SHAWINIGAN, Que. — In a hockey world fraught with clichés and catch phrases, Kirill Kabanov is an outcast.
There is no mincing words or political correctness. And there are definitely no apologies. Love him or hate him, the Shawinigan Cataractes forward no longer cares about how he's perceived by those who don't know him.
"I don't care about that stuff," said Kabanov. "People are going to think what they want to think. I can't change anyone's mind; I'm not a wizard."
Over the course of his three seasons in the QMJHL he has been portrayed as everything from l'enfant terrible to the great kid. He's often been misunderstood. There was an acrimonious breakup with the Moncton Wildcats, the team that first brought him over to Canada from his native Moscow. There was his strange dismissal from the Russian under-18 squad in which coach Mikhail Vasiliev said Kabanov brought "confusion to the team." Kabanov's stock as a future NHL player fell to the point where the once projected first-rounder ended up being taken in the third round – 65th overall – by the New York Islanders in 2010. And when Kabanov finally went to NHL camp, he showed up late – twice. He's had more agents than most men have shoes.
But since his past has been so well documented, it's the future he is most concerned with now. When he first came to Shawinigan at the start of the 2011-12 season, he met with head coach Eric Veilleux and the pair had a heart-to-heart discussion about joining the Cataractes with a clean slate.
"I told him, ‘What I heard, what people heard, what you did or what you didn't do – that was out of my control, so erase it from your mind. This is a new start,' " said Veilleux. "I couldn't care less what happened before. Is it true? Is it not true? There's so much that people can talk about and write… but he's been great all year."
Teammate Michael Chaput, who played with Kabanov in Lewiston before joining the Cataractes, agrees.
"He's a funny guy," said Chaput. "I love to be around him – everyone loves to be around him – because he's never mad, he's always in a good mood. If your spirit is not up, he's going to cheer you up.
"I just love him, since Day One."
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There is no doubt Kabanov has matured from that kid who was always finding himself either at the centre of the storm or on his way out of town. Early in the season he had been on a tryout in the Swedish Elite League with Farjestad after his QMJHL team in Lewiston had folded. He decided to join the Memorial Cup-host Cataractes in October after a deal with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada who had acquired his rights in the Quebec league's dispersal draft. For most of the year Kabanov has kept a low profile, with nary a hint of controversy.
"Sure, everyone's heard the stories and stuff, but I think he's become more mature," said Chaput. "He's grown up a lot from all those stories people have heard."
And while Kabanov seems to have matured, it definitely hasn't made him boring.
After the Cataractes' 3-2 loss to the Edmonton Oil Kings on the opening night of the Memorial Cup, Kabanov held court with reporters despite getting six stitches after a puck hit his right cheek. In that group setting Kabanov was electric, giving the media their share of quotes.
"It's ok," said Kabanov of his swollen face and the bloody trail he left on the ice. "I'm just pissed that we lost the game."
"It's not a big tragedy."
"I'm not going to be a model or a superstar, right?"
"I still have a Hollywood smile."
At other times he appears more guarded and wary, particularly when talking about his past. He said this season in Shawinigan, he's rarely done interviews because as he notes, "I'm not a popular guy." During this off-day interview at the Centre Bionest, former Montreal Canadiens public relations staffer Marie-Christine Boucher – who was hired by the Cataractes at the start of the season – is always within earshot. She jumps in to respond, "it wasn't that bad, there have been a few times -- just not after every game."
But even when he's not talking, he's still a lightning rod. A week prior to the Memorial Cup a Russian-language newspaper reported he had decided to play in the KHL with Salavat Yulaev next season, despite being under contract to the Islanders.
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"No, that's a rumour," said the 19-year-old. "All I can say is it's not true."
He said he's become immune to being misquoted, taken out of context or flat out lied about that reports like that no longer faze him.
"I'm already so used to that now," said Kabanov, who began learning English at age five. "Honestly I'm pretty tired about commenting about that stuff. I'm just trying to keep quiet."
He seems slightly irritated by the line of questioning, though that quickly changes when he hears the reporter is trying to learn his native Russian. He lights up and begins his own tutorial, correcting pronunciation and helping with new phrases to learn. When told – in poorly spoken Russian – that he's a ‘real mystery,' Kabanov laughs.
"See I'm a mystic man, like an X-man!"
When asked if he knows any French, Kabanov runs through the cookie-cutter introductory phrases, adding that he plays hockey and is Russian.
"That's all I know," said Kabanov after testing out his français. "I know bad stuff, but you don't want to hear that."
He's engaging enough that it quickly becomes obvious he is the good-humored spark in the Cataractes dressing room. As far as Veilleux is concerned, that is exactly what his team needs in order to keep the up-tempo mood during the Memorial Cup. The fact that he's also supremely talented, averaging more than a point per game (55 points, 50 games) in the regular season, hasn't hurt either.
"If you look at our captain Michael Bournival, we have pretty laid back quiet guys – they're not that outspoken," said Veilleux. "But (Kabanov) is.
"You need those types of players, it's not like he goes overboard or is out of line. He brings life to our hockey club."
This season the Cataractes helped arrange for Kabanov's mother, Natalia, a doctor by profession, to move to Shawinigan to help take care of him and fellow Russian star winger Anton Zlobin. Kabanov said that having his mother with him made a world of difference since he still misses his home and particularly his friends back in Moscow.
"It's sick; it's unbelievable always having home (cooking)," said Kabanov. "It's really nice."
Maybe it was his mother's presence, his coach's trust, or the fresh start he received in Shawinigan – but one thing is clear, it looks like Kirill Kabanov has finally grown up.
"I like to talk a lot and sometimes I don't say the right stuff, but now usually I try to think when I'm talking."