By Geneen Pipher, Hockey VIPs Magazine
March 7, 2015
Mytishchi, Russia — On a recent trip to Moscow, we caught up with Russian hockey legend Slava Kozlov, who is playing for Atlant Moscow Oblast of the KHL. In a wide-ranging interview, the 18-year NHL veteran and two-time Stanley Cup champion discussed his role as a mentor to young Russian hockey players, the demise of the Atlanta Thrashers and his plans for the future.
Geneen Pipher: I was a big fan of yours when I lived in Atlanta and saw you play often. Can you tell me how your experience is being here in the KHL. And I know you have been here three years
Vyacheslav Kozlov: Thank you very much for your compliment. I am actually here in my fifth year and I am really enjoying myself here. This is my motherland, and I began here. I spent 18 years in the NHL and for me this page has been turned and now I am trying to help my team and make some kind of contribution and transfer the experience which I received in the NHL.
GP: Do you feel you are helping the younger players? Do they look up to you? Do you try to teach them?
VK: It’s my job and this is precisely why I am here to help the younger players develop.
What Went Wrong With the Thrashers
GP: And can I ask you a few questions about Atlanta?
GP: OK, watching many years in Atlanta, I worked for CNN and watched you a lot from there, and what do you think went wrong with the Thrashers club?
VK: That is a good question, I think about this all the time. I think that in Atlanta there are many professional sports teams; basketball, football, and baseball. Regarding hockey, if the arena had been in Gwinnett county and not in downtown, there would have been more people, much higher attendance. That I think is the primary reason.
Secondly, since the beginning, there have been many owners, who may have been good business men, but who did not understand hockey. They were involved in both basketball and hockey. This also played a big role in the failure.
GP: So you feel the Atlanta spirit group — if it was owned by a different group it would have succeeded?
VK: I think if there was an owner like Michael Illich in Detroit than there would have been a different result and the team would not have moved from there.
GP: Towards the end you seemed frustrated with what was going on in Atlanta
VK: Yes, my relationship with the coach broke down, sometimes this happens. I took it well. And I got the opportunity to play in my Motherland. And for this reason, I took this opportunity I am really enjoying myself.
GP: Is your family still in the United States?
VK: I have a daughter who is studying in Atlanta. Two sons with wife live in Spain.
VK: And I live in Russia.
GP: Yes and how is that going?
VK: It’s difficult, but the family has an understanding. And on Christmas and New Year we all met in Europe and had a great weekend there, we really enjoyed ourselves.
GP: Question, I think speaking to the fans of Atlanta who feel very sad that the team is gone, do you feel that it is hopeless to succeed there and what would it take to succeed in Atlanta.
VK: This is already the second team that has moved from Atlanta and I understand that it is sad for the fans but right now I do not see a chance to create another team. But I really love the city and the arena. The fans were very hospitable.
GP: What do you think about people who say that teams should not be in the South part of the US? Only in cold places.
VK: I think that Los Angeles Kings proved that it’s possible, that you do not have to be located in the North. Correct management of the team gives big opportunities.
GP: Are you enjoying your time here in Russia? You came from Russia at a time when things were changing and now you are back, and the change that you have seen over the course of your career, could you talk about that?
VK: I left in the 90s when everything here was falling apart so that’s why I left. It is very pleasant for me that now the KHL is in its 7th year. We have some problems but in general the league is very stable and moving in the right direction.
GP: And what changes have you seen? You have been here for five years. We have been coming for many years to see games and we have noticed a change in the way that fan experience is different. How do you see the difference on the ice.
VK: Of course, many transfers, going from team to team, and there are completely different specifics of the draft and transfers and that’s why the dominant team changes very frequently. And it pleases me that last year Lev was in the finals, unfortunately the team does not exist anymore, but a team with a modest budget made the finals.
GP: Do you have fun playing every night?
VK: I still get a lot of pleasure from playing but this is the first season that I began to think about ending my career. This does not mean that I will finish it but I do have such thoughts about it.
GP: We’ve noticed that when you are on the bench, talking to the young guys, how do you help them and do they listen to you?
VK: During the game, there are many emotions, and I hope they listen, but sometimes it happens spontaneously.
GP: What would be your biggest piece of advice to a person, a guy, who wants to make the NHL and lives in Russia.
VK: He needs to train a lot, listen to his trainer, listen to his parents.
GP: Question, if you were that player, who came through the league now, would you leave Russia to join the NHL?
VK: Please understand that I did not have a choice. I think that’s why I spend many years in the NHL and I had nowhere to come back to. Here, hockey was falling apart here in Russia. That’s why I worked a lot and tried to fulfill my contract so that I could get a new one. For young players today, if you cannot go to the NHL, you can come back to the KHL. Have a place to come back to. On one hand it is good, but on the other hand, this does not give you enough motivation to, you know, to work. Many don’t want to learn the language, understand the culture, it is a completely different type of hockey, small rink, you have to be very physically prepared. Not everyone can take it.
GP: And if/when you retire, what do you see yourself doing?
VK: Of course I would like to relax, to spend time with my family. But if there is a good offer, then I would like to continue as a coach. To have a coaching career.
GP: And where would you like to do that?
VK: Depending on where my family will live. But right now I think I have more options in Russia it is easier for me to get a good offer here than anywhere else.
GP: Are you shy?
VK: Yes (laughs) … Like you.
GP: Do you not like to talk to journalists?
VK: Not really.
GP: We interviewed your nephew Vladislav Namestnikov. What advice do you give to him?
VK: He is a very young, talented and capable hockey player. And a couple years ago I talked to Steve, (former NHLer and current Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman) regarding his future and Steve told me to give him some advice on how to improve his game.
GP: Do people recognize you here?
VK: They do sometimes — but not always.
GP: What do other players on the team think of you? They know you have won two Stanley Cups … that you are a legend. These players who want Cups of their own — what do they ask you?
VK: You know, everyone treats me very well and I feel very free here. I do not try to smother anyone here with my reputation.
Photographs: Geneen Pipher and Shannon Valerio/Hockey VIPs Magazine
Translator: Alex Bogatiryov