January 28, 2009
There have been several indications that Sergei Kostitsyn, the 21-year-old winger for the Montreal Canadiens, is coming into his own during his second season in the NHL. He's on pace to set new career standards for goals and assists. His average ice time has increased, and he's become more of a physical force. His name is now discussed without an automatic mention of brother and teammate, Andrei Kostitsyn.
Of course, there are other consequences to Sergei Kostitsyn's growing fame. Like the attention his feud with Mikhail Grabovski of the Toronto Maple Leafs has received. And then there are those Facebook impersonators.
"I am on Facebook, but Andrei is not," he told me in an interview last week, before the NHL All-Star Weekend in Montreal.
"I was actually told two years ago for the first time that people and my friends talk to [fake] me on Facebook. I don't really care. It's just sometimes my friends tell me about a conversation we supposedly had online, but I say 'No, it wasn't me.' But sometimes they don't even believe me that it wasn't me.
In our conversation, we see the real Sergei Kostitsyn, as he talks about the Grabovski feud; fighting in the NHL; who he believes to be the most talented player in hockey; the expectations for Montreal to win the Stanley Cup; trading for Vincent Lecavalier and recruiting Ilya Kovalchuk; his thoughts on the KHL; and, naturally, playing on the same team as his brother. Plus the usual questions about fast cars, hockey rituals and booze.
As a Montreal Canadiens player, do you automatically hate the Toronto Maple Leafs?
No. When we play Toronto it draws a great crowd. For many years there is this battle between the two teams, and I am not even sure why that is the case. For me it's just another game. It's mostly the media who hype it all up.
Your feud with Mikhail Grabovski of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been one of the most entertaining stories of the season. You said he talks too much about yourself and Andre in the Russian papers. What exactly does he say?
He did not say it in the papers. I don't want to repeat what he said. And it's not that he said it only once, he said it a lot of time. But this is Belarus, and when he says something to someone there, he doesn't realize that we also know a lot of people there. And then those people tell us what he says about us. You cannot do it!
Have you ever asked him why he talks behind your back?
Why would I ask him? It is pointless to ask. I have nothing to talk to him about.
Why do you think he is doing what you say he is doing? What happened between you two during Mikhail's time in Montreal that started this bad blood?
Maybe he is jealous that I started playing in the NHL last year, and he only secured a spot [on the first team] only this season. I don't know what happened. But when he was here, we didn't have a feud.
Then why start now all this bad blood?
I don't know. He didn't start it now. I was told [of the things Grabovski said] back in the summer.
After the last incident on the ice, in which Grabovski was suspended for shoving an official, he said about you, "I think he is not Belarussian now, he is French because I never fight with Belarussian guys." Maybe he doesn't know you are Belarussian? Why would he say that?
Well, maybe. Maybe he thinks I am French? I don't know. He talks a lot. But this was a spit in the face of all French [Canadian] players. When he said that I was French, he meant that all French are idiots. But they all read [about this], and it will only be bad for him during the next game. When you lose, just leave and be quiet, why do you have to say something about the French? I don't care what he said about me, that I am French. But our French [Canadian] players read the papers, they saw what he said, and I don't know what's going to happen during the next game [between Montreal and Toronto].
To set the record straight: Are you now, or have you ever been, French?
Grabovski also said "if he wants to fight, we'll go in the street and every minute of every day I'll wait for him and we'll fight."
Once again, it is only talk. For two games I was asking him to fight. I even came out from the bench [to fight]. He tried to get involved with [Maxim Lapierre] Why would you challenge Lapierre? Lapierre would have killed him if he was out there on the ice. I came out on the ice, but he hid behind the referee and said: "Let's fight." But how is it possible?
So let me get this straight: He was standing behind a ref and was telling you, "Let's fight?"
Yes, he was standing behind a referee and dropped the gloves, so I came out and dropped the gloves too. But what's this? The refs won't let you fight [like this]. You can't fight standing behind a ref.
What if you really meet each other on the street somewhere in Canada or Belarus? Will there be a fight?
I don't know. It's not a problem for me.
One last question about Mikhail: Can you two coexist on the same Olympic team?
Well, the Olympics are a long time away. I will just keep doing my job. I don't care about him as a person. I will just have to do my job.
Getting Physical and Dropping the Gloves
You already have more penalty minutes this year than last year. Are you getting more comfortable with the physical part of the game?
Well, I have always played physical hockey. It's just I don't have a lot of two minute penalties, and most of my penalties are because of fighting... Those weren't real fights, I couldn't get a real fight. Once I got 10 minutes, then again I got 10 minutes, then yet again I for 10 minutes, even though there was no real fighting I still got called and accumulated a lot of penalty minutes because of that.
Are you opening this new element to your game: fighting?
[Laughing] No, it just happens this way. I am not a fighter, it just happens.
You said you couldn't muster a real fight in the NHL. In a 12-round fight with Georges Laraque, how many rounds would you last?
Laraque? I wouldn't fight him! This is not my weight category.
Laraque is in my team, so I will have to say Laraque anyway.
Maybe he teaches you how to fight on the ice?
No, I have never asked him about it.
What do you think about fighting in hockey? There are two camps now: the first says that fighting is the way to regulate violence on the ice; the other says no fighting period.
I feel alright about fighting, because there are only certain players on each team who fight. I also think that it is more interesting for the fans, because a lot of fans come to see physical hockey, hard hits, fights. It is very interesting for a lot of fans.
But do you think there should be some kind of a "fighting code" that would include the rule of not fighting in a visor because players can injury themselves?
I don't even know about it. And who would approve such a code? But even if you fight in a visor, if someone has a direct hit they will smash your face. No chances, whether you wear a visor or not.
Brotherly Love in the Canadiens Pressure Cooker
You have said that American journalists always ask the dumb question, "What's it like to play with your brother?"
Yes, and don't tell me you're going to ask me this question too! [laughing]
No! But I'll ask a slightly better question: What's the worst thing about playing on a team with Andrei?
Oh no, there is absolutely nothing negative about playing with my brother. We are both European style players, like to pass. Quite the opposite, it is very nice to play alongside each other. And we don't fight if there is something wrong, we just sit and talk about it. So, there is nothing negative! Only positive!
What did you learn from the playoff experience last season, losing to the Philadelphia Flyers?
Of course, I got some valuable experience because it was my first season in the NHL, my first playoffs. We started the playoffs very well, but it didn't happen for us against Philadelphia. We just didn't score enough. Last season during the regular season, we were the best team on power play, and I think we won a lot of games because of that. But in the playoffs we couldn't score as often as we did in the regular season. Maybe that's why we lost to Philadelphia, because we certainly weren't weaker than them. Quite the opposite.
So you think that the special teams are vital for winning in the playoffs?
Well, of course! It's very important. And as we were told in the past, playoffs are a different game from the regular season. In the playoffs every game is played on the verge of your physical ability. And yes, you have to score [on power play] and have good special teams.
How difficult is it physically to play in the playoffs? Especially if you can potentially play seven games against the same team.
For me it is not very difficult. I actually like playing seven-game series. We had one last year against Boston, and I really enjoyed playing seven games. And you also learn your opposition: their moves, what they do, their strategy. And it becomes easier and better.
It's the centennial season for the Canadiens, and the team finished first in the conference last season. How do you handle the expectations from fans and media that your team should win the Stanley Cup this season?
Our main goal is to make the playoffs. And once we get there, everyone will try and play their best game. I think there is a little bit of pressure, but our team is not paying any attention to it and continues to play the best hockey. That's all.
I think it is very difficult not to pay attention that even your morning skates attract an army of media. For us in Washington it is absolutely uncommon.
It was the same all the time, last year as well. We just have a lot of media [covering the team]. We have an army of writers before every morning practice, skate, before and after every game. It is not uncommon for us. I always heard that the media in Montreal follows the team very closely.
So how is it that you don't feel any pressure? Maybe you don't read newspapers?
I am not paying attention to it. And no, I don't read newspapers. I mean that I don't read Canadian papers.
A big story lately in those papers is the rumors about Vincent Lecavalier being traded to the Canadiens. How distracting is that type of talk?
Yes, I hear all these rumors. Also I hear that Andrei Markov and I will be traded, others too. And no, I don't care about it all. Because, as you said it yourself, these are just rumors. When it happens, it happens. And not it's just a rumor.
Do you think a player like Vinny could bring your team a Stanley Cup?
I think he will definitely help, because he is a player of the highest level. I think he will certainly help Montreal.
The NHL's Most Talented Player, and Habs Fans Ballot Stuffing
Who, in your opinion, is the most talented player in the NHL?
Do you want me to name just one? Or a couple?
Whatever you want.
I think of the young players it is Patrick Kane [of the Chicago Blackhawks]. He was the first in fan voting for the All Star game in the Western Conference. I played with him in the past when we were in the juniors. And we're actually about to have dinner with him right now.
And who is the most overhyped player?
It is probably Crosby, just like everyone says, just like Semin said recently. It is true that [he gets] a lot of attention. If you ask me, I think Semin and Ovechkin play much better than Crosby.
But you have to agree that Sidney Crosby is a great player with great skill. It's not for nothing he is considered one of the best players.
Yes, he is very technically skilled. But Semin, Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Malkin are more technically skilled. And it's not because they are Russian, it's just my opinion.
The All-Star Game is in Montreal this season, and the media has made a big deal out of the fact that fans used computer programs to illegally vote for Montreal players into the starting lineup. Do you think that matters, and do you like the fact that fans determine who starts in the all-star game?
Yes, I heard about it, but I don't think that it matters. If fans love a certain player, then they should vote for him. I heard that at one All Star game, I don't remember which one, some fans voted in one defenseman who was No. 7 on his team, but fans liked him and voted for him. If fans like it, then it's alright.
Do you think that maybe someone else should decide what the starting line up should be? Or leave it all in the hands of the fans?
This is the game for the fans, and let the fans decide who they want to see. It should be left with the fans to decide who they like most and who they want to see in the starting line up.
There is also an unwritten rule that each team should have at least one representative at the All Star game.
Yes, I heard about this rule.
Why is the game then called an All-Star if it is going to have not one representative from Detroit? (Note: This interview was conducted before the All-Star Game and the suspensions to the Detroit Red Wings players.)
I know this situation very well, and I have heard that Datsyuk is not going. Maybe they should have invited Zetterberg or Hossa in place of Datsyuk. But they decided to go with Marleau, right? I don't know if this is right. I actually didn't know that Detroit won't be represented. I thought that maybe they invited someone.
How about Alexei Kovalev being picked to captain the Eastern conference team?
Well, it's great! What can I say? He is a great leader for our team. And also he is a veteran, maybe that's another reason he was picked.
How is your relationship with Kovalev?
Of course we talk, but not a lot because he's got family and kids. So mostly we interact at practices.
Have you ever flown in a plane piloted by Kovalev? If not, would you?
No, no, I never have. Well, he did offer last year to fly with him to New York to his home, but I think we had plans at the time. But why not? I would fly with him. I think he flies like a pro.
KHL Millions and the Greatest Russian Players
You said in an interview that the KHL didn't impress you, and that you don't foresee playing there anytime soon ...
[interrupted] No, no, no... I didn't say that. I said that I want to play in the NHL and not in the KHL, those were my words. I remember exactly what I said.
Thanks for clarifying that. What if at the end of your rookie contract some team in the KHL offered you Jagr-like money. Would you leave the NHL?
I am still very young, and I am not even thinking about it. I want to play in the NHL. I am not thinking [about the money], I am still young, I am not 35 like Jagr, or however old he is right now. Jagr played here for a long time, and he is a big-time star, and of course he was offered a lot of money in Russia and he left. But I am only 21, I have only started playing in the NHL.
Do you even follow the KHL?
I only follow the [Dynamo] Minsk team and how well they are doing over there. I don't really have friends over there, because I didn't play over there.
Did you have a favorite player when you were growing up?
Yes, absolutely. It was Pavel Bure.
Alexander Semin said that Bure was his favorite too. Did you, just like Semin, watch NHL shows on TV when you were a kid?
When I was a kid there were no NHL shows shown on TV in Belarus. So, I didn't have a chance to watch Bure play in the NHL, like Semin did. But I still always liked Bure. But when it came to playing for an NHL team my dream was to play for the Detroit Red Wings.
Bure never played for Detroit.
I know, but I was talking about the team. I think I dreamt of playing for them because there were a lot of Russians in Detroit at that time.
Do you still want to play for them now?
No, I am with Montreal now. It was all in the childhood, it's different now.
Well, as I said, Bure was my favorite player, so I will stick with Bure. I would put Ovechkin second. I didn't see Fedorov [play] that much. I mean I did see clips of him playing and scoring... And I also didn't see much of Mogilny's [game]. I think that I will probably have to put Malkin next, because I see a lot of him, and not so much of the other two. I would actually include Kovalchuk in that list. I would place him second.
Bure was my favorite when I was growing up. But when I was 15 or 16... Actually, when Kovalchuk started playing in the NHL he became my favorite [player]. I really like his style of play.
So you like him more than Ovechkin?
Kovalchuk's style of play? Yes, I like it more.
Kovalchuk's contract will expire soon. Would his style of play fit Montreal?
Montreal? Of course he would fit [well] with Montreal. Kovalchuk would fit well with any team. Maybe I should talk to him and he will come [here].
Just like that? Sit down and talk to him?
Sure, I will talk to him. When he arrives here I will talk to him about coming here [to play]. [laughing]
Off-Days, Dream Cars and Superstitions
What do you typically do on your off-day from games?
I don't do much. My parents visited not long ago, we spent the New Years together. Sometimes I spend time with my brother and my friends, we go to play bowling. We don't have a lot of time off, because a lot of time is spent traveling, and there are games every other day.
Do you live with your brother in Montreal?
No, we don't live together, but my brother lives two minutes away from me. Our houses are really close.
But you do share a room with him on the road. Any pillow fights or something crazy going on when you're on the road?
Yes, we share a room on the road. But nothing crazy goes on, no pillow fights. We are quiet guys.
Do you have any pre-game rituals or superstitions?
I always start putting my skates on my left leg first. I start doing everything from the left: my legs, my arms.
Do you also pull on your helmet on the left ear first?
[Laughing] Well, the helmet is the last thing I put on.
How active are you on the Internet? Do you read hockey Web sites and blogs?
Yes, I am active on the Internet, I am on Odnoklassniki [Russian social networking site]. And I do read Russian hockey websites like Sovetsky Sport or there is another good one AllHockey.ru. But I don't read North American blogs, I don't even know their sites. And I don't write on message boards, I just read them.
Do you drink beer? Or maybe another adult beverage like cognac?
Yes, I do drink beer. And not cognac but whiskey. Here, if you go out for an hour or so you can have a beer. But if you go out somewhere for the night, then there are of course a lot of drinks.
What's on your iPod?
I haven't listened to anything on my iPod for a year, I think. I do listen to music on my computer. It's just I always keep forgetting my iPod. I listen to Russian dance music, or foreign dance music. Something like techno.
What are you driving these days? What do you wish you could drive?
I am driving a Mercedes Benz CLS 55. And this is my dream car that I have now. I dreamt about this car for a long time. And now I bought it.
Do you race?
Not really. I can drive fast when there is no snow.
Finally, what do you enjoy most about hockey?
When I play with my brother and scores goals, or give passes to him and he scores goals.
Dmitry Chesnokov is a writer for Puck Daddy and a journalist for Sovietsky Sport.