It was almost a mirror image of Kucherov’s goal in the previous game against Austria, with Gusev supplying the defence-splitting feed after Kucherov’s drop-off. In the same game, the pair combined to create Yevgeni Dadonov’s opening goal on a first-period power play, while a Kucherov feed created Gusev’s goal against Norway in Russia’s first game. Not surprisingly, this was the combination that had people talking. The scoring form has continued. After Russia’s fifth game of the tournament, Saturday’s early encounter with Latvia, Kucherov had 12 (4+8) points with Gusev close behind on 9 (3+6). That scoring power has put Russia out in front in Group B, unbeaten in five and looking well-placed to push for medals this year.
Yet this was a partnership that was first forged far from the pressure cooker environment of a World Championship. After the Czech game, Gusev spoke of a chemistry between him and Kucherov that went back to their childhoods.
“When we were kids, we never dreamed we would play together for Russia, we just tried to get better and see where that took us. But even today, we’ve lost none of that early connection. We basically play the game in the same way, we understand each other. It’s always easy to play with Nikita.”
Back when they were kids, they were learning their game at the Belye Medvedi (Polar Bears) sports school in Moscow’s northern suburbs, where the main road to St. Petersburg meets the city’s outer beltway. It’s an unprepossessing dormitory region, dominated by apartment blocks and the thunder of traffic heading to and from the airport. But it was also where coach Gennadi Kudrin spotted the potential in these youngsters. Under his guidance the two Nikitas helped Belye Medvedi reach the podium in two Russian championships for their age group – but in an interview with KHL.ru last season he explained how not everyone was convinced by his young charges.
“My colleagues were quite open about it,” he said. “They would ask straight out why I was bothering with Gusev, Kucherov and the rest. They didn’t see any prospects for them.
“Don’t forget that our hockey was very different 10-15 years ago – there was grappling and fighting all over the ice. Clubs valued, big strong guys and argued that our hockey needed this type of player, and they would always be in demand in the NHL. My boys were not part of that, because I’ve always liked players who fit into the traditions of Soviet hockey – cunning, quick thinking. I’m almost certain that if Gusev had gone to one of the big Moscow clubs, he wouldn’t have been given a chance.”
Indeed, when Kucherov and Gusev went to CSKA, they struggled to break into the KHL. At youth level, they impressed, helping Krasnaya Armiya win Russia’s MHL youth league in 2011 and get back to the final the following year. But opportunities were limited on the senior team and both moved on. Kucherov crossed the Atlantic, built his reputation in Quebec and went on to the Lightning. Gusev stayed in Russia, working his way to prominence with KHL outsiders Amur Khabarovsk and Yugra Khanty-Mansisk before joining SKA St. Petersburg and gaining international recognition.
“Everything that I know about hockey, I owe to Gennady Kudrin,” the forward said of his childhood coach. “Even today we’re still in touch. I don’t exactly phone him for advice, but it’s always good to chat about the game together.
“I think I was lucky to play under him. He taught us all to play quick, smart hockey and I think I’ve carried some of that with me to this day.”
Meanwhile, the Polar Bears may soon be celebrating another one of their own appearing for the Russian national team at the highest level. Vasili Podkolzin, the first 2001-born player to appear in the KHL, began his career at Belye Medvedi before following coach Kudrin to Vityaz. Draft eligible in 2019, he made his debut with SKA St. Petersburg earlier this year and collected medals at the U18 and U20 World Championships.