Russia’s 2014 hero desires fresh glory this May
Two years ago, the shaggy-haired, Riga-born winger shook off the disappointment of Russia’s quarter-final exit at the Sochi Olympics and led his nation to gold at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Belarus. He won the scoring title with a dazzling 16 points in 10 games. Last year, he also captured a silver medal with Russia at the Worlds in the Czech Republic.
This season, not everything has gone according to plan for the 27-year-old, who is the grandson of legendary Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov. Coming off a Gagarin Cup victory in 2015 with the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg, he intended to quest for the Stanley Cup in his return to the NHL with the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. Instead, Tikhonov went pointless in 11 games in the Windy City, and was claimed on waivers by the Arizona Coyotes, the club with whom he played his only previous NHL season in 2008/09.
We recently caught up with Tikhonov and talked about family life, his hockey memories, and the possibility of him finishing this season on a high at the Worlds in Moscow (6-22 May).
Congratulations on the birth of your daughter. How does it feel to become a father for the second time?
Thanks a lot! Well I was not as nervous this time as I was when my first kid was born. My wife and my little daughter did a great job. They were amazing and handled it very well. Everything is great now, and we are very happy. I miss them a lot, though, when we are on the road. It gives me extra motivation and inspiration. When you know there is a little girl waiting for you, it feels amazing! I want to play for them. I want them to be proud of what I’m doing. The bigger the family the more you try [laughs].
You began your NHL career with Wayne Gretzky as your coach in 2008/09. Looking back, what are your strongest memories of “The Great One”?
I can only think of positive moments! It’s impossible to describe what I felt back in 2008 working with Gretzky. You are on the ice having a practice or a morning skate, and everybody is listening to the coach who is showing something on the board. But you cannot really follow because you are processing that Wayne Gretzky is standing right in front of you, “The Great One” himself! You lose your sense of reality and cannot concentrate. You listen to him but you do not understand what is going on because when it comes down to doing exercises, you have no idea what to do [laughs].That was a great experience for me. Not the part I just mentioned, I mean the overall experience (smiling). I would like to work with him again. Too bad he is not coaching now.
Artemi Panarin has had a tremendous season in Chicago. How much credit can he take for Patrick Kane leading the NHL in scoring?
They complete each other. Artemi helps Patrick a lot, and Patrick pays him back. When you watch the highlights of Chicago’s games, you can see that first Patrick assists Panarin and then Artemi sets up Kane perfectly. They are a perfect match. When they play against you and start moving the puck smoothly, they are unstoppable! We look like clowns [laughs]. Yes, it’s just like in football when you play against FC Barcelona! That is a good comparison.
Looking back at your earlier KHL days, in 2009/10, you wound up with very unusual scoring totals with Severstal Cherepovets: 14 goals and one assist. What happened that season? Did you shoot the puck all the time?
Well they stole a few assists from me. I was pretty mad about it [laughs]! Honestly, there should have been at least three assists. But yes, I agree, that statistics wise it was a weird season. I was on the line with Nikolai Bardin and Vadim Shipachyov, and they created so many great chances for me. Nobody would understand if I missed the net. The boys did most of the work for me.
You’ve gone to two straight World Championship finals under coach Oleg Znarok. What are his biggest strengths as a coach?
Oleg Znarok is a real man [smiles]. He is the kind of guy you wanna fight for! He treats you with respect. He helps you deal with emotions. He is like a father to me. Znarok is an amazing coach. I can go to war with him, and I’m ready to do a lot for him.
After his trip to North America, Znarok said a lot of positive things about you, mentioning that he still believes in you. Are you expecting to be on the roster for the World Championship in Russia?
I was so happy after talking to Znarok. Like, extremely happy! I started to look at a number of things from a positive side. My motivation went up. I do realize that the season hasn’t gone as planned, but when the head coach of your national team tells you everything is fine...well, it gives you wings! It really does!
Two years later, what lessons do you think the Russian national team has learned from what happened in Sochi?
Of course, we expected a different result. There was a lot of pressure and we didn’t handle it very well. It was a tough loss against Finland. One game and you are out of the whole tournament. We have to be better as a team. That is the main lesson because we have great individual players. Our roster was one of the best, but we just could not find our pace.
It was 30 years ago that the Soviet Union, under your grandfather, won the gold medal in Moscow. What would it mean to you to be part of a gold medal team this year?
I believe all the Russian players are secretly thinking about it [laughs]. But statistics are not what is really important, to be honest. The team should be ready to give it all in every single period. We will have to pay attention to tiny details. That sounds cliche, but it is true.
– with files from Alex Govorov
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