After becoming the first Columbus Blue Jackets rookie to score three goals in a game on Saturday night, Nikita Filatov waited for bags filled with hats that had hit the arena ice to be delivered to him as keepsakes.
But if there's one thing the 18-year-old Russian has learned in his first NHL season, it's patience.
After being taken No. 6 overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Filatov was at the center of an international player dispute with the KHL before joining the Blue Jackets organization. He played four games with Columbus in October before being sent down to AHL Syracuse, in a move that stunned him. After scoring 11 points in seven games at world juniors, including eight goals to tie John Tavares for the tournament lead, Filatov was recalled by Columbus on Jan. 7.
Filatov hopes his instant success in his return to the NHL will keep him here; but said that, ultimately, it's still Coach Ken Hitchcock's decision.
We spoke with Filatov over the course of two days about playing for Hitchcock and with the Blue Jackets; his unpredictable rookie season and whether he'll outscore No. 1 pick Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning; and the KHL's success and the drug controversies surrounding Alexei Cherepanov.
Of course, we also asked him about cooking, Alexander Semin's fighting abilities and his slight resemblance to actress Amanda Bynes as well ...
PUCK DADDY: In your first stint with the Blue Jackets this season, you played four games and scored one goal. How crushed were you to be sent back down to the AHL, and how did you handle that disappointment?
FILATOV: I was very disappointed. I played great, I scored a goal. But after about three days in the AHL, I started feeling good. I liked everything in Syracuse: the team, the league, all the guys.
Did you talk to the coach before you were sent down?
Of course we talked. I was told that at this point of my career I was not ready play on the first two lines. So there was no point for the team to have me play on the third or the fourth lines because the goals set for those lines were different than from what the team expected from me, and also the playing time is very different. I was also told that it would be better for my development and growth to play in the AHL for some time, because I get 15-18 minutes of playing time.
How do you work within Ken Hitchcock's system? Is it hard for a creative offensive player like you to play that style? Other offensive Russian players like Fedorov and Zherdev had some problems there.
I'm absolutely alright. Look, I am still only 18 and am only starting to play in this league. If the system the team adopted is very defensive, it doesn't mean that you won't get any chances to score, or this system will in any way take away your chances to create chances. It's just a great deal of attention must be paid to the defensive play, to eliminate any chances of mistakes. But this doesn't take away from playing on power play and scoring goals.
I looked at your statistics against the Washington Capitals, and you didn't get a great deal of playing time. You had played only about five minutes after the second period. Is this enough time for a creative player like yourself to show what you've got?
I am extremely happy about the game against Washington. Because for the first time I was trusted enough to spend some time on power play, I also managed to play well and create good chances and pass the puck well. And I played about nine minutes. In my very first game against Nashville I got about nine minutes. It's my maximum for now. I have nothing to complain about.
Do you believe you're strong enough to compete in the NHL at this stage of your development?
Well, I think I am strong enough and ready to play in the NHL. Definitely.
I spoke with Sergei Fedorov a few months ago and he told me that he felt that players come over to the NHL too early now. That players don't often know what clubs want them here, for which positions. That's why players a lot of times play out of their natural position.
I knew somewhat where I was going. To be honest enough, I was even ready to spend some time in the juniors. I had that thought in my head, but I was calm about it and didn't even worry about it. So I knew and expected everything. Therefore, there will be no tragedy if I am sent down to the AHL again soon. I will take any decision the club makes very well.
On Mason, on the Calder and on Stamkos: His season is 'a little weak'
No. 1 pick Steven Stamkos has 14 points so far this season. Who will have more points at the end of this season: You or Steven Stamkos?
Do you mean if I play the entire season here, or at least end the season with Columbus? He's got 14 now, right? Well, I think it will depend on how many games he will play in. I noticed that in the last Tampa game was scratched. How many games did he play? About 30? And how many minutes did he play? Approximately 15 on average? I don't really know how many points each of us will get, it is impossible to make any statements right now. But for him to score four goals in 40 games, I personally think it's a little weak.
I must tell you that I am extremely impressed by your knowledge. Does this mean that you follow the statistics of players who were drafted the same year you were?
Well, it's all very interesting for me. It's not difficult for me and for some reason I remember all these numbers very easily. What else is there to do? I watch a lot of games, and of course it is very interesting how well the other players who were drafted the same year I was are doing in the league.
How about your young goalie Steve Mason? Surely he is a contender for Rookie of the Year.
Did you see his stats? Just go to any NHL related page and see that he leads the league in save percentage, GAA and shutouts! Very impressive! And last night on the plane from Washington we were all talking about his performance. We even gave Steve a new nickname: "Stevie Franchise."
You played in the World Junior Championship against John Tavares. He is talked about a lot as being a great player and a sure number one pick in next year's draft. Is he as good as they say he is?
I personally think that he is a great player. He is really good. He can score, he can pass, his position on the ice is always good. Of course, in Canada everything is inflated and they know how to make a star and there is nothing you can do about it, but he is a good player.
Will he be a better player than Stamkos?
I think yes.
You turned out to be Russia's best player at the World Juniors. You were the team captain. How did it happen that you were put on the third line?
I honestly don't know; that's the question you must ask the coach. But what's done is done and it didn't turn out all that bad. We won bronze medals. But I can't even guess what happened, but this was his decision to play me on the third line. Maybe there was an issue of him trusting me. For example, I didn't play one shift on the penalty kill in the entire tournament. That says something about trust or lack thereof. In the group stage, I played on the third line and sometimes my line even got some power-play time. That means that maybe he trusted and relied on other guys more. I don't know. It was his decision, and everyone thought about winning.
Alexander Semin and the drum-beat of fighting
You played a lot in the AHL to know that league. Did you have your first fight in the AHL. When can we expect your first NHL fight, and did you learn any pointers about fighting from watching Jon "Nasty" Mirasty in Syracuse?
Oh yeah, there is a lot of fighting in the AHL. But me fighting? [laughing] Come on, it's not my job. And no, I didn't learn anything from Jon, I didn't even ask him anything about fighting. [laughing]
It doesn't have to be your job. Not long ago Alex Semin had a fight, Sidney Crosby tried to fight. Did you see Alex Semin's fight the other night with Marc Staal of the Rangers? Can you promise us that you'll be a better fighter than he is?
Yes, I saw Semin fighting. A lot of times. It's better not to fight. I don't want to comment on that situation, but I think it's better not to fight altogether. Because it is not his job, really not his business to get involved. He shouldn't have done that.
He tried to stand up for himself. Because every time he returns from an injury someone tries to push him and knock him down, and maybe even reinjure him.
I don't know, but maybe it's not the best way to stand up for yourself to beat someone like a drum.
KHL: Legal tugs-of-war, Cherepanov and the future of the League
When you signed with Columbus, the KHL claimed that the team owed them $1.5 million for losing you. Were you flattered, or were you worried that you wouldn't be able to play in the NHL this season?
Yes, that episode did take place. But there was nothing flattering about it, because I thought this whole thing would go away a lot easier, that there would be no arguments and these claims for $1.5 million. It was all very clear from the start that no one is going to pay anything. But there were still these scandals and stupidities. But I was not worried at all that I wouldn't be able to play in the NHL. This decision was not taken in a couple of days. We spent at least few months analyzing my situation with my agents, every possible scenario was analyzed and investigated to avoid any possible sticking points or courts, etc.
I was absolutely calm about it. It's not my business to handle these situations. My job was to train during the summer and concentrate on my game. Of course, I stayed on top of the situation, spoke to my agent on the phone. And I was always told not to worry and that everything would be alright.
Interesting. It sounds like you had a think-tank working on your move: to evaluate risks and legal challenges that may have arisen.
Oh yeah, every possible scenario was considered. In the beginning, we thought whether to move to the NHL at all: whether to move right away or stay and play another season in Russia. But then when the decision to move was made we started analyzing what problems may arise that would prevent the move. My agents and lawyers analyzed various laws and statutes of Russia as well as the United States to make sure everything is clear, and there is not legal ground to prevent me from going.
You played in Russia for a while. Do you believe the KHL will succeed?
It depends what you mean when you say "succeed."
I mean that the KHL will have stability; that the KHL will flourish in the future, that players will just play there without thinking about any problems; that their contracts will be guaranteed...
Players will certainly keep playing there, there will certainly be more money there than in the NHL; players will certainly not think about any problems there, they will certainly get their money guaranteed.
But the league will never be better than the NHL. That's my opinion. I mean, maybe some day it will be better than the NHL, but definitely not in the near future. But I am absolutely sure that the league will not fold.
You are a young player. Dave King wrote a book about his managerial experience in Russia where he said that teams pay a lot of attention to pharmacology and some questionable vitamins. Is it really true that our young players are given some substances that they don't even know what those are?
It is absolutely not true that they are injected with or given something that they know absolutely nothing about! I, for example, always refused to take something I didn't know. But if you are told that you should take or drink something, you can talk to the doctor to find out what it is that you are given. There is absolutely no problem with information. It is doctors' duty [to give that information]. But at least this was the case for me and I had no problems with it.
Is there a similar practice in the NHL? Are you given vitamins or something similar?
I don't take vitamins or pills. Of course, there are energy shakes or revitalizing drinks. This is sport, it is common.
What was your reaction to the death of Alexei Cherepanov, and the allegations about doping that have followed?
I don't know what to say about it. It is very difficult and not very pleasing to hear about these things. I am absolutely sure [it was not] Alexei's fault in any of it. That's what I think about it. It's not his fault. If they did indeed find something in his blood, then maybe he was given something. But I am absolutely sure that Alexei would not have taken anything if he had known of the risks and damage [to his health]. Maybe he was given something but they didn't tell him [the truth] about what it was and didn't ask him [if he wanted to take it]. I don't know what happened there.
How much did the team miss Cherepanov at the World Junior Championships?
We missed him a lot. What can you say when your best player was not there? He was the missing piece.
Amanda Bynes: No, he doesn't see the resemblance
Has anyone ever claimed you look like someone famous?
No, no one told me anything like that.
[Laughing] I look like her? An actress? No, I don't even know who she is! But it's not very flattering to be compared to an actress.
I sense that your sense of humor is alright and you're not upset about this question.
Of course everything is alright! My sense of humor is good.
What's the last good movie you saw?
I don't even know. The very last good movie I saw and liked was the last Batman movie. What's it called? "The Dark Knight"! That's it.
What's on your iPod?
I don't have an iPod. As strange as it sounds, I don't have an .mp3 player and don't really listen to music. Of course, if it's playing somewhere on the radio I'd listen, but I don't depend on music too much.
I know you are on a Russian social networking site. Are you also on Facebook or any other social site on the Web? How careful does a professional athlete have to be in having a public life like that on the Internet?
Yes, I am on Facebook. I am on a lot of social sites, almost all of them. I don't know how careful an athlete must be on the Internet, but I think that if you have a head on your shoulders you should be good. I know I don't have any problems with being on the Internet.
What has surprised you the most about American culture?
There was nothing that surprised me too much about American culture. It's nice that people here are very friendly. And when it comes to hockey, there are a lot of people here who are sincerely interested in the game and know the game very well, and they follow not only certain teams but also individual players. A lot of people here really live and breathe hockey.
I know that you just had dinner. Compare the food you eat here with the food over in Russia.
There is a difference. But sometimes you get tired of the food here, all these steaks, and you want something special, some home-cooked meal.
Does someone cook for you at home? Maybe your mom or dad?
My mother was here for a month right after I moved in to my new apartment when I started in the AHL. She was a lot of help, she cooked for me, which was so good. The week after she left I learned how to cook myself for the first time in my life. Of course, I can't cook any super dishes, but I can cook meat, make pasta or other simple stuff.
Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to junk food?
Oh, no, I don't eat junk food. It happens so rarely! I don't even remember the last time I had some junk food. I think it has only happened once since I came to America. There are so many nice cafes and restaurants around that there is absolutely no desire to visit fast food places.
Inside the player's life
What do you typically do on your off-day from games?
It depends where I am. When I am in Syracuse, then I spend my day relaxing or shopping for food, for example, or clothes. Sometimes I just want to spend some quiet time at home watching TV or talking with friends. And I sleep a lot.
Who do you live with when you're called up to Columbus?
I stay alone at a hotel. And when we're away I share a room with Andrew Murray.
Your English must be good then!
Well, I think it is OK. My mother taught me English. She speaks fluent English. She taught it in schools and at a University, and even now she gives private English lessons when people urgently have to get their English better. I don't know what I would have done here without her teaching me English before I came here. I don't know how guys who don't speak English handle it here. I don't think I would have come here if I didn't speak English.
Do you have any pre-game rituals or superstitions, like putting your skate on the left leg first?
Bingo! That's exactly what I do! I don't have some crazy superstitions, but I automatically start putting my skate on my left leg first. I have been doing this for the past six years, I think.
Finally, what do you enjoy most about hockey?
I enjoy the moment when the team is winning a game. I love that moment when there is five seconds on the clock... No, not five, three seconds on the clock, and then the siren goes off to say that your team has just won the game.
I know exactly why you said 'the last three seconds' of the game instead of 'five'...
Yes, these five seconds. [Canada scored with five seconds remaining in the third period of their semi-final game against Russia to tie. Canada went on to beat Russian in the shoot out and eventually won Gold.] That's why I like the siren now.
Did you know that all Russian and some Canadian Washington Capitals players watched the game in the players' lounge right after their game against the Rangers? And that Karl Alzner told NPR that he was a little afraid of Semin because of his celebrations after Russia scored their fourth goal?
Oh, gosh, this is so pleasant to hear. It's too bad we didn't win. I am eligible to play in the World Juniors next year. I really want to win gold, if I am selected to play.
Portions of this interview will also be featured in Sovietsky Sport this week.