I try and speak terrible Russian, they seem more encouraged to find out more about where I'm from or to help. Specifically in Nizhny, people are just so friendly everywhere I've gone, which has been great.
GK: What are some of your off-ice passions?
KA: Like a lot of hockey players, golf is one of my big passions. I try and watch golf whenever I can, at least for the earlier rounds of the PGA Tour because then obviously it gets pretty late. I'm really close with my family, and I talk to them every day. I’m a huge movie and show guy. I'm not as big of a reader as probably I wish I was with all the free time we have, but I can get lost in movies and shows all afternoon sometimes. I love getting a cup of coffee, going for a walk, listening to some music.
GK: There are some beautiful places to walk in Russia. I recently visited Kazan for the first time, and spent every evening getting lost in the architecture.
KA: You realize how boring U.S. buildings are! I was never really a big architecture or art guy, but it is so beautiful to see some of these buildings. In Kazan, I was afraid I was going to be gassed for the game because I found myself walking around their Kremlin all day. I think that one is my favorite.
GK: How did you get into hockey in the first place?
KA: My dad loves all sports. He played mostly baseball growing up in Staten Island, but he was all about his kids trying everything. He actually can't even skate, but my mom can skate a little bit. He was a Rangers fan growing up, loved hockey. I think he saw that I took a liking to it when I was younger, and it just stuck from there. My two younger twin brothers were put in travel hockey as well. Once you're a hockey family and specifically a travel hockey family, it is a full family commitment. We had three travel hockey boys going off in two different directions every weekend, and my oldest sister was the biggest trooper of them all. She would go with one parent every weekend to one tournament. That was probably our life for the next thirteen years.
GK: What is one non-hockey goal that you hold for yourself in the future?
KA: Play Augusta National. If you know anyone—don’t be afraid—throw my name out there! I think that's heaven on earth. I wouldn't mind going to see The Masters there too, but if you give me one goal for the rest of my life post-hockey, it’s to play Augusta National.