18 April, 16:06

NHL 1-on-1: the Sergei Gonchar you never knew

NHL 1-on-1: the Sergei Gonchar you never knew

By David Kerans

NEWARK-PHILADELPHIA-WASHINGTON (VR)— Actions speak louder than words, as the saying goes, and had you been standing in a broad corridor outside the visitors’ locker room in Newark’s Prudential Center on January 9, you would have witnessed a moment worth a thousand words.

Two New Jersey Devils, Dainius Zubrus and Anton Volchenkov, dressed in t-shirts, shorts, and running shoes, and beaming all over, came down the corridor at a run, so impatient were they to spend a bit of time with their friend Sergei Gonchar of the visiting Dallas Stars. Their enthusiasm caught us by surprise. But we got the message, and we made it a point to get to know Sergei Gonchar.

Gonchar warmup solo

                                                                                       Photo credit: © VR

Gonchar the hockey player requires little introduction, of course. A versatile and maneuverable defenseman who can quarterback a power play, kill penalties, or handle top line matchups, he has played over 1,250 regular season NHL games across 19 seasons. He has played in five NHL All-Star Games. He was the second highest scoring defenseman for the first decade of this century (behind only Niklas Lidstrom; Gonchar was actually the highest scorer among defensemen per game played, at 0.8 ppg). Twice he finished fourth in Norris Trophy balloting. Furthermore, he has represented Russia a remarkable four times in the Winter Olympic Games.

duel

Taking it on the chin for the national team at the 2007 World Championships

Photo credit © RIA Novosti, Vladimir Viatkin

Gonchar turned 40 as this season ended, but he can still contribute, and is signed for next season with Dallas. For all his achievements and fame, Gonchar has remained unmistakably modest. He doesn’t seek attention, does not do product endorsements, and does not feature prominently in league or club promotional campaigns. Consequently, Gonchar the man is not well known to the public.

Late in the NHL season we had a couple of opportunities to chat with Sergei, about how he grew up in the Urals, how he became a hockey player, how he came to North America, and how he adapted to life here. We found him very approachable, and regret we didn’t have much more time to talk. As readers will probably sense on their own, Sergei is an observant and reflective person. He has absorbed a great deal from the experience of growing up in one society (the USSR) and acculturating to a radically different one. Moreover, he is confronting the meaning of his upbringing and Russian identity on a regular basis now as he raises his children to straddle the divide between North America and Russia.

Here is our conversation, in two parts.

NHL 1-on-1: Sergei Gonchar (Part 1)

Kerans: I’d like to hear about Chelyabinsk, how you grew up, Soviet hockey. You were born in the city, in Chelyabinsk, or are you from outside the city?

Gonchar: Yeah, I’m from the city, I was born in the city. Back then the hockey program was very strong in that city. I think it has started coming back on track right now, but back then it was probably one of the strongest in the country, that produced a lot of good hockey players. So for me it was an easy choice what sport to play, because everybody else was playing hockey. I was thinking of soccer for a moment, but there was not a good soccer program (in Chelyabinsk) so I went for hockey. I started playing when I was seven years old. Back then everybody started that way. They were signing up the kids when they were going to school. And so that’s how it started.

Chelyabinsk

Revolution Square in the center of Chelyabinsk, 1980 (the slogan emblazoned over

the main administration building reads “Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”)

Photo credit © RIA Novosti, Vitalii Savel'ev

Kerans: Were you very close to the club? And was your first club Traktor, the big one? {Chelyabinsk Traktor, which competed in the USSR’s top league, and is now in the KHL}

Gonchar: Yeah, it was Traktor. I was living actually pretty close, my school was across the street from the practice facility, so for me it was an easy choice, it was very convenient, maybe five minutes’ walk from our apartment to hockey and also to school, so everything was right there.

Kerans: That’s extraordinary. That’s exactly what Loktionov told me, from the Devils {actually Loktionov was traded to Carolina before Gonchar and I spoke}, he said he was about five minutes (walk from the rink in Voskresensk). Alternatively,Marcel Goc, who is with Pittsburgh now, said it was almost an hour drive. So for you, it was much more convenient. When you started going to school, you were combining school with hockey. Did you have a special school, so that you could do a little bit more training. Nichushkin {Gonchar’s teenage teammate on Dallas, who is also from Chelyabinsk} told me he did have a special school.

Gonchar: Yeah, the program back then was that you were training with the team until the fifth grade, and were going to a separate school. But then they put you together as a class, as a team, in the same school. So for us it was very convenient, because school would give us a break when we needed to travel. So guys could leave to play in a tournament when they needed to and then have some extra class together when they came back.

Kerans: How did your family come to Chelyabinsk? Were they there a long time ago, maybe the 1930s, or after the Second World War? {during those periods, when the Soviet Union was building up industries, millions of people moved from the countryside and smaller towns to large industrial towns, like Chelyabinsk, often from very far away} How did they arrive in Chelyabinsk?

Chelyabinsk Leninskii prospekt

Residential section of Lenin Avenue in Chelyabinsk, 1988. A bookstore is behind the buses.

Photo credit © RIA Novosti, Vladimir Akimov

Gonchar: Before that my grandparents arrived there. They were outside the city both of them. They had to find work, they found work in the city, and they met each other there.

Kerans: Were they working in industries, in factories, or other work?

tube

Shop floor at Chelyabinsk tube plant, 1975  

Photo credit: © RIA Novosti, E. Kotliakov

Gonchar: Yeah, my father was working for a factory, and my mom for another factory—no, I’m sorry, they were working for the same factory in the beginning, and then they went to different factories. Those factories still exist, and one of them was actually sponsoring our hockey club. I don’t know if you knew that, back then everything was for free, the sticks, skates, ice time—you didn’t have to pay for anything. So that tractor factory pretty much gave us free ice time, and whatever we needed they would pay for. They paid for travel, for coaches, so everything was free back then.

Traktor

Chelyabinsk tractor factory finished product lot, 1973

Photo credit: © VR, Rudolf Alfimov

Kerans: Some of the boys I spoke with in the 1980s in Russia said they were playing left-handed because they could only get a left-handed stick. {they couldn’t find right-handed sticks in stores} But it sounds like you could get a right-handed or left-handed stick, right?

Gonchar: {laughing} Yeah, we were fortunate…

Kerans: So you are a natural left-hander?

Gonchar: Yeah, I was a natural left-handed player. But you are right, I mean, equipment wasn’t the best, the skates weren’t the best. But they were free. At least everybody can participate and play, you know, and they gave a chance to play to a lot of guys. They didn’t cut guys when they were really young.

Kerans: How many guys showed up to practice? More than 30, more than 40?

Gonchar: Oh yeah, oh yeah. In the beginning in tryouts, I would say probably like 60-80 kids…

Kerans: And would they keep, in your birth year, 1974, would they keep more than 20 on the team, 25? Would they have a second team?

Gonchar: You know what, the way that it was set up, you would have, let’s say, whoever made the team, let’s say 40 guys. And for the first three or four years, they would put us through practice. We didn’t really play a lot of games, (just) maybe between ourselves. We didn’t play against another team. So that’s why the skill level was higher and we skated better, because a lot of guys just practiced for the first like, four or five years. And through that time, you know, a lot of guys kind of left, because you know, we practiced two hours a day, sometimes twice a day, and it was hard. Not everybody was committed, and not everybody was willing to do that. So by the age when you start playing hockey (games) you have like 25 or 30 guys. So it was easy, you know, for the coach…

Kerans: To understand who was the best?

Gonchar: Yeah.

Kerans: Are you the first hockey player in the family?

Gonchar: Yeah.

Kerans: And what about, well, in Moscow, I was coaching at Spartak for a while, and I have to tell you, some of the coaches did not conform to the stereotype of the ideal training, and the scientific (approaches). It was some very low quality training. {as the father of one of the best 1978 birth-year players told me, regarding one boy on that team (not his son), “Everything he has came from God, this coach hasn’t done a thing for him”} Would you consider your training to have been pretty good at Traktor?

Gonchar: Uh, yeah, especially my first coach was very good. We had for that time actually a very unusual guy, because he was taking us to do gymnastics, and we would do mandatory stretching before every practice or game. Imagine, that was like 30 years ago, nobody was doing that. And back then we were doing stretches before every practice. Once a week we would go to gymnastics class to make sure we could do all the jumps and turns on a trampoline, to make sure we were developing our coordination. Then once a week he would take us to a swimming pool and give us some swimming lessons. So he was trying to develop us not only as hockey players, but as good athletes overall.

Kerans: You probably weren’t very bored in summer, you had a lot of other things to do. You had football, you did some other things, you did swimming…

Ural summer 1

Typical summer camp scene outside Chelyabinsk, 1980

Photo credit © RIA Novosti, B. Kliptziner

Gonchar: Oh yeah, yeah.

Kerans: Are you nostalgic for those times? Were those some of the best times in your life, in summertime? Or did you like winter, when you were playing hockey?

Gonchar: As a hockey player, you love hockey, obviously. But in the summertime they gave us camps, the team would travel to a camp outside the city and we would play a lot of soccer there. There was volleyball, there was tennis. Whatever you want to play. So for us it was actually a very good program. And everything was free, and a lot of kids participated. So I think it’s why we have so many players.

Ural summer 2

Another summer camp scene outside Chelyabinsk, 1980

Photo credit © RIA Novosti, B. Kliptziner

Kerans: And were the parents pretty closely involved? In North American sports the parents are very involved. But from what I see in Russian sports, it’s much less.

Gonchar: Much less, especially back then, because they had to work. You know, everybody in the family had to work. Usually here one of the parents is staying home and maybe spending time with the kids. Back then everybody was working, it was pretty much mandatory. And then, they trust the coach, they would come for games on the weekends once in a while. But otherwise we were in the hands of our coach.

Kerans: In that time, CSKA, the Red Army team, used to win the championship every year. Did it seem strange to you, growing up. I know you didn’t know any different, but was there maybe a little bit less enthusiasm? Because this was sort of odd. The Soviet system in football was different than in hockey. But in hockey, the Red Army team would win all the time.

Gonchar: I mean, as you said, we didn’t know any better. We thought it was normal. We thought every country was doing it the same way. We knew they needed it to develop the national team…

Kerans: You probably saw the national team a lot. Did you see the Canada Cup in 1987? Were you watching that?

Gonchar: On TV, yeah.

Kerans: Any big impressions? It was great hockey, yeah?

Gonchar: Whoa, unbelievable. Probably some of the very best hockey I’ve ever seen. It was really good.

Kerans: My last question today: in 1992, you got out {of Chelyabinsk}, you got to Dynamo Moscow {and then off to the US in 1994}. It wasn’t easy to do that, times were hard {the Russian economy contracted very sharply after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991}. Did you see a lot of teammates who, because of economic difficulties, interrupted their careers, while you managed to make it?

Gonchar: The thing was that, when you got there (to Dynamo Moscow), it was one of the elite clubs back then. It wasn’t the best time for our country, but still they found the resources to help us. They gave us a free dormitory where we were living outside of the city, and the food was provided. We traveled, we played in the championship {the Russian league season}, so it wasn’t that bad. I mean, I know there were a lot of guys that went through that time and were not able to make it. But I was very fortunate because I got recruited—I got recruited for was for the Army club, and they were okay. They were giving us everything we needed. And I was very fortunate that I was able to continue to play hockey.

Kerans: I hope you get to play for a long time.

Gonchar: {laughing} I don’t know! Forty years old…

Sergei Gonchar (Part 2, audio only)

Download audio file

Kerans: I’m just hoping to finish up. When we left off, I didn’t get to ask you a final couple of questions about how you left Russia. You got drafted in 1992. Was it an easy decision to leave Russia? Did you have to talk to parents and friends before deciding to come over (to North America) in 1994, or…?

Gonchar: No, back then it was an easy decision. Obviously, you know, the country was going through tough times, changing from one regime to another--from one system I should say to another. And hockey was going through changes. The program wasn’t sponsored as well, and there were a few years there, exactly when I was leaving, that hockey programs were not sponsored.

Kerans: So it was not a difficult decision?

Gonchar: No.

Kerans: Everybody has a difficult time adjusting to foreign cultures, I know that myself. When you did it, maybe it was even more difficult—you grew up in the Soviet Union. For someone like (19 year-old teammate Valeri) Nichushkin who grew up in (post-Soviet) Russia maybe it’s a little bit easier…

Gonchar: Yeah.

Kerans: But for you it was a big adjustment.

Gonchar: Yeah, I would say so. Because like you said it was not only the language, not only new people, new friends. I think it’s mainly about a different mentality. When I was growing up everything was given to us. Like, you have to play hockey, and that’s it. You used to live in a dormitory. Everything was provided right there—the food, everything, the clothes. I mean whatever you need was there. So then we you got here you have to do everything on your own. You have to open your bank account, without knowing the language, then you have to go and…

Kerans: Taxes!

Gonchar: Taxes {smiling and nodding}. So it’s kind of hard, and obviously back then I didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t have that many friends, so it was tough.

Gonchar warmup

Warming up in Philadelphia                                                                                  Photo credit: © VR

Kerans: But teammates helped?

Gonchar: Yeah. I had Peter Bondra who spoke Russian, and Dmitry Khristich who spoke Russian, Michal Pivoňka understood. So they did, they did.

Kerans: A couple of questions on hockey. Sometimes it seems to me the greatest joy is not necessarily winning the game but when you are young and you learn how to play, and (you reach the point that) your body can do whatever your mind says. “I can move right, I can move left, I can make this play.” And I also notice that players sometimes retire in September, August, October because they get back into it and it’s not the same. Did you have a longer adjustment period this last fall? Did you have to start training earlier than you did when you were younger? Or is it just the same for you, and you are still in the same frame of mind?

Gonchar: I don’t think it was last fall, I think it was when I was over 30, say when I was 31, 32 I started making adjustments. I mean obviously as a player you want to always move forward, and also do new workouts. I was always learning new things, learning about myself, and it wasn’t about one year when I made adjustments, it was year after year adjusting. And yeah, my summer is much shorter, maybe only taking two weeks off and then I start working out again. So it is different now than it was when I was twenty, that’s for sure.

Kerans: Your children grow up in North America now. I’ve talked to many emigrants from Russia and the Soviet Union, and for them it seems a little bit that their children can’t understand the life their parents lived in the Soviet Union. I have a narechyonnyi otyets (adopted dad) in Moscow, and he was talking to his students—he’s a professor—and he said they told him “We read about the Soviet Union, and we feel sorry for you (that you lived then).” And he smiled and he said “Ya ne zhaleyu” (“I don't regret it”). So, when your children come to understand the Soviet Union, I have a feeling your going to tell them “Ya ne zhaleyu”. It seems like it was pretty good in Chelyabinsk, you have many good memories.

Gonchar: Yeah. Back then first of all you have to understand that everybody was living this way, and we didn’t know what to compare it to, right? And you have to remember that school was free, hockey was free, coaching was free, sticks were free. We had a chance to enjoy stuff that, you know, I don’t know if I would be able to now. I mean now everything is so expensive, a lot of kids, even if they love to play the game, they don’t have a chance…

Kerans: You mean in Russia and here?

Gonchar: Yeah, yeah.

Kerans: Have your children been to Russia?

Gonchar: Yeah, and they’re actually doing pretty well—I’m proud of them, because they speak Russian, they, well, they can write in Russian, they can read Russian. So I usually have a tutor for them during the course of the year, and then I try to bring them back home every summer to make sure that they have a chance to speak Russian more, and we’re trying to go out and see like a circus, kids’ places, to make sure they keep up with the language.

Chelyabinsk circus

Chelyabinsk circus, 1980                Photo credit: © RIA Novosti, Vitalii Savel'ev

Kerans: Great, thanks Sergei.

Gonchar: Oh, you’re welcome, and thank you.

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