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Author: Artur Bigeev  (Magnitogorsk Press)
Translated By: Eugene Belashchenko
Date: 09/02/2007
Nikolai Kulemin (Toronto Maple Leafs): There can only be one goal in Magnitogorsk - to be #1

2007 Russian Super League

Nikolai Kulemin (Toronto Maple Leafs) was Magnitogorsk’s best sniper last season and chose to remain with the club for another year, so to help it earn the title of the European champion and also to repeat last year’s success in the Super League.   He spoke about this and many other things in his interview with  Magnitka Sport press agency.  

From RussianProspects.com: This is the first half of the interview, with the second half being available to RussianProspects readers in the coming weeks.

OFFSEASON

Nikolai, Metallurg has not been very consistent during the preseason. How do you evaluate the club’s success thus far?  
N. Kulemin:
We did not play with stability and had good and bad games.   Thus far the team has not yet come together as it should, as we got many newcomers on the team and they haven’t fully adapted to our system.    Some more time needs to pass before they adapt and begin to fully understand our system.

What do you think about how the newcomers look?
N. Kulemin: Right it is difficult to judge this, as all the players are preparing for the regular season. I think that the preliminary conclusions can only be made at the beginning of the regular season.  Right now it’s too early to give people grades.

Is it important for your to play well in the preseason?
N. Kulemin: Currently my primary goal is to prepare for the regular season. Of course it’s great to score in every game, but my goals are not to look good in the preseason.

2007-08 SEASON

What are you expectations from the next season?

N. Kulemin: In Magnitogorsk we always have the highest goals. We get together a strong team that must be one of the Super League leaders. Besides retaining the Super League title, this year we will also be playing the European Champions League.  Of course in both leagues we have a concrete mission – to be the best.  Other goals here in Magnitogorsk are not possible.

Do you have any particular scoring goal for this season – such as matching the number of goals you scored last season?
N. Kulemin: It’s pretty simple – the more the better! There is no reason to put numbers out there, as it largely depends on things as simple as luck, and the fact that there are a number of incentive bonuses ion my contract for each scored goal.  They also motivate me to score as often as possible.

How does the team handle the news regarding the serious reinforcements called in by some of your opposing clubs?

N. Kulemin: Overall, it is difficult to effectively put a team together.   All the efforts can backfire.   The team could not come together and each player would be trying to play for themselves. All the attention is currently on Salavat Yulayev, which has put together a very impressive team, which contains practically every strong available free agent.  They have seven lines and it’s unclear who will be playing and who will not.   I would say they have too many players who are capable of playing with any leading Super League club.  But we don’t have any kind of fear – we believe we are capable of winning against any team.

NHL


No long ago you signed a contract with Toronto and many believe that you are already a player ready for the NHL. What do you think about all this?

N. Kulemin: It’s difficult to discuss this theoretically.  I need to go over there and understand what everything is about and whether I am good enough for that level of hockey.

What are those guys telling who are currently playing in the NHL – Malkin or Ovechkin?

N. Kulemin: They like it there.   Here is the thing though – those who played in North America constantly are satisfied with everything and some are ready to play there for less money than what they could have earned in Russia.  But those who are returning here, they have a different opinion, because NHL is nothing special.   

Do you communicate often with Toronto’s officials?

N. Kulemin: Last year I stayed in touch with the club’s assistant GM, but overall most of the conversations take place through my agent.

CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON

Let’s come back to recent Championship season that was amazing for the team and for you personally.  Looking back at that victory now, why did Metallurg end up at the top?

N. Kulemin: We had a real team that was without stars. The management and coaches were able to put together good players, who played team hockey and pulled out a successful season.   Metallurg in 2007 was a very well put together team. That is why we achieved so much success.

But the beginning was hart to purposefully plan to be any worse – Malkin was lost, the team held the 15th place in the rankings.  What were the thoughts within the team at that time?
N. Kulemin: Everyone supported each other and there was no panic or a defeatist attitude.  When we were at the bottom of the rankings, we simply put goals in front of us to play it one game at a time.

What role did the coaching change have on the team? How would you have performed if Dave Kings stayed with the team?

N. Kulemin: It’s difficult to judge that now.  Overall, King put in a great effort with the team and his role in the team’s success should not be underestimated.   Little changed in our tactics and system after he left.   New coach Fedor Kanareikin should be credited with bonding us together into a single whole.

Was there a moment when you got the confidence despite the hardships of reaching first place?

N. Kulemin: We never had that kind of confidence.  We simply went out there in each game with one goal – to win.   There were some tactical goals too, as I mentioned earlier.   For example – an aim to be amongst top six clubs after 10 games, and then top for some time later…

I have to ask you about the series against Avangard.  What came to mind after you found out that you would again have to face this club in the quarterfinals?   

N. Kulemin: Of course, these were key games and it is possible that in our heads we had thoughts regarding the past years when we did not play well against this club in the playoffs .  However, I would say the deciding moment was when we won on the road.   It became a lot easier psychologically after that success on Omsk ice  We then understood that we will be able to beat Omsk.

There are some opinions that it was easier for Metallurg to play against Ak Bars than against Avangard. What do you think about that?

N. Kulemin: I would only say that Kazan had a very strong team and it was difficult to play against them.   The opionion may be out there because Omsk has been a painful club for us to play against in the past, and in the semifinals our fans wanted to see any club but Avangard.

In the finals, prior to the fourth game, you were winning the series 2:1 and were about to play on home ice.   All of the Magnitogorsk was waiting for the triumph but you lost the opportunity
to win the championship.   What happened after the loss in the locker room?
N. Kulemin: The conversation basically came down to that we must not let this chance to win the championship get away and that it’s not every season that we get such a great opportunity.  In the fifth match the Kazan club felt the pressure more than us and everyone expected only victory from them.  This in my opinion is what tied them down.

- Artur Bigeev (magsport.ru) Translated by Eugene Belashchenko

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