Verdi: Q&A with the Russian rocket, Artemi Panarin
Artemi Panarin came to Chicago from far away and has made it in a big way. The Russian rocket became an instant fit with the Blackhawks, endearing himself to fans and teammates. Panarin is still learning to speak English, but here, through an interpreter, he conveys how advanced he is at life and hockey.
Q. You are a star in Chicago after only a few months. Based on what you've accomplished so far with the Blackhawks, are you a star back home?
A. I don't feel that I am a star in Chicago. I would like to be, but not yet. There are a lot of stars with the Blackhawks. I am an OK player. I've been good at times.
Q. All right. Now that you're an OK player in Chicago, do they follow you back in Russia?
A. I come from a very small town. Korkino. Friends and family followed me when I played in Russia for a few years, and yes, now they can maybe watch some of the Blackhawks games if they are on television. They would have to get up early in the morning. In Russia, a lot of people follow the Russian players who are over here.
Q. Do you ever get homesick?
A. I miss family and friends, of course. My mother and father do not live together; they are separated. I am very close to my grandfather and grandmother. My grandfather taught me a lot about how to play. He played once, not at the highest levels. Maybe they will come to Chicago for the playoffs. I basically left home when I was 10 to pursue hockey. So I have been by myself for a while. No problem. Sometimes it is good to be alone. Sometimes it is good to have solitude. That gives me time to go over things, to think things over. I live by myself, but I've met some good people, including of course my teammates.
Q. Do you cook for yourself?
A. Oh, no. Oatmeal in the morning for breakfast. But for lunch or dinner, I usually go out to eat.
Q. You certainly look like you're happy in a completely new environment, whether you're playing hockey or off the ice.
A. I try to have fun all day, every day. Chicago is very nice. Lots of nice people, lots of nice restaurants. There is one not far from the United Center. Red Square. I can go there and pretty much order for myself, whatever I feel like.
Q. What are your impressions of the Blackhawks and Chicago since you arrived last summer?
A. I came here with high expectations. I heard so many good things about the city and the Blackhawks. So I was expecting this to be a place where I would like to play hockey, and I have not been disappointed.
Q. Let's talk about that. Stan Bowman, the vice president and general manager of the Blackhawks, says he and his staff began taking a long, hard look at you just over a year ago. But so did a half-dozen other NHL teams. Why did you pick the Blackhawks?
A. I heard about the way they play and saw some of how they play. They play a nice style, the way I like to play. Skate, play smart. I like smart. I like to play with the puck. So do they. Good hockey. What I thought it would be like is what it is like now.
Q. Bowman said a couple of his scouts, Mats Hallin and Ryan Stewart, were instrumental in the process, plus Barry Smith, the Blackhawks' director of player development, who had coached in St. Petersburg before you played there.
A. Yes, we talked quite a bit. They were very positive that the Blackhawks and Chicago would be right for me.
Q. You certainly didn't pick the Blackhawks because of money. Bowman signed you to a two-year contract at the maximum entry-level salary ($925,000), which is all you could have gotten anywhere in the NHL. He also said if you had stayed with St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League, you could be making three times that.
A. No, it was not about money. I thought it was time for me to see if I could make the NHL.
Q. You were not drafted by any NHL team. Was it because you were thought to be too small?
A. Too small? I don't know. Maybe. But here I am. (Smiling.)
Q. According to Bowman, your contract included a clause that if you weren't on the Blackhawks roster by December, you would be free to return to Russia. There would be no minor leagues for you.
A. Yes, but I was confident that I could make it in the NHL. I could have gone back to Russia if I didn't make it, but I wasn't really thinking about that.
Q. Recently, you lost your frequent interpreter, Viktor Tikhonov, who was picked up on waivers by the Arizona Coyotes.
A. A good man. He helped me a lot with the language and with getting used to being in Chicago. He's a good player, too. I hope he does well with his new team. Also, I have become friendly with a good family in Chicago, Andrew Aksyonov and his wife, Yulia. They picked me up at the airport when I got here and I spend time with them. We are good friends.
Q. You've obviously hit it off with Patrick Kane, your linemate, on and off the ice. You're taking English lessons on Skype, but Patrick says he thinks you actually understand what he's talking about a lot of times.
A. (Laughs.) There are some sayings, some expressions, that I have picked up in the locker room, being around him and the other guys. I don't think I will say them all here. But we do have a way of communicating. Or maybe we're just pretending that we understand each other when we really don't. (Laughs again.)
Q. If you were to take Patrick for a classic Russian meal--if you haven't done so already--what would it be?
A. Borscht. Have to have borscht. Maybe Russian ravioli. Like dumplings. Dough on the outside, meat inside. Good. I haven't taken him for Russian dinner yet. He took me to dinner not long ago. Italian. He paid. I like the food in America. But not fast food. I don't do fast food.
Q. How about American beer? Hockey players everywhere like beer, right?
A. Don't like beer. Ever. Don't drink at all during the season. Summer, vodka.
Q. What do you think of Patrick as a player?
A. One of the best in the NHL. He is great to play with. We kind of have a mutual understanding of what we're supposed to be doing on the ice. And my fellow Russian, Artem Anisimov, our center. I can't say anything negative about him either. He does everything well. He's another great player. So many great players on this team.
Q. But you're only OK?
A. I'm OK.
Q. The KHL is generally regarded as the second-best league in hockey. What's the difference between the KHL and NHL?
A. There are a lot of good players in the KHL and good teams. And there is good support. When I played in St. Petersburg, the building was full. But not full like Chicago. And in the NHL, there are more good players, more good teams than anywhere. KHL is good quality, but not like NHL. The game here is faster.
Q. Why do you think the fans in Chicago have taken to you so intensely? They love you.
A. Maybe some of them do; I don't know if they all love me. But if I get excited, I show it. Maybe some people like that. Part of my job is to entertain. We're here to have fun, right? The atmosphere for hockey in Chicago, it's exciting. Loud.
Q. What other Russian players do you admire?
A. Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, who I played with in the KHL. Now I am friendly with Vladimir Tarasenko, who plays in St. Louis.
Q. Head coach Joel Quenneville, apparently, was the one who nicknamed you "Bread Man." Do you know why?
A. Because my name sounds like that restaurant: Panera Bread. I haven't eaten there yet. I have gone there for tea. Lately the coach is just calling me "Bread."
Q. How does Coach Q communicate with you?
A. When I came here, he told me, "Shoot the puck." When I don't play well, I can see the look on his face. He doesn't say anything.
Q. With the strong start you had this season, a lot of experts are already touting you as a possible winner of Rookie of the…
A. (Without interpreter) 24!
Q. Wait a minute. You just said that without an interpreter. You understood where I was going with that question.
A. (With interpreter) I'm 24. I played a few years in the KHL. I don't think of myself as a rookie. It's my first season in the NHL, but not my first season.
Q. All the guys say you're funny and have a great sense of humor. How is this possible if only one other teammate, Anisimov, can understand Russian?
A. Me, funny? Maybe it's something they see in my face when I'm smiling or laughing. I laugh at something I say, they think it's funny, and then maybe they laugh, even though they really don't know what I'm saying.
Q. Above your locker, you have a religious icon that you often look to and touch.
A. I am religious. I am Orthodox Christian. My grandfather and grandmother, a lot of it came from them.
Q. You mentioned enjoying solitude on occasion. Do you think a lot about hockey when you are by yourself?
A. Sometimes. If I have a good game, I don't think too much about it. If I have a bad game, I think about it. I am hard on myself. I am a critic of myself. I am harder on myself than anybody else is. Sometimes the mind goes too fast. You have to clear it. When things are not going well, like some of the guys told me earlier this year, it is good just to relax. Sometimes you think you made a bad play. Then you look at the film, it wasn't that bad.
A. Nyet. Single.
Q. What would you rather do? Go to practice or sit down for an interview?
A. Practice. Especially if the interview is a long one. If the interview is too long, I don't like that as much as a short one.
Q. Is this interview running too long?
A. I would prefer going to practice. This interview, it's not so short anymore. It's going longer than practice. (Laughs.)
• Editor's note: As part of an alliance with the Blackhawks, the Daily Herald offers occasional reports by Team Historian Bob Verdi, who writes for the team's website at www.chicagoblackhawks.com. This interview was conducted with assistance from Stan Stiopkin and Elmar Gasimov.
Blackhawks (30-13-4) vs. Montreal Canadiens (23-18-4) at United Center, 6 p.m.
Radio: WGN 720-AM
The skinny: The Blackhawks placed embattled forward Bryan Bickell on waivers Saturday. If no team picks Bickell up, which is extremely unlikely, watch for the Hawks to assign him to Rockford for the second time this season. ... The Canadiens remain in a free-fall without star goalie Carey Price, who has been out with a lower body injury. Montreal began the season 18-4-3, but has gone 5-14-1 in its last 20 games. As it stands, the Canadiens are barely holding onto a playoff spot in the East. ... Jonathan Toews and Ryan Garbutt scored for the Hawks in their 2-1 victory at Montreal last Thursday. Corey Crawford made 40 saves to improve to 4-0-2 vs. the Canadiens.
Next: Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena, 7 p.m. Tuesday
-- John Dietz