The Russian Rocket On Putin, The Hall of Fame, Ovechkin and Sochi

Pavel Bure and then Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2001

Editors Note: Last week, the legendary former Canucks forward, Pavel Bure, stepped onto the ice for the first time in many years. He took part in an "old-timers friendly" alongside with other former Russian superstars and (surprise-surprise!) Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. After the game he chatted with the media about making it into the Hall of Fame, about Ovechkin’s regression, about his future in hockey and the Russian National Team. The original text for this interview comes from Igor Rabiner of Sport-Express and has been translated for our benefit by Andrey Osadchenko

Igor Rabiner: Is it true that, that your first hockey game in years?

Pavel Bure: It is. It’s not like I live in the past and go deep into it often, but I don’t recall a single time I’ve played hockey since I retired. Frankly, I did it out of respect for Vladimir Putin. Certainly, I was pleased to see the guys I’ve played with for many years, but if it wasn’t for the prime- minister, I don’t think anybody would have been able to convince me lace them up and step on the ice.

It’s all about respect really. It’s impressive when a guy who never skated or played hockey makes such a progress in 8-9 months. Not many people can do that, especially at such an age. Hockey is a complicated game – you have to be able to both skate and handle the puck. Besides, if you’re not used to this, even wearing shin pads and other stuff can be uncomfortable.

Rabiner: How many goals did Putin score?

Bure: Maybe 3 or 4 goals? Certainly, more than I did (laughs). He said he set a goal for himself – to learn how to play hockey. He’s doing step by step. He said he hoped that all of us achieve our own goals. I can relate to that. I have a similar philosophy. What also makes me happy is that, back in the day, the number one sport in our country seemed to be tennis, today, I think, it’s hockey.

Vladimir Putin (front) and Pavel Bure (to his right) take the ice together last week.

Rabiner: When you read in newspapers that Sergei Fedorov scored another goal for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, do you get jealous? Do you think that if it wasn’t for the injuries you’d still play pro hockey?

Bure: No. I don’t think I’d be able to play nowadays. Moreover – I don’t think I’d want to. I’ve had enough and I barely even wanted to be on the ice today. If I’m needed to help create hype around hockey, make others, especially kids, want to play hockey because of my example, then sure, I’ll play hockey just like I did last Friday. But I’m not going to do it for myself.

Rabiner: Don’t you ever miss the game?

Bure: Not yet. I empathize the ‘yet’ part. I never say never. Maybe in a year or a decade I’ll be missing it, who knows?

Rabiner: You were a terrific hockey player who has every right to be included in the Hockey Hall Of Fame. However, it hasn’t happened…

Bure: I achieved in hockey everything I could. I have no control over what happens next. It’s a subjective decision. It’s up to the guys who decide who to induct in the Hockey Hall Of Fame. For sure, it’s a great honor to get inducted there. I’m not going to say that I feel indifferent about that. But I have no control over it. To set a goal for yourself and achieve it on the ice is one thing. It’s all up to you. As for the Hockey Hall of Fame – you can’t induct yourself. Whether I played good or not good enough for that – let others decide.

Rabiner: How closely do you follow this story?

Bure:I follow everything that’s happening in hockey and not only hockey. I try to be well-informed about everything.

Rabiner: Is it true that last Friday you played in the same skates you used at the Nagano Olympics in 1998?

Bure: So that’s how the rumors start! (laughs) It wasn’t quite like that, no. I did have those skates with me because I haven’t played hockey for such a long time. I simply didn’t have any other equipment.

I sat next to [Vyacheslav] Fetisov and [Alexei] Kasatonov in the dressing-room. They saw that I had old equipment and asked to give me a new stuff. So I used that. Someone just saw me brining in the old equipment, talked about it to the others and a few days later this story had new interesting details.

Rabiner: How much did the equipment change in the last decade?

Bure: A lot. You have to keep up with the times! I remember when I was a kid and practiced at Red Army hockey school, I would see old-timers play in skates with steel blades. Me and other kids thought it was funny because all of us already played with plastic blades. It was just like when Bjern Borg came back to pro tennis with a wooden racquet. Back then I also had a thought that I wouldn’t want to be laughed at for this reason. If you feel comfortable with some ‘work tools’, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to adapt to new ones. You would get surprised if you’re a guy who uses an abacus and not a calculator.

Rabiner: You quit hockey because of severe knee issues. How did you feel last Friday? Did you try any "Russian Rocket" style dashes?

Bure: No, no, no dashes (smiles). I’m old, it’s too late to accelerate. I felt alright, though. After all, it’s wasn’t the NHL, it was a friendly game, which is just fine for my knee.

Rabiner: It’s not surprising at all. I’m aware of you love for tennis. I saw you play with Viktor Kozlov in the late 90’s and early 2000’s in Florida. People also say that you’re now into ju-jitsu?

Bure: Correct. Note that I’m not into a sports ju-jitsu but into martial. I got into this more than 6 years ago. I’m serious about it – I practice 6 times a week. One practice takes up to half a day.

Rabiner: How did you get into it?

Bure: After I retired from hockey, I kept myself in shape. I played tennis and went to the gym. To be honest, it was boring to go to the gym by myself. I was looking for something that would be fun and a good exercise at the same time. I tried ju-jitsu and I liked it. I’m interested in finding out completely different abilities of my body that I had no idea of before. It’s a great exercise! I think it’s comparable only to hockey.

Rabiner: But you suffer if you get punched. Why would you put yourself in that position? It’s not like it’s your job.

Bure: For sure, getting punched hurts. Especially, because I practice with a pro. But it motivates you to get better! Besides, I don’t want to go to any tournaments and achieve any results there. But when you see your own progress, you know what you’re doing it for. Ju-jitsu attracted me not only because of its physical aspect, but spiritual aspect as well. It’s a whole philosophy that teaches you to treat people kindly. I didn’t do any martial arts before that and I was interested just how deep this school was.

Rabiner: Have you gained weight after you retired?

Bure: I never had any big issues with my weight. I never had to get on a diet or anything. Although, after I got into ju-jitsu I lost 22 pounds.

The Russian Rocket, looking trim in the Dojo (from October 2011).

Rabiner: [Famous former Russian tennis player] Evgeny Kafelnikov after retiring from tennis got into poker and golf. Are you interested in these sports?

Bure: When you do ju-jitsu for half a day, you don’t have time for any other fun stuff.

Rabiner: How is your brother Valery doing? Nobody has heard a thing about him in Russia for years.

Bure: He moved to California a few years ago. He’s got his own business – he produces wine.

Rabiner: After Avangard’s GM, Anatoly Bardin, quit his position, people were saying you would be his replacement. Is it true you had negotiations with Avangard about that?

Bure: I never heard about it.

Rabiner: Would you accept an offer to become a GM or a head-coach if there was one?

Bure: I wouldn’t be a head-coach. I can give you a 100% on that. I have my reasons, but it’s a whole other story I don’t want to get into right now. As for everything else, I’m open to negotiate. I would only accept a deal as long as interest and profit are mutual.

Rabiner: Did you get any offers like this from the KHL?

Bure: The offers have been preliminary and vague. The 2 things I was asking for were never there. Some of them were interesting but not profitable, others were profitable but not interesting.

Rabiner: Do you root for any team? For instance, Red Army and the Vancouver Canucks? These are the teams you spent your most successful and important years of your career.

Bure: I wouldn’t say I ‘root’ for them per se – it’s just too strong a word. If you’re not a fan, but someone who’s in the hockey world, you’re more likely to cheer for the people you’re close with regardless of clubs they work for. I watch hockey with a great interest no matter what side of the Atlantic it’s played at. I recently had a chat with Boris Mikhailov and we both agreed that hockey is more fun to watch on TV, since you can savor replays and everything. I thought I was the only one who was like that but it turns out even the greatest hockey players think like that.

Rabiner:Is there still a huge gap between the NHL and the Russian league?

Bure: It’s getting smaller. A lot of things are being done for that by Russian government and KHL owners. But in order to close the gap entirely there’s still much to be done. Whether or not it’s going to happen, time will tell.

Rabiner: Does it surprise you that SKA St. Petersburg tops the standings even after rejuvenation of the roster and hiring new coaches along with GM?

Bure: No. I’ll tell you even more – I’m happy they top the standings. SKA’s new GM is my close friend Alexei Kasatonov. I cheer for SKA because of him. Their success makes me super happy.

Rabiner: There’s a lot of talk about ‘Vityaz’ these days. Some people say that thanks to ‘Vityaz’ the KHL is known world-wide. Some people say they play anti-hockey. What’s your take on that?

Bure: ‘Vityaz’ always played like that and it’s not like it’s unprecedented. Back in a day the Flyers and Blackhawks played like that in the NHL. Even we in Vancouver never had a tough-guy problem (laughs). It’s up to team management to pick a direction to develop in. And there are different ways out there.

Rabiner: You were captain and leading goal-scorer for Team Russia at the Olympics in Nagano in 1998. Could you imagine back then that at the 3 next Olympics Team Russia wouldn’t even come close to what you managed to achieve back then?

Bure: Honestly, I’ve never thought of that. Because I live in the present, not in the past or the future. What’s done is done. Life goes on.

Bure Captained Team Russia’s "Team of Brothers" in Nagano in 1998

Rabiner: Why do you think Team Russia was destroyed in Vancouver in 2010?

Bure: Last Friday after the game I talked about this to [former Team Russia’s head-coach] Slava Bykov. He’s still convinced – as much as I am – that we had a very strong team in Vancouver. I can also add that we had a tremendous coach, who won 2 World Championships in a row before that. What happened? It’s hard to tell. Sport is not a science. You can’t put a label on everything.

Sometimes you’re just unlucky. On that particular day I’m sure it wasn’t as much that we played badly, as it was that the Canadians played well. On that particular night they were unbeatable. If the game happened a day before or a day after – it may have been a different story. It happens in sports.

Rabiner: Does it surprise you that Bykov got fired pretty much because of that one defeat?

Bure: That’s just what happens to coaches. If you lose, nobody is going to remember what have you won before that. If you get into this profession, you know the rules. I can only say that it wasn’t my decision to fire Bykov.

What amazed me in all this was Putin’s approach. Last Friday he thanked Bykov for the great deed he did for Russian hockey. It tells you that the prime-minister understands sports, and it shows you what kind of a man he is. Usually, [in Russia] if you lose, you just get fired and nobody is going to remember you.

Putin is a professional athlete, a wrestler. He thinks like an athlete, and I’m pleased to hear him say things that match my own vision. The fact that he organized a meeting between the former and current Team Russia head-coaches – Bykov and [Zinetula] Bilyaletdinov – demonstrates the good-natured atmosphere is being built around our national team.

Rabiner: By the way, what do you think of new Team Russia coach?

Bure: I like him a lot. I’ve known Bilyaletdinov for quite some time. I even played against him when he was finishing his career and I was just starting mine. We kept in touch when I played for the Canucks, and he coached the Jets.

He’s a pro. He was an excellent player, worked in the NHL, has a colossal amount of coaching experience. A lot of people didn’t think that Team Russia would play so successfully under his reign at its very first tournament (Karjala Cup). I wish Bilyaletdinov luck with all my heart.

Rabiner: Why do you think your successor as the leading goal-scorer of all Russian hockey, Alexander Ovechkin, has severely regressed over the past 2 seasons?

Bure: Because it’s hard to keep up to the level Ovechkin played at before. Your opponents watch your games closely, looking for the smallest nuances in your game and analyze it, so they could use it against you afterwards.

Rabiner: So what needs to be done?

Bure: You have to find something new. And it’s not that easy. People think it’s that simple – you run, you shoot, you score 10 goals a game! There’s a ton of work behind all of that.

Rabiner: Do you have any advice for Ovechkin?

Bure: Not through the media. If Alex is interested in my opinion, I can talk to him privately and try to think of something to help him. Giving advice in public is just not my thing. He’s a grown man. He doesn’t need to schooled.

Rabiner: Recently all of Russia’s superstars have underperformed in the NHL…

Bure: In sport everything can happen. Even though they may be underperforming now, they’re still superstars. They will figure it out in time.

Rabiner: Will they play like they should in Sochi-2014?

Bure: It’s unreasonable to talk about it now with Sochi still so far off. It’s still more than 2 years before the Olympics. Sometimes a sniper scores 10 goals in a week and then can’t get none in the next 2. This is exactly what the head-coach’s job is – he has to pick the strongest players at the given moment. It’s always a better bet to pick a guy who scores more now, and not the one who did it last season.

Viktor Tikhonov, who I was lucky to play for at the beginning of my career, did just that. It was very rare for our Great Five to play badly, but if it happened, Tikhonov could easily put us, a formal third line at that time – Mogilny-Fedorov-Bure – on the first powerplay unit. This is exactly why he became such a great coach. He wasn’t afraid to do anything that was better for his team at any given moment.

Rabiner: Does it bug you that despite all of your personal achievement, you never became an Olympic champion?

Bure: On one hand, of course, I would love to be one. On the other, I never thought I would achieve anything I have in hockey. I thank god every day for what he has given me. I never thought I would play in the NHL, score 50+ goals 5 times and become the top-scorer in the best league in the world 3 times. If you asked me, whether or not I am happy with my achievement in hockey, my answer would be – I am super happy!

Rabiner: The only thing you’re not happy about must be your health that forced you to retire at 32.

Bure: I think it’s for the best. I’m not sure I would continue my career even if I was healthy. I don’t regret a single bit about that. You shouldn’t anger god.

Rabiner: What does Team Russia has to do to become a ‘team of brothers’ as you rightly called Team Russia in Nagano?

Bure: It has everything to become one. It can be younger, better and stronger [than we were]. It has got support from the government. It has good coaches and wonderful players. In other words, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to have a very strong team in Sochi. Although, many people forget that the NHL hasn’t permitted its players to participate at these Olympics yet.

Rabiner: Do you think it’s going to happen?

Bure: I can’t really tell, but I’m fully convinced it’s going to. The agreement isn’t signed yet and many NHL folks are against that. Some of them think it’s unprofitable for the league, especially because of 9-hour time difference, which is going to hurt TV-ratings badly. As you understand, on this topic I’m on the other side. The Russian side.

Rabiner: As far as I understand, the majority of players regardless of what teams they represent, are as well.

Translation courtesy Andrey Osadchenko