Gonchar’s great chance

Savvy D-man recalls Nagano; talks Nichushkin, Sochi

27.11.2013
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Sochi would be Gonchar's fifth straight Olympic Games. Photo: Jani Rajamaki / Europhoto-Finland

VANCOUVER – Few players get to participate in five Olympic hockey tournaments, but Sergei Gonchar of the Dallas Stars may get that chance on home ice in Sochi. At age 39, it’ll almost certainly be the Russian veteran’s last shot at Olympic gold.

Gonchar is the only Russian to have played in all four Olympics featuring full NHL participation.

A 2009 Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Gonchar owns medals from both the Olympics (1998 silver, 2002 bronze) and World Championships (2007 bronze, 2010 silver). He is the all-time points leader among active NHL defencemen, and will likely overtake Börje Salming (787 points) for 16th place overall this season.

Dallas is Gonchar’s fifth NHL club. He signed a two-year, $10-million contract with the Stars on June 8, and the team expects to see him providing leadership as well as his trademark puck-moving skills. IIHF.com caught up with Gonchar in Vancouver recently.

How do you feel about your play so far this year?

It’s getting better. With me, there’s always an adjustment period when I get to a new team. As you can see, this year was the same. I didn’t have a good start. Maybe having a two-year deal makes it an easier transition for me. At the same time, I don’t really think about it in terms of a one- or two-year deal. It’s more about thinking about the game, preparing yourself, making sure you’re ready when the game starts.

You went from one of the coldest cities in the NHL in Ottawa to one of the hottest in Dallas.

It’s a good experience. You get used to the sun very quickly. You realize you’re spoiled when you’re on the road, let’s say, and you’re in Vancouver and it’s raining outside! [laughs] We’re fortunate to be there and have nice weather all the time. It was a little hot in training camp, and it took me some time to adjust, because I’ve never played in a climate like that. But it was a good adjustment.

Looking ahead to Sochi, what would it mean to you to be part of the Russian team?

Obviously it would be a great honour. As you know, this will be the first time that Russia will host the Winter Olympics. It’s going to be one of the biggest events in the history of our country. So it’s a huge thing for us. The whole country is doing everything to make sure that it’s going to be one of the better Olympics out there. They’re working hard and preparing. Hockey is a big part of our life back home. So if I’m going to be part of it, it’ll be something really special, playing for our hockey team in front of our home crowd. Competing for a medal is something that, I’m sure, every player is looking forward to.

What’s been your best experience in international hockey so far?

I would say Nagano 1998. We got a silver medal. We played in the finals. Back then, we didn’t have much success on the international level. Nobody expected anything out of us. Then we surprised everybody by going to the finals and competing for the gold. It was really special back then. So it’s probably still the highlight of my international career.

Pavel Bure just had his jersey retired here in Vancouver, and he really put on a show in Nagano.

Yeah. We played against Finland in the semi-final and he scored five goals in that game. He was the captain. Not only did he play well on the ice, but he was also a good leader in the locker room. The team played well because we had a good group, and he kind of helped to make sure that the guys were getting along well with one another.

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov was part of the coaching staff at your first two Olympics, and you played for him at the 2000 IIHF World Championship and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. What are his biggest strengths as a coach?

His biggest thing is that he has the experience of working in different leagues. As you know, he was in the NHL for a while as an assistant coach, so he knows that part of the game. And he has a lot of experience as a coach back home, winning on the international level at the World Championships. When you put those things together, you have very good experience. The guy has a lot of knowledge. I have to give him credit: he’s probably one of the hardest-working guys, preparing himself every night for every game with video and lots of homework that people don’t see.

Canada took advantage of the small ice at the Olympics here in Vancouver. Will the big ice give Russia an advantage in Sochi?

Definitely. If you think about it, Canada did have an advantage, and going back home and playing on the bigger rink, we’re going to have more experience with that than they are. At the same time, they’re going to have a lot of great players, and great players usually have the ability to adjust to anything. You have to make sure you prepare yourself for every game. You’re not thinking about advantages or disadvantages. You just go out there and make sure you’re ready, because when the puck drops, you’re going to face a lot of good players. Not just from the Canadian team. If you look at any roster nowadays, all the teams will have great players. Every minute you have to be ready to play.

There’s a perception that while Russia has amazing forwards and some top-notch goalies, you also have some weaknesses on defence.

The way I look at it, Russia has always had a great team. If you look at us, all our big success obviously came with great players, and if you look back at our history, we’ve had a lot of them. But at the same time, we always played well system-wise and always had a good team spirit. That’s what we have to think about going into Sochi. It’s a short tournament. It doesn’t matter how strong you are individually. If you have a good team out there, playing as a team, with guys helping one another, you have the advantage. So I think that’s what we have to focus on, not whether we’re good this way or that way. We all know what we have to do. Success only comes with the best team out there, not the best individuals.

Talk about your first visit to Sochi.

This summer was my first time. They took us there for a mini-camp for a few days. We walked around and looked at the city, the facilities, the rink. We looked at the village and all that stuff. When we were there, obviously there was a lot of construction going on. I don’t think it was as nice as it’s going to be during the Olympics when everything’s finished. But it’s a nice place. It’s on the Black Sea. There are palm trees and stuff like that. You don’t really expect to have the Winter Olympics in a city like that. But at the same time, you drive up in the mountains and see snow. Then you can sense the Olympic Games.

When you were in Pittsburgh, you helped Yevgeni Malkin get comfortable with the North American lifestyle. Here in Dallas, what are you doing to help 18-year-old rookie Valeri Nichushkin on and off the ice?

I’ve helped him with the simple things. Everything is new to him. The hockey is a little bit quicker and the rink is smaller. You’re adjusting to a lot of things, like the language. I’m trying to help him with translation, telling him how things work and what he needs to do to prepare himself. He does a great job learning by himself too. He’s pushing himself to learn the language. He’s living with an American family. I think he’s doing well.

Nichushkin looks like Malkin at times. Do you see similarities?

To a certain extent. But he’s a different kind of player. He has the ability to be one of those players, similar to Alex [Ovechkin] and Yevgeni [Malkin]. He just has a little different style. He can be at that level, scoring as much and being as good as those guys. At the same time, he uses his body a little more, protecting the puck a little more. Him being 18 but already being so big and strong gives him that advantage. He’s taking advantage of it.

What do you think of Yevgeni Kuznetsov, who hails from your hometown of Chelyabinsk?

I’ve seen him playing during the lockout and during some international tournaments on TV. But personally, I don’t know him that well. He played really well back home. He had an injury this year but he’s recovering and doing well again. It’s tough for me to say a lot about him, but it seems like he has a lot of potential.

When you look around the NHL, there are guys who continue to play well into their 40’s, like your teammate Ray Whitney and New Jersey’s Jaromir Jagr. How much longer would you like to play?

To be honest with you, it’s hard to predict. As long as I’m healthy and enjoying the game every time I’m out there, I will continue to play. I have that feeling so far. I don’t know how long that’ll be, but so far, it’s been a great ride for me and I’d like to continue to enjoy that.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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