The Nations’ roving Russian reporter Andrey Osadchenko unearthed and translated this interview from Sports.Ru for Leafs fans. It offers some candid insight into Igor Korolev, his love of Canada, of hockey, and most importantly, of his family.
Igor Korolev played 4 seasons for the Maple Leafs before he was traded to the Blackhawks. He scored 60 goals and 161 points in 297 regular season games as a Leaf. Last season was last in his professional career. After retirement he became an assistant coach of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl – a team that sadly died in terrible aircraft crash early in September.
This is his last interview. In December of 2009 Korolev told Alexei Shevchenko and Alexander Lyutikov what motivated him to keep playing hockey when he was almost 40, why his family stayed for good in Toronto and what defines a real hockey player.
Igor, be honest – why do you still play hockey? It’s not about the money, is it?
Because I want to. That’s the only reason. If I didn’t want to play hockey, no matter how much money you offered me, I wouldn’t step on the ice.
It’s been rumored that one club wanted to sign you but you asked for too much.
I’ll tell you about everything once I retire. I wouldn’t make sense now since I still play hockey. Call me back when I decide to retire. We’ll have a talk about my entire career.
It’s going to be a long interview.
Certainly! I have lots to tell you. There are a lot of stories from the Soviet part of my career, the NHL, the Russian league… But not now. Why would I, an active player, point at anybody and say – this guy is an idiot, that one’s a bastard, that one’s an asshole?
You’ve played hockey for quite some time now, although the majority of guys you’ve played with have already retired. Take Brendan Shanahan for example.
There’s no way to avoid this question. How often do people tell you that you need to retire?
Look, if I’m offered a contract, why would I retire? It’s not like I can sign myself, you know. If people offer me contracts, that means I’m still needed.
Pro sport seems like a thing for young guys. You expect a 39-year-old man to be more serious – wearing a tie and glasses. Not chasing puck all over the ice.
Hmm… Well, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing my entire life. Do you think you’ll be able to quit writing when you’re 70?
It’s all the same – playing, writing, building.
Let me tell you one thing. If it wasn’t for some nuances, a lot of athletes wouldn’t retire.
At very least, it’s harder to run when you get older.
It’s not like everybody has to run. It’s hard to explain. Alright, look. If hockey was played only by so called ‘bright minds’, the only people who would play would be the likes of Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Maltsev. But it’s never going to be like that. Some people have to chase the puck and some people compensate it with something else. Great players are rare to come by. This is exactly why everybody has his own thing working for him. Some guys have speed, some guys are just smart.
What about health? Your body can’t last forever.
True, it’s a problem. Some guys get hurt and are forced to retire because of that. However, the power of will can overcome everything.
The power of will?
I’ll give you an example. You’re 34 and you got an injured knee. You have a surgery and you recovered. But you lost 7-8 months. Do you know how much will do you have to have to get back on your level? Once again you have to skate, run, jump… You have to pass the stage when nothing works for you. All you need for it is the power of will, nothing else. I assure you – the power of will is the most important thing for every athlete. This is exactly what the guys who left for North America and then come back lack. The same goes for the guys who quit hockey early.
Do you mean to tell that there are hockey players without will?
Blocking shots and recovering from an injury, overcoming difficulties – are 2 very different things.
I’m also interested in one other thing. In order to play hockey, you have stay young. You have to preserve some kind of craziness inside you. I don’t think you have it.
No, I don’t have a problem with that. When you’re with a team, you get pick up such emotions pretty fast.
Do you know what you’re going to do after you retire?
No. Perhaps, this is exactly why I don’t retire. I have no clue what I’m going to do in normal life, how am I going to bide my time. Maybe I’ll spend more time with my family, maybe I’ll coach. I don’t know. I can’t think of anything right now.
Don’t you get sick of all the games you have to play on the road and all that packing, staying at hotels, flights…
I wouldn’t say so, no. For sure, sometimes I ask myself – what am I doing here? But it goes away quickly.
It’s hard to believe that you have the same emotions you had at 18. Do you go to night clubs with other guys?
What for? If we have a game to play or practice the other day, this night club will come back to haunt me. It’s going to be additional difficulty to my health. Besides, I never liked the music in night clubs. I listen to Chris Rea, Frank Sinatra. I like Russian chanson too. There’s a meaning in the lyrics.
Have you ever tried to smoke?
I smoked exactly one cigarette in my life. Didn’t like it.
Do you sleep more now?
No. On the contrary, I feel much worse if I sleep too much. I can’t sleep more than 8 hours a night.
Is there something you did when you were 20 that you don’t do anymore?
I don’t eat potatoes anymore to name one thing.
I get fat sideways. I don’t eat bread either. I try to watch what I eat. As for the night clubs, I didn’t like them when I was young either. I’d rather go to a restaurant and relax. Of course, we don’t have much in common with the young guys on [Lokomotiv]. My daughter would be more interested in talking with them.
How old is she?
Are there any players on your team that are younger than your daughter?
Not yet. Maybe next season there’s going to be some, but not this year.
What did you encounter when you came to North America in 1992?
I didn’t speak English for about 2 years. At least, not to the extent where I could find my way around without constantly checking the dictionary. I had a lot of difficulties because of that. My family was always on the first place for me, hockey was on the second. It’s always been like this.
Aside from language barrier, what were the other difficulties you’ve encountered?
Everything was difficult. We were the first ones who moved there. We came to the country with a very different approach to foreigners, very different to what we have in Russia. In Russia everybody would try to help you out, but not in America. You’ve got to survive on your own. I’m not complaining, though. Remember what we had back in 1992? Americans offered me a good contract for 4 years.
You live in Canada, though, right?
Yes. We’re going to stay there after I retire. It’s home now.
Why don’t you like it in Moscow? It’s your hometown.
Did you ever come home after a very long and tiresome day only to understand that you haven’t really done anything?
Well, this is something I don’t like. I don’t like it when you have to go for 2 hours one way and then another 2 hours the other way. Then it’s evening already and you realize that you’ve achieved nothing.
Some people miss Moscow traffic jams.
I’m not one of them. There’s no traffic jams in Toronto and I don’t miss them. Living in Canada is easier. It’s more expensive, true, but easier. Of course, I wouldn’t mind living in the states, but it didn’t happen.
In American sitcoms Canada is always a laughing matter. Would you happen to know why?
I haven’t really thought about that.
They make fun of their money.
I love it. They got hockey on it. That’s my type of country.
What did you like in Canada that you can’t find in Russia?
It’s a tough question. There a lot of little things but I can’t name one of the top of my head. Oh, wait – coffee. In Russia I have to make it at home, pour it in a thermo-cup and carry it around with me. Because you can’t buy good coffee here. Besides, my kids were born in Canada.
Do they speak Russian?
They can speak and read Russian. At home we speak only in Russian. But when I text them in Russian, they text me back in English. You can’t do anything about it – it’s their native language.
So they’re not connected to Russia in any way?
I wouldn’t put it that way. For instance, my older daughter understands Russian jokes. She likes watching KVN and Nasha Russia [comedy] shows. Although, my younger daughter is, of course, more Canadian. She’s 3 years younger and she speaks Russian with an accent.
What bothers you in Russia?
First of all in Canada I live in a house and in Russia – in a condo. After you’ve lived for some time in a house, it’s hard to get back to an apartment. Although, when it’s just you and not the family, it’s easier. There are a lot of little things really. Seriously – a lot. You asked me what bothers me. What really bothers me is that in Russia everybody seems gloomy. It’s quite noticeable with older people that come to North America. They think that everybody is laughing at them, while really everybody is just being friendly. It takes some time even for me to adjust to that when I come back to Canada. My wife often tells me: ‘Why are you so angry all the time?’. Because that’s what you get used to in Russia – never back down before anybody.
And in Canada you can relax?
When I’m in Canada, family stuff just keeps piling up. One day I’ve got to take my girls to ballet school, then I have to go to this place, then to that place and so on.
You’ve got 2 daughters. Do you want a son?
I do, but what can I do?
You can have 3 kids.
True, but it’s tough. I’m 40, so there’s going to be a huge age difference. He’ going to be 15 when I’ll be pushing 60. Who needs a father who can’t come to pick you up from school and walks around with a cane? It wasn’t meant to be and I’m ok with it. I have wonderful daughters.
Do they make you happy?
Of course. My older daughter resembles more my wife. And the younger one is more like me – she’s sturdy.
Have you tried to get them into sports?
We tried to get them into gymnastics, tennis and figure skating. They didn’t like too much. I didn’t want to force them. If there’s no passion, it’s foolish to push.
Your older daughter is 17. The guys must be interested in her but it must be tough when her dad is a hockey player.
You got that right. I’m always suspicious about her guys. You have to understand, there young players on my team, so I understand what their interests are. Honestly speaking, sometimes it frightens me.
Have you ever had to kick any of them from your house?
Never. But I would give a tight handshake and with a serious look. I think they understand what I mean by that. They’re not afraid of me but can’t look me in the eye. Anyway, I trust my daughter. She’s smart. She doesn’t make her father’s hair grow grey.
Do you spoil your kids?
Yes, I do. That’s for sure.
People say you’re into watches.
I’m really into that. I can pay a lot of money for one. Although, I’m not telling you what is the most expensive watch I have in my collection.
Does it cost more than $100 000?
More expensive than Ray Emery’s?
Ray has an expensive bracelet, not the watch itself. He’s got a regular watch, nothing special about it.
What about cars? Could you buy a Bugatti?
If I wanted a car like this, I’d buy a used one. You see, it’s expensive to buy a brand new car in Canada. Not only you have to pay for the car, but there’s also a luxury tax and everything.
Do you drink alcohol?
Only when the time is right, the food is right and the company is right. Why not? This is what vacation is for.
You’re known as one of the healthiest men on vacation.
It doesn’t mean, I’m not a human being. Nobody said that you can never drink alcohol. It’s ok to drink it as long as it’s not too much. I don’t like vodka too much. Last time I had vodka was… I can’t even recall. I like wine way better.
How much money do you spend to call home?
I calculated that last season. An average came up to $1000 per month. Although, calling from computer now is way cheaper. I call home very often. About 3-4 times a day. When it’s evening in Russia, I call them to say ‘good morning’. At 8am I call them to say ‘good night’. Plus I’m always texting with my daughters.
How much time does it take your kids to get used to you after you’ve been missing for 6 months?
It’s not a problem anymore. If their dad says ‘no’, they can always wait for their mom, which could say ‘yes’. It’s important that mom and dad didn’t meet each other before that.
You’re close with Nikolai Khabibulin. Is it true that he doesn’t like to speak on the phone?
Absolutely true. It doesn’t matter if it’s Vladislav Tretiak on the phone or anybody else. He just doesn’t like to be on the phone, that’s all. If I call him, he may pick up the phone, but it rarely happens. Usually our wives call each other and arrange the meeting.
Why does your wife let you go for 6 months to play in Russia when everybody understands that you’re not in hockey for the money anymore?
Hockey is what I’ve been doing for 30 of my 39 years. My spouse understands me. She sees how I suffer when I have nothing to do.
Do you really suffer?
Of course. I don’t know what to do. I’d rather be in the gym. I really don’t know what I’m going to do after I retire. By the way, if my family lived in Russia, I wouldn’t even think about finishing my career.
They can move.
Do you have friends outside of the hockey world?
Sure. They’re Canadians.
What about [Russian] immigrants?
I don’t talk to them. It’s very difficult. I’ll give you an example. When my daughter was born we had 26 couples at the party. Now I keep in touch only with 2 of them.
Why did it happen?
Because people always need something from you. When you’re famous and have the money – they treat you one way. After all that – the other way.
Did you loan them money?
Yes, but I stopped doing that pretty quickly. Now I may meet somebody, help him out, take him to a restaurant on my own expense, but I’d never give money to anybody. Last time I loaned money to a person I couldn’t refuse – she babysat our kids.
Have people tried to fool you?
Always. I was lucky, though. I never lost too much money.