[dropcap font=”0″]I[/dropcap] grew up on Harry Chapin and a lyric of his that stayed with me was “Old friends, they mean much more to me than a new friend. ‘Cause they can see where you are, and they know where you’ve been.” When one of those old friends reaches out, one that credits (or blames) my family for his blue blood, you listen. He’d been through our version of “Stu Hart’s Dungeon” style Leaf Training at my house. He was raised up a Leaf there. He knows the bloodlines and how we like our hockey players with character.
Leafs in the day, Centre 200 in Sydney, Nova Scotia in the night. Back then it was the Cape Breton Oilers of the AHL that brought me there. My cousin Paul was the radio guy. Always there for warm up, leaning over the glass talking at guys, trying to be a part of it all. When we (Yes, “we”) won the League title in 1994, I jumped over the boards, onto the ice and nobody cared. I hugged and tossled at the sweaty hair of Playoff MVP Bill MacDougall after his 42 point in 17 game run. I shared a moment with the player I felt closest to, Shaun Van Allen, I’ll have forever. Then I celebrated with the team afterwards and put my lips to the Calder Cup. Although then GM and now AHL president Dave Andrews didn’t let me take a swig, being I was 13 at the time. It was okay, I had my own flask. Remember, this is a Maritime story.
After the AHL moved its East Coast franchises it wasn’t long after that the QMJHL came to town. As much as I loved the Oilers, there was a different bond formed to the new kids in town called the Screaming Eagles. My cousin Paul the broadcaster was now Paul the Team President, so there was that little bit extra invested in their success. But that relationship was only a small part of it, it was always about being a familiar face in the crowd. I remember the heart break of being upset by Chicoutimi in Round 1 while Marc Andre Fleury watched from the bench after being returned from Pittsburgh, in a season we were expected to challenge for the Memorial Cup. I remember after that going out and getting Luc Bourdon with the hopes he would put us over the top only to fall short. Quite frankly I remember moment about being a hockey fan growing up in Cape Breton Island. For the purposes of this story it’s not necessarily my memories that are important, it’s my recollection of the Cape Breton hockey fan itself. Our values, what we expect. That’s why I’m sharing a piece of my past, because I can speak for them. I know the fans “Down Home” as well as anyone.
The Cape Breton fan has been forged over time from the spirit of its steel workers, its fisherman, and its coal miners. Their philosophies on life carried over into their views at the rink. Gifted goal scorers like Dan Currie or Kim Issel could find themselves booed if their effort didn’t match their ability. The Capers never accept being shorted on try. Guys like Kirk Maltby, Denis Bonvie and Fabian Joseph were adored for laying everything on the line every shift. East Coasters appreciate skill and quality hockey, but you’d better bring more to the table than what God gave you. So when one of my old buddies who’d received his hockey education at our supper table messaged me out of the blue about a player he had come across while working in his field of production, this time with junior hockey, he had me at “Hello.” Jason, my friend, said there was a rookie with the Eagles, this was before any of the draft talk, and he had to let his old buddy all about him. When he said his name and that he couldn’t speak English I first thought how is this 17 year old goal scoring, Russian born winger turning into the most popular hockey player on the Island? I had to find out for myself and I’ve been following him all year long. Didn’t take much time until I learned his secret. Evgeny Svechnickov was becoming the pride of Cape Breton hockey by simply being himself.
Svechnikov arrived in Montreal last summer to train in a brand new land. The fact we are here talking with him just a few short months later should speak volumes about the young man. The original plan for our interview was to relay questions through the Eagles and then Evgeny would answer. It wasn’t long before that plan went by the wayside and ended up just the two of us talking it up in what I must say was as enjoyable a conversation I’ve had with any hockey player. Was his English broken? Sure, a little bit, but his charismatic and genuine humble nature shone through. Despite the obstacles he faced this season, Svechnikov had 32 goals in 55 games as rookie with 46 helpers to go with it. He was also +19 on a .500 team, proving further his positive impact on the ice this year. I wanted LeafsHub.com to get to know Evgeny, just in case he slips to 24 and Toronto gets the steal of the 2015 draft. I also wanted you all to read about a fine person, another story of a good guy in hockey.
Jude: You had a strong season with the Screaming Eagles. How would you describe the year?
Evgeny Svechnikov: Oh it was a great season getting to come here. The people of Cape Breton were amazing and made me feel so welcome. The coaches were so nice to me and taught me so much. I just loved living here and playing hockey for this team. Everyone has been so good to me.
J: It had to be difficult coming to North America, no English (on the coast of Canada where we don’t even speak English half the time) and a new style of hockey to learn?
ES: Yes, it was tough not knowing the language or anything and having to learn so much, but I’ve enjoyed it too. It was a hard decision to leave home but I knew it was what would be best for me and my family and I am very happy that I made the choice to play here. I wanted to get used to the NHL type game and the Quebec league is very, very, good hockey.
J: I’m sure that learning curve off the ice was extreme and it’s amazing how well you can communicate now, since arriving only last summer. But as for on the ice, what have you needed to work on?
ES: I feel like now I understand the game better, what to do on the ice. Where to be. I want to keep getting stronger. I am figuring out to keep my game simple over here and when to make certain plays. I want to be a good player all over the ice and not make turnovers but still take the puck to the net and make chances. Taking it into the slot, things like that. I like to try and create scoring but I’m learning the right times.
J: Your big frame and skillset look transferable from junior to pro, you have NHL make up by all accounts. Are you still figuring out how to use your size?
ES: Definitely, yes. I try to protect the puck with my body more now and along the boards. I am seeing that if I control and take care of the puck, a play or a shot can open up. I like to try and use my strength and be a good strong player when I don’t have the puck too. I can be more physical and like to work in the corners. I love the game over here and think it fits me well if I keep trying hard and pushing to get better by working out and stuff like that.
J: You mention being a good fit in a different sense, but you also brought up pushing yourself. I’ve talked to a few around the team and the message is the same, “Evgeny is always in the gym.” Even after your best performances you are closing the team facilities. Where does your work ethic come from? Did your coaches oversees instill that or is it more a family trait?
ES: Not so much the coaches I had, it’s my parents for sure. It’s been a tough life at times and we’ve had some tough situations, but my parents always set a good example for me and now I am doing this for them. I am over here just focused on hockey every day. That is my job and I want to make everyone proud who has helped me, but mostly my parents. I just put all my energy to hockey because I was taught to work hard and do my best for the team whose sweater I wear. For the fans, everyone, hockey is my job and I always do the best I can.
J: Let’s pretend that sweater you next put on is a Maple Leafs one on June 26th. What do you say about the pressure that will come in a place like Toronto? (This was easily the best part of our talk. The sincerity and lightheartedness in his voice was great.)
ES: (Svechnikov chuckles) Why does everyone ask me that (chuckles again, to the point we both have a good one)? It’s just hockey, you know? I love playing and that’s all I care about. I don’t pay attention to any of that, I go and work and that’s all I control. For me it’s so much fun and I’m so excited to have a good year next year in Cape Breton or wherever I go. I can think even more about the game only now that I’m more comfortable. I would love to play for a team like Toronto someday and the pressure doesn’t bother me. This is not really pressure, its hockey and I enjoy it.
J: Watching the NHL now, is there a player perhaps from your homeland you watch or you can be compared to?
I like lots of players in the NHL. The Russians in the league now I like most all of them. Datsyuk, I like his whole game. People say I’m like Malkin (Svechnikov lets out another big laugh. It’s clear he’s very humble and did not mean to compare himself to Gino). I am not saying I am like him but we are both around the same size and maybe look the same on the ice. He’s probably my favorite player though, yeah.
J: So touching on the Russian aspect, anyone drafted now from your native land is asked about the KHL. You came here to play in the QMJHL, showing me that you’re committed to this side of the globe. Could you discuss if there’s a chance you would play in the K?
ES: There’s no turning around. I left and I’m here now with no regrets or looking back. I’m doing this for me because it’s my dream to play in the NHL and I want to make a good life for my family too. That’s all that matters to me and this is where I will always want to be. I hope I can keep learning and learning and when I’m ready I can become a good player in the NHL. That is my dream. The NHL is my only dream.
It’s hard to believe Svechnikov arrived here less than a year ago. Though his answers maybe shorter I hope his candor and likeability came across. This may be an example of the words above not doing justice to the conversation. I can’t say enough about how engaging and sincere he was. Good hearted is the term that comes to mind. It’s echoed by every Caper I talk to who’s had experience around him, either by watching on the ice or spending time with off, the story is the same. Everybody Loves Evgeny.
Time and time again when a prospect is asked about being drafted, Evgeny answered the same, we hear “dream come true”. The emotions that come along with having a chance to play in the NHL and all the wonderful things that come with it for these deserving young men. I couldn’t even imagine. For a select few though, like Svechnikov, the dream can provide a new reality for not only him, but his loved ones. We didn’t delve into specific details but it was clear Svechnikov hasn’t had anything handed to him. He’s motivated by a different animal, one that pushes him daily. Evgeny plays the game of hockey not only because he loves it, which he clearly does, but he plays the game not just for himself, but to create a better way of life for his family someday.
As we come up on the June 26th and the Draft we find ourselves focused on this skill or that ranking and we can forget the human side. Evgeny Svechnikov reminded me of that. He reminds me of the preciousness of the opportunity the draft eligible player have and the work that goes into taking advantage of it. I don’t have to tell you about his great hands and his big accurate shot to match up with his big body. I don’t need to tell you anything about what he does on the ice. He has all the tangible tools and that’s not all. This is the kind of young man Toronto need desperately. Youth with tremendous skill who will give you everything because they aren’t just playing for themselves. They are playing for their family, and they are playing for you and me, and they are playing for pride. Through not only his immense talent and stature, but through his will, determination, and even his bravery in facing the challenges he has, you will hear the last name Svechnikov called out in the 1st round of this year’s NHL Entry Draft.
I need to thank both him and my old friend who started me on this story, for bringing me back to a simpler time in my own life. Cheering from the stands in my homeland. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more than choked up a couple times writing this, thinking about my days around those Cape Breton teams. And I’ll promise you all something. He may not be born and bred in Ontario, but if this kid is good enough for the fans in Cape Breton who expect nothing less than everything you’ve got, then he’s good enough for us members of Leafs Nation.
My note to Maple Leafs brass, though I have a feeling I don’t need to tell them what they already know, if available at 24 you do the Road Runner to the podium and you select yourself a working class hero in Evgeny Svechnikov.