|2008 Super League|
Metallurg Magnitogorsk forward Nikolai Kulemin (Toronto Maple Leafs) led his team to gold medals in the Russian championship last season by scoring 37 goals in 69 goals and setting a new club scoring record.†† In the summer, he was supposed to make his move to the National Hockey League, but continued his career in Russia as he decided that itís too early to take over the NHL at the age of 21.† The overseas debut of one of the most promising players in the country is not far away however, as the Toronto Maple Leafs are waiting for his arrival at the end of the season.† ďNovye IzvestiaĒ talked to Kulemin and found out what influenced him to stay in Russia and that he doesnít regret his decision.
Nikolai, your decision to spend the season in Russia was a pleasant surprise for many experts, especially in the light of Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins)ís departure to Pittsburgh.† Do you regret making a choice in favour of the Superleague rather than the NHL?
N. Kulemin:† No, I donít regret it.† We have an excellent team in Magnitogorsk and are going to battle for gold medals for the second year in a row.† This is not the point, though.† Itís just that everybody is free to build their life as they see fit.† I decided to stay in Russia, at a team that I owe a lot to.† We made an agreement with the Toronto management that I will spend this year at home and will begin playing in the NHL next season.
How did the Maple Leafsí general manager John Ferguson respond to your decision?
N. Kulemin:† He showed understanding for me and said that itís my choice.† Everything stays the same and my contract with Toronto is for three years.
You are now probably following your future NHL teamís progress closely?
N. Kulemin:† No, Iím focused on playing for Metallurg.† There are games every other day or every two days and itís not always enough time to recover physically.† Karjala Cup games are also coming up soon at the first stage of the Eurotour and there is just no time to follow the NHL.† Iím aware of the general information on Toronto though and know of their place in the standings.
You have achieved everything you could in Russia: gold medals, top player on the team, regular call ups to the national team...† is it getting boring for you?
N. Kulemin:† No, everything season is different.† The league is very competitive this year and every win takes a lot of hard work.†† Many guys came back from overseas: Yashin, Tverdovsky, Perezhogin, Svitov and Markov recently signed with Dynamo while Kasparaitis joined SKA.† On paper, we probably have the best league in Europe and nobody else definitely has stars like that.
Was it really easier to play last year?† From the outside looking in, it seems to be the opposite:† Metallurg is playing a lot more consistently, without any bad games, unlike last season when the team was 15th in the standings at one point.
N. Kulemin:† Itís not about the place in the standings.† A year ago we just had a bad streak and now started off the season well.† We have lost a few games, but those losses donít mean anything.† Everybody wants to win against the champions so itís easy for the opposition to motivate themselves against us.† This is why they say itís more difficult to defend a championship title rather than winning it for the first time, so in a way, we are starting everything from scratch.† Achievements and wins from the past donít interest anyone now.† Just look at the strong start by Salavat Ulaev who beat us in close games twice.††† The team in St. Petersburg also strengthened its team quiet a bit during the off-season and Dynamo is a completely different team now.† Then there are Ak Bars and Avangard who are not playing up to their potential yet.
Are you happy with your game?
N. Kulemin:† Not yet.† I can play better and be more productive just like the rest of the team.† We have goals to strive for and we are looking to be the same team that played in last seasonís playoffs when we were unstoppable.
This season you almost got a five game suspension.† In the game against Khimik, you were penalized for roughing the Moscow region teamís defenseman Andrey Mukhachev.
N. Kulemin:† Iím not making excuses for myself:† I played tough, but not rough and definitely wanít to injure the opponent.† It was a regular play.† Nils Ekman on the other hand, probably wanted to take revenge for his teammate and jumped on me from behind.† Real men donít do that.
Letís be honest though, your style of play is rather tough.† On the ice you are relentless and play with a lot of power.
N. Kulemin:† And what is so bad about that?† I donít give up on plays and finish every episode to the end.† Everyone on our team plays like that.† I think in the NHL, hockey is even tougher and more physical.† You canít lose your concentration for one second there.† I like these battles.† In Russia, many are not used to this style and are just not ready to collisions and pressure.† In the Superleague, not many forwards are effective in their own end.† Usually, the players try to take the puck away with their stick avoiding physical play.† But in Europe and America, nobody plays like that anymore.† World Championship and Olympic games are just another proof of that.
Keeping the NHL in mind, do you know what parts of your game you need to improve in order for you to prove yourself in the best league in the world?
N. Kulemin:† I have to grow as a player and get more experience.† Without a doubt itís important to keep working on my shooting, skating, technique and reading and understanding of the game...† But really, all this is done in practice whether itís a deke, a body check or a powerplay strategy.† Itís nice when you and your linemates have chemistry and you can make blind passes and know that the puck will find its recipient.† Iím fortunate that to be playing with two Czechs Jan Marek and Jaroslav Kudrna.† They are great guys and true professionals.†† The coach trusts us and we get a lot of ice time.† When your coach shows confidence in you, you canít let him down and play poorly without much effort.
Games at the Finnish stage of the Euro Tour are coming up soon, so that means that you wonít have any rest at all?
N. Kulemin:† Yes, but I donít know whatís better: practice or play.† An important tournament is ahead that we won for the first time last year.† We will try and repeat this success.† A call-up to the national team is always good news.† You get to talk to the other guys and recharge your emotions that you lost during the championship.
Are you going to think about the loss to Finland in the semi-finals during the World Championships?
N. Kulemin:† There is no point thinking about the past, especially when this team has a lot of new faces.† That game did leave a scar on my heart, though.† We were punished for one single mistake and itís very unfortunate because we played better than the Finns and should have won the game.† I guess we will have to get a mini-revenge from the Finns on their home ice.† But really, we need to pretend to the upcoming tournaments and set even higher goals ahead of ourselves.† I think we are capable of achieving them.