Among the many hockey fans eagerly anticipating the arrival of the latest Russian phenom Evgeny Kuznetsov, count Dave Bidini.
An accomplished musician, author, film-maker and all-around hockey nut, Bidini documented the life and trials of a young Kuznetsov 10 years ago in the film “Hockey Nomad.” Tracking the trevails of a 12-year-old Kuz and his struggling family, Bidini offers a portrait of a young “Zenia” as an unusually mature, yet uncertain pre-teen with one skate in an NHL future and the other in his hard-scrabble youth.
If you haven’t read “Tropic of Hockey“, do so right now. In the meantime, the second of our two-part interview with Canadian polymath Bidini. Today: young Kuznetsov’s emerging talents , and how they might manifest in the NHL.
As a side note, we all may get to see Kuznetsov sooner than later. Now in the U.S., Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates – who described meeting Kuz for the first time like “seeing the Loch Ness monster) – hints the 21-year-old may hit the ice as early as Monday, when the Caps face off against the stinking Pens.
PuckBuddys: What does hockey mean in Russia compared to what it means in Canada or the northern US?
Dave Bidini: Well I would say, as it is in Canada, there are differences between the country and the city. But certainly in a place like Omsk – and we were in other places like Kazan, where it’s huge, it’s everything and those are long, cold winters in those places – I think in Moscow, St. Petersburg to a point, some of the bigger cities, soccer is the rising giant.
And there are other games and other sports that compete for the young athletes interest. But in the smaller places, it was like being in central Saskatchewan where you’d find these huge pads of ice and hundreds of kids playing, so it’s huge. And I also think, from Sochi, as hockey being a nationally-defining game still; and Putin or Ovechkin saying (it cost) $51 billion dollars to win the gold medal in hockey, so yeah, its a big deal.
PB: I remember a section of the film with a bunch of hockey moms kvelling back and forth. Are Russian hockey moms basically like Canadian hockey moms?
Yeah, we were so happy to find them and to realize that it’s universal, right? Same concern, same kind of mother instincts and same politics – this kid’s getting played more than my kid – so that was a real beautiful moment to draw out the similarities between the two, between our hockey culture here in Canada and parts of the northern states and how it’s reflected in the same way over way.
I mean, I don’t know if you know this, but back to Zenia – we lost touch with him for a long time and then I turned on the World Juniors on the TV, it was a preliminary game, early-round, and Gordon Miller from TSN was talking about Kusnetsov. And I could tell immediately by the stride that it was Zenia. And so I emailed Gordon about the whole story, and he went to talk to him after the game.
He said: ‘Do you remember…’ And he was like ‘Oh yeah, I still remember those guys, say Hi from me to them’ and so I can’t wait for him to get to North America, and have a little reunion with him or whatever. [Ed note: we spoke with Bidini on Friday, just one day before Zenia’s arrival in the US.]
What a great young man he is. I’m sure he’s going to do really well because he’s not like…the league, the NHL, is lousy with young Russian prospects who’ve come over here, and they’re just not ready.
Zenia is going to be mature enough, I think, to play – I realize the KHL is different from the NHL – but I think he’s going to do well, I really do.
PB: Did you get a sense in Russia that older players mentored younger ones? Because there’s a sense that Ovi is ready to take this kid under his wing and mentor him. Did that exist in Russia that you saw?
I know Oleg Tverdovsky was kind of a veteran dude on the [hockey team] Avant-Garde…well, Jagr was there, but he’s Czech. But Tverdovsky was seen as quite involved with the younger players and the younger teams. Whether he had one-on-one with Zenia I’m’ not sure, but that was 10 years ago so I’m not sure whether there is in fact a mentoring culture. But actually, I’m not even sure that’s the case in Canada.
I mean, junior hockey is junior hockey – there’s not really a lot of crossover. And I’m sure Zenia is going to have to deal with a lot of what every rookie player is going to have to deal with. I mean, any bitterness among veterans; although the Caps have always struck me, with Brooks Laich and other guys, it seems like a fairly good group of players. I mean even at the worst of times, they don’t really implode. You don’t really hear of anything terribly political coming out of that dressing room. Whether he’s mentored by Alexander Ovechkin, whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know…
PB: Although Ovi has really grown in the role of Captain…
Yeah, I’d agree. And I think he’s an evolving athlete and person, and again; you go back to Sochi. In other years, if other players had been involved in that kind of shit show, there would have been a lot of complaining, a lot of bashing of the coach and the system, blah, blah, blah.
Ovechkin just came back and started playing hockey. And when we talked to him, about Dima as a kid, he had his shit together back then. If he maybe insulates Zenia; but again, I don’t think, Zenia’s not going in there too green. He’s going in with his eyes wide open. And I think, he’s a kid, right?
I was trying to think of the player he reminded me most of. And the player who he evokes is Keith Primeau. You know, tall, rangy, but quitely powerful kind-of player? Strong defensively? I mean, Primeau had to leave hockey ultimately, but yeah.
It speaks a lot for him that they’re willing to drop him into the fucking heat of a playoff run, so yeah!
PB: A playoff run where they’re desperately needing…
PB: What are your thoughts about the Russian system of paying to move young players off to other teams and cities?
Yeah…It does exist to a point here in junior hockey in Canada, where you will find kids taken from their home to go play abroad. I think it’s very unhealthy.
Morgan Rielly who plays defense for the Leafs; he went to Notre Dame, then Saskatchewan, then Moose Jaw, when he was, what, 14? He spent the better part of his youth living away from home, staying with strange families, and I don’t think it’s good. That one percent, sure, they’ll be able to fight through it. But a kid at that age; they’re lonely, and plunged into this dubious environment.
There’s sort of a quiet movement afoot here in Canada, at least in Toronto, to try and revive a varsity league for midget-aged kids. So instead of having to go elsewhere to play…I mean, Wendel Clark is actually trying to make this happen, he was telling me about it. He dropped his kid off at school, and not having to drive 20 miles to a rink to play in his competitive league. I mean, if they can somehow figure out a way to get that happening in neighborhoods, between schools, I mean, you’re going to drop the kid off and know he’s going to be there.
PB: So how do you see him fitting in to the NHL?
Well, it depends what sort of role they have carved for him. But I think he’s an intelligent enough player; he’s not a dangler, he’s not a sniper. He’s not Kovalchuk. He’s not that kid that you put on the ice and you expect him to wire three pucks for every game. He’s a good citizen of the game, so I think he’s going to be fine. And again, because you’ve got Ovechkin there, he’s not the meal-ticket.
I think you can plug him in and he’s going to be fine, however Adam Oates uses him. But I think he can do a lot of things. He’s a great skater, and if he scores, that’s a bonus. But I think he’s going to be fine.
Post script: We’ll be at the Verizon Center Monday, in our home section of 406, as eagerly awaiting Zenia star turn as Dave Bidini, and everyone else is. Stop by and say hi. And thanks again to Dave for the time. We can’t wait to hear his thoughts at the end of the season on what 10 years have meant for young Kuznetsov.