Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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Renowned French author Jules Renard once said, “When I think of all the books still left for me to read, I am certain of further happiness.” I can only imagine the joy Renard would find in the suitcase of Vasily Ponomaryov, a talented Russian forward and voracious reader who—by his own admission—will carry a personal library of six or eight books to World Juniors. When asked about the contents of his undoubtedly overweight luggage, the subjects ranged from psychology and BMWs to legendary athletes and artists.

“I like to read the biographies of our Russian actors,” Ponomaryov shared from Novogorsk, where Sergei Zubov’s U20 squad prepares for departure to Edmonton. “Maybe you have heard about Yevgeny Leonov—he was one of our best actors. There is a book of letters that he wrote to his son while he was still alive.”

Ponomaryov’s teammates may want to take a page from his book, theoretically speaking, after the Spartak center’s convincing performance at last year’s tournament. Despite an overall underwhelming result for Team Russia, the native Muscovite netted a pair of goals to secure the team’s hard-fought victory over the United States. His experience under one of hockey’s most unrelenting spotlights will be an asset to Zubov’s squad, and the expectations for the team’s returners are high.

A 2020 draft pick for the Carolina Hurricanes, Ponomaryov began his career with Orbita Zelenograd before moving to Krylia Sovetov in 2017. He took a detour to North America in the QMJHL, and returned to Russia on loan to Spartak Moscow this season. He has roughly split his time between the KHL and the VHL, logging 11 points in 16 games for the latter’s Khimik Voskresensk.

I caught up with Russia’s resident book worm to find out more about his intellectual pursuits, lessons learned from last year’s World Juniors and more.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You’re famous for being a voracious reader. What book are you reading right now, and how many did you bring to camp?

Vasily Ponomaryov (VP): Yes, right now I am reading a book about Kobe Bryant. I brought a little bit of a library with me—around six or eight books. I think I'll finish the book about Kobe today or tomorrow, and I need to grab a new one because I already finished 99 Francs by Frédéric Beigbeder. I have books about psychology, cars—the brand BMW.

GK: What inspired you to pick up Kobe Bryant’s biography?

VP: He was a legend for me, the first player equal to Jordan. I think he was better than LeBron, Stephen Curry.

GK: Last time around, you were wrapping Shantaram. Your range is impressive.

VP: Yeah. It wasn’t the last book I read, but I finished the sequel of Shantaram around one month ago. You live inside of that first book, you want to believe it all.

GK: What’s your annual average on books read?

VP: I don't know. I think around 25 for the year.

VP: What would you recommend to us? 

VP: I like to read the biographies of our Russian actors. Maybe you have heard about Yevgeny Leonov—he was one of our best actors. There is a book of letters that he wrote to his son while he was still alive.

GK: That sounds good! On to the task at hand. What style of hockey can we expect to see from Russia in a couple of weeks, and how will it contrast with last year’s approach?

VP: It’s going to be fast hockey. We are going to be quicker than usual, I think. We’ll shoot the puck and move forward without turnovers. Last year, we made a lot of passes back—but this year, we will play only north. [Sergei] Zubov is going to be more aggressive. We have to be much better in defense.

GK: How would you compare last year’s roster to the current squad?

VP: I don’t know, because no matter how much talent or skill that you have at World Juniors, the main thing is going to be how much character you have inside of you. For those of us who went last year—Marat [Khusnutdinov], me, Yaroslav [Askarov]—we had a good experience, but I feel sometimes that we need to go hard and just show our character. No matter the skill, the luck—nothing. Just go hard.

GK: Was aggressiveness or attack the key issue last year, in your opinion? 

VP: Mentality. We need to do what our coaches want to see from us.

GK: Russia’s U20s have been spoiled for legends on the bench. What have you taken from Sergei Zubov so far, and what lessons from Igor Larionov will you carry with you? 

VP: Zubov has taught us that we don't need to always force the game. You have time, and you need to find the best solution. For all of us who worked with Igor last year, I think he will help us at this World Juniors. He’s going to be there. We have to do what our coach tells us, but for little details in the o-zone for example, Igor can help us a little bit.

GK: What is Russia’s biggest challenge going into the tournament, and do you define that by specific opponents? 

VP: I think mindset and passion. We’re not overly focused on [our opponents] because we want to play our hockey and play more aggressively in this season.

GK: I remember that Larionov shared some footage of Soviet games with you. What impact did that make on the team?

VP: We didn’t watch a lot of Soviet games, but we also watched FC Barcelona and the San Antonio Spurs when they won all of those titles. I think it helped us, and I like to watch it even now after he showed us that. We watched how they play. Barcelona played insane football, or with the Spurs, they made many passes. We saw that we needed to make more and more and more passes, and eventually they found a shooting lane.

GK: You performed well as an individual at the last tournament. What is your own focus going into World Juniors? 

VP: Most importantly for me, it's a cup. No matter how many goals I score or passes I make, I focus on the cup. Since the last year, I was too sad. In this season, I will do everything for the team to help us win.

GK: Was it tough to bounce back after last year? How did you come to terms with it?

VP: I was down for two months, maybe until the end of the season. It was a tough time. I knew I just needed new emotions and a positive outlook. I talked a lot with my best friend, which was important for me.

GK: You have logged some playing time in North America. What elements did you add to your game there? 

VP: You need to play more offensively, always stay focused on the shot because you don't have enough time and space to show off some silky skills. You need to play much faster than you play in Russia.

GK: What suggestion would you offer to Russia’s U20 debutantes? 

VP: The main thing is to give it your all. We have to play more than 100%. Dedication is what we need to win this title—dedication of your time, your health. You have to be ready to go all-in.

GK: Are there any players with whom you’re finding good chemistry?

VP: When I was younger, under 16, 17, 18, I played on a line with Pashin and Tyutnev. We are on the same line and working together as we did before. We won the Hlinka-Gretzky with that line. That past experience is helpful.

GK: What are some of your earliest memories in hockey? 

VP: I’m from Orbita Zelenograd; it was my house. I think it's where I lived maybe until 14 or 15 years old. I came to the rink around 2:00 or 3:00 pm and skated until 9:00 pm. Everybody knows me there and I think it's my home where I learned. When I came to hockey school, I already liked to skate.

GK: What would you say is the most interesting piece of advice that you've been given in your career? 

VP: I think that one of the best things I ever heard from a coach is that each goal or pass, each point you get, is your reward for your good movements on the ice. When you do the little things right, you'll get a reward—like an assist or a goal.

Nikolai Shchedrov gave me that advice. I worked with him when he was the head coach in Zelenograd. I skated with them when I was 13 years old, and he always taught me. After I came to Krylia Sovetov, he became my head coach for one year. I think it was some of the best advice I’ve gotten.

GK: Do you have any rituals or superstitions?

VP: The superstitions are too personal [to share]. I listen to one or two songs before the game, but I’m not focused on it. I prefer calm music. I don’t like Limp Bizkit or AC/DC, but I try to focus more on the underground music like Basta and Guf. I always try to go onto the ice more quiet and calm because I don’t want to skate like crazy. I don’t drink caffeine before the game. I try to be more calm because you work much better. 

GK: What is a misconception that people might have about you?

VP: I don’t think any. I’m a very open and sincere person.

GK: And lastly, what is the funniest experience you’ve had in hockey? 

VP: Two years ago, I went to the Junior Challenge in Canada. We won only one game until the playoffs, and we won the first game and then lost three or four in a row. We won the semi-final and we won the final. I’m not sure why, but we were sure we would win that cup!

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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