HALIFAX — Armed with a master's degree, Svetlana Kucherov was looking for work. It was the late 90's and opportunities in Moscow were hard to come by for her. One day she spotted a newly constructed arena. She went in and talked her way into a job.
It was on that ice that her son, Nikita, then five, first learned to skate.
“She worked at the rink and she would bring me,” said the now 19-year-old Kucherov. “All the small kids would come and start to practice.”
It was evident, even at an early age, that Kucherov had a natural talent for hockey. And now as a member of the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, he’s only getting better.
“He’s always one play ahead of the game,” said Huskies coach and general manager Andre Tourigny. “When he gets the puck he knows all his options and what he has to do. He knows where the pressure is. His hockey sense and his IQ are through the roof.
“He’s very passionate about the game.”
It’s partly that passion that has helped Kucherov find a new gear in the post-season this year. In his 11 playoff games he already has 21 points. Creating opportunities whenever he has the puck is his forte and has provided the spark the Huskies have needed to advance.
On Saturday night in the opening game of their QMJHL semi-final he was back at it, finishing off a pretty pass from teammate and top-scorer Sven Andrighetto, to help the Huskies cut a first-period deficit to 2-1 after 20 minutes. He returned to start the second period with another goal to tie the game in an eventual 6-4 loss to the Halifax Mooseheads, the top-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League.
His biggest playoff performance thus far was a six-point night against Quebec which helped the Huskies oust the favoured Remparts in the second round. The fact that Kucherov was traded by Quebec GM-coach Patrick Roy in November only added to his motivation.
“I wanted to prove to them that I was a good player,” said Kucherov, a two-time medallist with Russia’s world junior squad. “But I still tried to focus on my own game. I didn’t really think about, ‘Oh, this is my old team.’ I just tried to help my team win.”
But that deal was almost nixed. Tourigny said he needed a little coaxing from his friend Roy, to part with Russian import Dennis Kamaev and a second-round pick in the QMJHL draft. Roy was eager to get a trade done since he had three imports on his roster – Kucherov, Buffalo Sabres prospect Mikhail Grigorenko and Danish forward Nick Sorensen. League rules stipulate you can only dress two imports per game and Kucherov was not happy sitting out.
“We didn’t have the right offer at the start,” explained Tourigny of the negotiations. “At some point he called me and he shook me a little bit and said, ‘Hey, wake up buddy!’ We changed the offer and we found a way to make the deal.
“It’s sad because Pat is a friend and he’s a guy that helped us in the past like we have helped him in the past. He paid for that trade.”
Kucherov believes coming to Rouyn-Noranda and playing for Tourigny has helped elevate his game even further because their styles mesh better than what he was used to in Quebec.
“(Roy) is like drop the puck and grind them down all the time,” said the second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011. “I don’t want to say anything bad about him, because (Roy) is still a good coach, but for me, (Tourigny’s) systems – the combination style – I like it.
“When I came to Rouyn-Noranda I started to play better. I’m comfortable here.”
In Rouyn, he lives in a billet home with fellow import Andrighetto. He and the Swiss star have formed a close bond over their European sensibilities.
“When you see a Canadian guy do something weird, sometimes you don’t understand,” said the 5-foot-11, 174-pound winger. “But we are the same. I understand (Andrighetto).”
Andrighetto has also tried to help Kucherov improve his English skills. In return, Kucherov has been teaching his teammates Russian and says that Newfoundlander Marcus Power is his best student with some 100 or so basic words under his belt.
Left to his own devices at home, Kucherov is extremely self-sufficient. He’s had to be. He readily admits moving to play in Canada wasn’t a big deal, because he was forced to mature at a young age. His father, Igor, worked for the Russian army and was posted in Uruguay for a number of years. After that his parents moved to New York. During that time, Kucherov lived with his grandmother. Only recently have his parents returned back to their home in Moscow.
“I was all the time without my parents,” said Kucherov. “But that’s OK because I’m already 19 years old and I know what I have to do. I grew up fast.”
Still, living in Rouyn-Noranda, a mining town in northwestern Quebec with a population of roughly 41,000, has taken some adjustment after living in Quebec City and Moscow.
“There’s nothing to do,” said Kucherov. “Sleep. Eat. Sit at home. Think about hockey.”
And considering his end-goal, focusing on the game he first found through his mother’s perseverance, is a good thing.
“My dream is to play in the NHL,” said Kucherov. “I hope someday.”