QUEBEC CITY – When Belarus added all four NHL players for Monday’s tilt with Switzerland, there was lots of talk about battle-hardened warriors and talented, experienced professionals and so on.
But at the same time, when Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn show up for a photoshoot and interview with IIHF.com, it quickly becomes apparent that yes, they’re 23 and 21 respectively, and the two young Montreal Canadiens forwards from Novopolotsk aren’t averse to goofing around, at least in each other’s presence.
Fresh from a Tuesday noon-hour practice, Andrei yanks his baseball cap down over his eyes while our photographer gets ready. Then, with a big grin, he flashes rabbit ears (or was that metal horns?) over his kid brother’s head. They finally assume slightly more solemn expressions for the actual photo. After all, their team, which currently sits ninth in the IIHF World Ranking, did lose 2-1 to Switzerland the day before, and now faces a must-win game versus France to move on to the Qualifying Round.
When we sit down in the press conference room to start the interview, assisted by the official Belarus translator, management requests that we refrain from questions about Montreal’s recent playoff downfall against the Philadelphia Flyers. Is this to keep the brothers in a positive frame of mind for the 2008 IIHF World Championship, or simply because they’re sick of rehashing it with journalists from Montreal to Minsk? Either way, it’s no biggie.
The Kostitsyns aren’t the gabbiest of brother duos (they’d certainly be outyapped by Jarkko and Tuomo Ruutu, for instance, and would still lag between Henrik and Daniel Sedin at this stage), but they alternate between laughing and going back and forth at each other and contemplating certain questions with Slavic seriousness.
So how about getting to play together for the first time at this tournament? Andrei is making his first appearance at the senior Worlds dating back to 2003, and scored five points in his nation’s sixth-place finish in Riga, while 2008 is Sergei’s debut.
“We have already played together at the U20 Championship [in 2005],” says Andrei. “It’s a good feeling to do it again for our country.”
With just 3,150 registered players (350 at the senior level), the former Soviet republic of 10 million inhabitants certainly appreciates the boosts its growing hockey program gets from budding NHL stars like the Kostitsyns.
In his third year with the Habs, Andrei totaled 26 goals and 27 assists in 78 games, plus eight more playoff points. Sergei spent just 22 games with the Hamilton Bulldogs, Montreal’s AHL affiliate, compared to his brother’s 180 games with that club, before making the leap to Montreal and scoring nine goals and 18 assists in 52 games as an NHL rookie.
When they play on the same line, do they talk a lot to each other, or do they have an innate sense of where the other brother is on the ice at all times?
“We both basically talk to any partner we play with, whether he’s our brother or not,” Andrei explains. “Maybe we have a little feel for each other’s play, but it’s not much different.”
In Sergei’s last year of Canadian junior hockey with the OHL’s London Knights, he played on a line with Sam Gagner (Canada) and Patrick Kane (USA). The chemistry was fabulous. All three racked up well over 100 points in 2006-07.
“They’re both good young players and future stars,” said Sergei, adding that he’s stayed in touch with both of them. At the 2008 Worlds, Gagner is on the Team Canada reserves, while Kane, a Calder Trophy candidate, is putting up numbers with John Tortorella’s American team.
In Montreal, the club’s top forward is Alexei Kovalev, and Andrei Markov is the top defenceman. What kind of assistance do these veteran fellow Russian-speakers give to the Kostitsyns?
At this point, our interpreter can’t help laughing when she sees the oh-no, here-we-go-again expressions on the brothers’ faces.
“We hear this question very often, and it’s a difficult one to answer,” says Andrei finally. “But Kovalev helps us a lot and gives us advice often.”
Off the ice, the brothers enjoyed having their parents visit Montreal for a month late this season. “Our dad is really happy to see the two of us playing on the same team,” Andrei says.
And does it create more pressure or positive energy to have Mom and Dad on hand at the sold-out Bell Centre?
“The pressure is always there in Montreal,” Andrei says.
“I’m never nervous,” Sergei quips. “I don’t care who’s in the stands. I just play.”
Then the brothers start joshing each other about who does and doesn’t get nervous. Apparently Sergei claims Andrei does, which the older brother naturally denies. This all complicates matters for our translator. But we move on.
How about the impact that North American coaches like Glen Hanlon and Curt Fraser have had on the Belarus hockey program, which has made enormous strides since its foundation in 1992 in the post-Soviet era?
“The tactics are quite different now in comparison with what we had four or five years ago before the North Americans arrived,” Andrei states. “The changes are everywhere in both the defensive and offensive zones. Each coach has his own tactics. You just do what they tell you.”
Time for a new line of questioning to get the competitive juices flowing. Like, who skates faster?
“We never had a race together to see who’s faster, but we could go try it now,” Andrei jokes, gesturing toward the rink. (Unfortunately, this option is a no-go since the Russians and Danes would get in the way.)
How about competing with video games?
More guffaws and headshakes. “No, they don’t play at all,” our translator reports. “Andrei doesn’t like it, and neither does Sergei.”
As for their taste in movies, Andrei is a fan of comedies, while Sergei enjoys both comedies and horror movies. Andrei even claims that Sergei watched Saw IV eight times.
And yes, Habs fans, they love it in Montreal, even though the pressure is always on. “Everything is perfect,” Andrei effuses. “The city is beautiful, and the fans are crazy about hockey. It’s difficult for us to go out sometimes because of the fans. Everybody wants to say hi and get an autograph, so you can’t just hang out and relax somewhere.”
Admittedly, it’s probably more attention than they attract when strolling down the main shopping street in Minsk, Prospekt Nezavisimosti.
Meanwhile, leaving Monday’s loss to Switzerland in the past, they’re not taking any preconceived notions into the next game with struggling France. Even though Les Bleus haven’t beaten Belarus in international play since a 4-3 decision in Moscow on December 18, 1993.
“We can’t ‘expect’ anything,” says Andrei. “We just have to be ready to play. We have to score against our old goalie, Cristobal Huet. If it’s OK, maybe we can have a talk with him before the game!”
Could they score on him in practice with Montreal?
“Any way, from the left and the right,” Sergei quips. “Just as I wanted.”
We decide to wrap up by asking whether Belarus will be ready to compete for an Olympic medal by the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. (2014 is a big year for the Belarusians, as they’re also bidding to host the Worlds in Minsk that year.)
The brothers, evidently, wonder why journalists always like to ask about the remote past or distant future.
“It’s so far away, and much can change during this time,” Andrei sensibly says. “It’s difficult to make any predictions.”
And with that and a quick handshake, they’re off, two brothers in arms, ready to battle for Belarus.