UFA – Playing through pain in 2012, Nikita Kucherov couldn't fully shine. This time around, his only wish is to transform last year's silver into gold.
His chances of playing in Ufa seemed marginal. He'd had a heavy shoulder injury that he got in last year's tough Subway Super Series with the Canadian junior leagues' all-star teams. He'd had an operation in the summer – it did not allow him to prepare for the season properly.
In August, he signed a rookie contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning and left for the USA. He went on the ice for the first time only in October. Nevertheless, Russian head coach Mikhail Varnakov invited him to try out for the national team.
"Kucherov skipped all the pre-season preparation. He didn't lay the foundation on which the house is built afterwards. His chances to play in Ufa exist only in theory," said Varnakov in November, after Kucherov came back from the United States. The Russians had won their six-game series against the Canadian junior all-stars.
Kucherov wasn't invited once to these games. However, he recovered from his operation and performed for the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts, earning 10 (3+7) points in six games.
His career started in a Moscow hockey school called Belye Medvedi (“White Bears”), which was an honourary name for Red Army's captain Boris Mikhailov. Nikita, with his namesake Gusev, scored in bunches and became successful for the KHL teams. They were invited to Dynamo Moscow, but they chose CSKA Moscow instead.
But at first, there was Krasnaya Armia Moscow (“Red Army”), the junior team of CSKA Moscow. In 2009/2010, Kucherov had 56 (29+27) points in 58 games. The next year, he was fantastic – 51 games, 71 (32+39) points and +49.
Kucherov missed the decisive matches of the Kharlamov Cup, the main trophy of Russia’s major junior league MHL, but he was invited to the national U18 team.
In the U18 World Championship in Germany, he surprised everyone, becoming the best scorer and having 21 (11+10) points in seven matches. That was the all-time record for U18 Worlds, which started in 1999. Kucherov scored more than Grigorenko and Yakupov – much higher players in the ranking. In the semi-finals, the Russians lost to Sweden and settled for bronze.
It seemed that after his return from Dresden, Kucherov was on his way to stardom, but after he played great in exhibition games for CSKA, paired with his friend Gusev, he could not make the main team. And he was no longer eligible for the junior team.
Last November, Nikita joined the U20 national team for the Super Series in Canada against the All-Star Teams of the OHL, QMJHL and WHL. They performed well, but he hurt his shoulder, and the injury was diagnosed incorrectly.
At the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship in Calgary, Kucherov played through pain and showed his best qualities. In the final, after he lost the puck, Mika Zibanejad scored the golden goal. Russia, after the triumph in Calgary in 2011, had to settle for silver.
At the end of the tournament, it was clear that Kucherov would need a surgery.
“I was told the shoulder is fine, that I could play, but it was wrong all the way,” commented Kucherov.
In the summer, Kucherov was drafted by Tampa Bay and left the KHL. The Lightning paid for his surgery and he recovered only in the autumn.
So why did Varnakov invite Kucherov to the World U20? Because Kucherov can change the course of the game by himself. Varnakov, though, did not give him any guarantees in terms of playing time.
“Let's see how he shows his skills in exhibition games; then we decide if he goes to Ufa,” said Varnakov when the camp started.
And he showed all he got! He scored against an MHL All-Star Team – Red Stars – and in an exhibition game against Switzerland (when the Russians prevailed 7-5). Varnakov had 4 (2+2) points. His place in the squad was assured.
Varnakov put him on the second line with Grigorenko – his partner from the Red Army days – and Anton Slepyshev from Metallurg Novokuznetsk.
“I have bronze from U18, silver from U20, now I am desperate to have a gold medal in Ufa,” proclaimed Kucherov.
He started well scoring Russia’s opening goal in the overtime win over Slovakia.