In his short time with CSKA Moscow, Nikita Filatov(notes) has made an impression. The former Columbus Blue Jackets winger -- still under contract with the NHL team but allowed to play in the KHL -- was named a player of the week after scoring four goals in four games.
Yet the NHL is on his mind, as Filatov answered questions in a recent interview with SovSport (translated here) about his relationship with Jackets Coach Ken Hitchcock; the KHL vs. the NHL; whether he ever plans on returning to North America to play hockey; meeting Wayne Gretzky and a very odd question before the draft involving the Toronto Maple Leafs and a piece of candy.
First, about his relationship with Hitchcock:
"Actually, Hitchcock gave me a lot. I started playing better defense," he said. "But if at practice I did something wrong, Ken was ready to immediately stop practice, call the entire team over and explain to me personally where I made a mistake."
Q. Was it embarrassing?
FILATOV: "This is a normal process. But Hitchcock took it too far sometimes. There was an immediate whistle after something small. Or he would give instructions through the defense coach, you get an individual workout. And when we lost to Detroit (1:9), Hitchcock actually made a schedule. Every player went to him for a 10-15 minute talk."
And what did you talk with him about?
"Hitchcock told me that he was happy with my game."
After a 1-9?
"In our micro-game we lost 0-1... No, I am thankful to Hitchcock for the lessons. He has his own view of hockey. Let's say we made a turnover. And we start defending. The right positioning, play without the puck. The opponent is right next to you. It's one thing when you tap him on his pads. It's different when you engage in an active pressing. There are a lot of technical nuances: you cannot make a turnover at the blue line and in the neutral zone. When there are two going against you, it's better to dump it ahead..."
Then why did you leave Columbus if everything was so good?
"Hitchcock just didn't give me a chance. You score the game winner with seven minutes of playing time, and it means nothing. The next game you get four minutes of ice time. And it's normal."
And what happened last season when you scored a hat trick?
"There were six more days and a ticket to Syracuse. Our farm club is there."
If Columbus played Salavat Yulaef, which team would win?
"I would put [my money] on Ufa."
And if is was CSKA?
"We would have problems with physical play. But if we can show our technical hockey, then we will beat Columbus without a question. We would outplay them with our skating."
You played in the NHL. Did you feel an overwhelming level of aggression there? We can remember a very recent example when a Florida defenseman hit his own goalie in the head with a stick.
"I did not see that moment. But injuries in the NHL happen virtually every day. It's like madness over there. People come out to play to battle. It's like a war. No one spares anyone. And it doesn't matter if you're a star or a rank and file player. Tough guys are openly ready for a fight. You dump the puck in and chase it. That's exactly what I was doing when I was playing on the fourth line with Columbus with fighters Boll, Dorsett and MacKenzie."
So what did the NHL give you?
"I gained a lot of confidence, got used to smaller rinks and huge arenas for 20 thousand people. I don't tremble anymore when I come out to play at that level. The farm club gave me a lot, where I played 18 minutes per game on average, and even killed penalties. I have absolutely no regrets that I want to the States last season."
You're going to the World Junior Championships. What should we expect from Team Russia?
"Some kind of misery is falling down on us. In a playing for Los Angeles Andrei Loktionov(notes) injured himself [and is] out for four months. You can say that we lost our first line center. The Rangers are not letting Grachev play. He is our best right wing. That means we are left without out leading line. Kulikov is a first team defenseman for Florida. That means that he also won't go to Saskatoon."
The league doesn't want to let go of their stars?
"Actually, a player isn't even drawn to the WJC if he is playing regularly in the NHL."
Rookies have two way contracts. If one plays in the NHL, he'll earn more than in the farm...
"Eleven times more to be exact."
Maybe you should just stay in Russia when your lease is over?
"People often ask me 'Nikita, are you definitely coming back to the States next season?' I have absolutely no idea!"
Do you really have a choice?
And what about your contract with Columbus?
"So they will disqualify me, so be it. Is this the first case in history?"
Radulov's case [is a lot to handle]...
"So, I do have a choice. But I am almost certain that I will come to Columbus' training camp in September."
We have no official relationship between the KHL and the NHL. How did the Jackets send you to Russia?
"Both teams negotiated directly with each other. They drafted a lease document. Columbus saved money by freezing my contract. CSKA accepted the obligation to pay my salary. That's how this scheme works."
"I couldn't imagine that I would come back myself! The NHL had to be closed before I'd decide to play in the Russian league."
When did this change happen in your mind?
"When I realized that Mister Hitchcock actually does not plan on trusting me. I figured it out after 21 games in the NHL."
Quite often you were traveling with Columbus as if you were a tourist.
"Sometimes it's better than getting three minutes of ice time. You changed, you're sitting on the bench. You don't know when you're going to come out [on the ice], your muscles are cold. And you must not make a mistake during your shift. Anything can happen in that 40 seconds. I would be happy if I could play on the third line with Columbus, I would get some power play time. If I could actually play. And didn't feel myself like a fool, as if you're sitting in the stands wearing skates and jump out of there from time to time to get out on the ice with tough guys."
Games against which teams are most memorable to you?
"The [San Jose Sharks]. They have Heatley and Thornton. But it is actually true that it's impossible to get the puck from Thornton. He can find Heatley's stick on any play, and that guy wouldn't miss.
"And Datsyuk is something! You watch with your mouth open what this guy can do on the ice. It's impossible to predict his next move! Every one of his moves is unique. Sometimes it seems that Datsyuk is in the corner and opponents approach from both sides and will smash him against the boards. But he makes an unthinkable turn, slides the puck under his skate and comes out of the trap. An in addition to that Pavel can win any physical battle. It's virtually impossible to drop him on the ice."
And what about [NHL] defensemen?
"I got to play against Zdeno Chara(notes) from Boston. This show is not for the weak. When you go one on one against him you can't even imagine how to get around that guy. His stick is also about 2 meters long. Chara can be at the blue line but meet you at the red line in the neutral zone. At first you just have to somehow dodge his stick that he can use as if it's a matchstick."
NHL players have an unusual sense of humor. Did you get to experience it?
"I heard about shaving cream in a pocket of an expensive suit. Or about pockets that were just sewn up. Or about shoes nailed to the floor. One, when I was in the farm, one guy lost it because for as entire week the laces on both of his skates kept getting cut. The first two days his reaction was normal, but then he started going crazy. If I were him I would get mad too."
If you have a chance to spend one day with a celebrity, who would it be?
[After giving it some thought and suggestions like Angelina Jolie or Vladimir Pozdner] "Let me choose Wayne Gretzky."
Did you get a chance to talk to him in the States?
"I was lucky enough once. I got to meet him during interviews before the draft."
Is it true that he has absolutely no muscle?
"I didn't notice that. Gretzky was wearing a suit. But you can't say he's big, that's true. Wayne was the coach of Phoenix back than. For me it was a very memorable meeting. You enter the room and shake a hand of Wayne Gretzky himself, and answer his questions for half an hour."
What were you talking about for so long?
"There were also scouts and managers there. They asked me about everything. About my character and habits, game qualities. Or we went over a certain game. For example, when we lost to the Canadians 0-8."
What question surprised you the most?
"I had interviews with many NHL clubs. But I was surprised when I came into Toronto's office. Their general manager was sitting there. I thought that some regular questions [would be asked]. But he tossed a candy on the table and said ‘If you take it you will be a millionaire, the best hockey player in the world, would win five Stanley Cups and two Olympics. But when you're 30 you will most likely have an accident. If you don't take it, you will live until you're 100, but would be an average player.'"
And what did you do?
"I took the candy..."
And went to that Phoenix interview from this odd one in Toronto?
"I liked Gretzky's questions better."