16th of December 2011. I am invited to attend the press conference which is going to be held at one of the hotels closest to MedveÅ¡Äakâ€™s home arena, Dom Sportova (Home Of Sports). Itâ€™s only logical since the Russian team will have to depart soon after the game to meet their demanding KHL schedule. I feel extremely honored and lucky to be able to attend because even if hockey is still a growing sport in Croatia, it was always my dream and where I live opportunities like this one donâ€™t come along very often.
15:00h I arrived at the press conference earlier than needed, something I tend to do when faced with such an important occasion, just to get a feel for everything â€“ the seating, the protocol etc. Having prepared many of my questions in advance and having done additional research on the team prior to the press conference I felt I was ready. Took a seat next to a colleague and waited for the press conference to start.
The Russian players arrived a little later than expected because they had to do the press conference immediately after landing in Zagreb and arriving to the hotel. And then, in they entered. Vyacheslav Kozlov, Slava or Kozie as I liked to call him when he played in the NHL, took a seat next to the team captain Kudashov and coach Olegs Znaroks. Next to them sat president of KHL MedveÅ¡Äak, Damir GojanoviÄ‡, coach Marty Raymond, team captain Alan Letang and forward Frank Banham.
When Slava first entered the room you could immediately see the class of the player and most importantly, the man. Everyone was slightly edgy, after all three languages (Croatian, Russian & English), three distinct cultures were about to meet. Well, everyone except Slava. He took a seat and was just so calm and poised, must be the two Stanley Cups or the countless number of interviews, press conferences one has attended after an 18 year long NHL career.
Slava was the first one to congratulate my home team on their anniversary; Slava was the first one to thank everyone in attendance for the warm welcome they received. Kozlov acted like a true professional. Because all the microphones werenâ€™t all working properly, Slava wrote down a message in Russian from all the players that were present at the press conference. It was for the cameras, it said something along the lines of thank you Zagreb, thank you Croatia. It was an act of sheer class from a 18 year NHL veteran. So, the press conference ended and we were asked if we wanted to get some one on one time with the players.
I asked about Slava, but something got lost in translation and I got no answer. We were told players communicated only in Russian which was funny because when a guy plays more than a half of his career in the NHL, in North America, how does he not communicate in English? Maybe it was a part of the KHL protocol.
Nobody talked to Kozlov, which I think is odd, and he was standing there just taking a moment and watching the press move around. I came up to him, deftly avoiding all the cameras and tapped him lightly on the shoulder. â€œSlava?â€ I asked. He slowly turned around, intrigued. â€œDo you mind doing a quick interview?â€ He said, with a still distinct Russian accent: â€œSure, letâ€™s do it.â€ and smiled.
He still looks the part, confident and well mannered; he leans in and comes very close to talk to me, part of it because he probably wants to keep the English part private, part of it because I held only a pencil and paper (the old school guy/reporter that I am), not a vast army of gizmos directly in his face. So, off starts one of the most genuine, honest and humble sportsmen I have ever had a chance to meet:
MJ Slava, how hard was it to for you to adapt to KHL hockey and back to the Russian way of life if you will, after spending so much time in the NHL?
SK â€œYou know, I spent 18 years in the NHL so leaving was hard but right now, itâ€™s more fun for me to play in KHL. In the NHL they constantly push you to skate hard, play hard, but I just want to enjoy my hockey now, you know. Itâ€™s more fun for me right now. I played with some fantastic players in the NHL but Iâ€™m at the point in my career where I want to enjoy my hockey.â€
MJ Then, would it be fair to say youâ€™re enjoying playing in the KHL more than you enjoyed the last season or two in the NHL?
SK Yes and no. NHL is still the NHL, I won 2 Cups in two years there, both with the Red Wings, but playing at home, in Russia, with my Russian friends is what I enjoy most now. Here everyone speaks Russian, it all somehow comes natural, the chemistry. I always loved playing with Russian players. Even after such a long time away from it, home is still home.
I let him talk, because I feel thereâ€™s more he really wants to say:
SK â€œYou know, sometimes in life you have to make a decision and I made a hard one. My last season I had a fight with the coach (his class is visible in the fact he didnâ€™t name names, but the coach was John Anderson), thought when I played, I played well, but we had some differences and I didnâ€™t get to play that much, also, I knew Atlanta had problems, they moved nowâ€
MJ Yes, to Winnipegâ€¦
SK â€œyeah, and it would be hard to move there because of my family, you know, kids. You know, they have school and friends and I didnâ€™t want to put them through that move. They are still in Atlanta so itâ€™s still hard. But sometimes you just have to make a choice and I made mine, for the family and for myself.â€
SK â€œMy first season in Russia I won the Gagarin Cup with Salavat so I was really happy and that convinced me it was a good decision. But itâ€™s was hard without the family. Itâ€™s all about them really.â€
Weâ€™re beginning to run out of time because the club scheduled another part of the interview with the Russian legends that used to play in Zagreb, Vyacheslav Anisin and Alexander Lysenko so if Iâ€™m going to ask him and risk sounding somewhat unprofessional it better be now:
MJ Slava, could I trouble you for one more thing?
SK Sure, what is it?
MJ I was wondering if I could get your autograph? Because, besides being a reporter, Iâ€™m also a big big fan.
He seems genuinely glad I asked him and still somewhat surprised because nobody had even talked to him before that and suddenly here I am asking for his signature. He just smiles and says: â€œGimme!â€ He smiles and signs the page in my notebook.
I shake his hand, still in awe of how honest the interview was and how forthcoming he was, realizing the autograph part was more about me wanting his signature because of him as a person than because of him being the player he is (which was pretty obvious in next dayâ€™s game), which is what I was in awe of prior to meeting him in person. He shook my hand and I just uttered â€œÑÐ¿Ð°ÑÐ¸Ð±Ð¾, Slava (Spasiba, means thank you), he smiled, tapped me on the back and we parted ways.
The next day brought the game. It was a great celebration of hockey and Dynamo really proved that Russian hockey was a dominant force in Europe. KHL president, Alexander Medvedev was also present. However, MedveÅ¡Äak were no pushovers as the game ended 6:4 in favor of Dynamo Moscow. Frank Banham scored a hattrick for MedveÅ¡Äak which brought smiles to many faces. That said, you got the feeling the Russians could have scored more if they wanted to, they controlled the game with great puck possession play.
Once again, Slava shone. He scored a wonderful 4th goal for Dynamo receiving a pass just below the blueline, skated passed two of our defensemen to get a breakaway chance and made a real veteran move on the goal. He slowed down, waited for Robert Kristan (MedveÅ¡Äakâ€™s stellar goaltender) to open the five hole and coolly slid the puck past the already committed Kristan. Even he was impressed.
After the game the crowd was entertained taking turns in chanting â€œMedveÅ¡Äak Zagreb!â€ and â€œDynamo Moscow!â€ and guess who was the first one leading his players into a sort of victory lap where they tapped the hands with and saluted all the fans. It wasnâ€™t the captain Kudashov, no it was a man who has won it all and seen it all, Slava Kozlov.
My friends, girlfriend and I took turns in retelling the game, when we stumbled onto him once again. Dynamo players were loading up their equipment just behind the building. Even so, he took the time to take pictures with all of us, individually. Slava joked about how our flash on the camera wasnâ€™t working because the battery was most probably dead. We created a small commotion when about 10 people (fans) realized who he was, or just wanted a picture with a Dynamo player, and he took pictures with all of them, all with a smile.
We said our goodbyes, now without my pencil and notebook, I just thanked him again for yesterdayâ€™s interview, my girlfriend praised his game against MedveÅ¡Äak. He smiled, said â€œThanksâ€ and they took off. Now, with my semi successful reporter mask from yesterday clearly off, I could finally smile.
My first ever one on one interview and this is what I get, a class player, but more importantly, a class individual.
Thank you Slava, I will never forget this.