Verdi: Getting to know Chicago Blackhawks' Artemi Panarin
Undrafted but not unknown -- several National Hockey League teams sought his services -- Artemi Panarin starred for the Blackhawks last season, registering 30 goals and 47 assists to finish ninth overall in scoring.
He easily earned the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year after endearing himself to fans and teammates. Here, through translator Carmen Finashina, the charismatic Russian discusses his winter, summer and the future.
Q: OK, what's with the Thai boxing? A recent video showed you in action.
A: It helps me relax and keep in shape. I practiced on my own mostly, then finally took on my trainer in a mock fight. He beat me up pretty bad.
Q: Isn't that dangerous? You're just starting what should be a magnificent career in hockey.
A: No, not dangerous. I wore a helmet.
Q: Late last season, after your linemate Patrick Kane got drilled by Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild, you went right after Dumba. Will Thai boxing work in tense situations such as that?
A: No. Thai boxing is not for hockey. I will not do Thai boxing with the Blackhawks.
Q: Before you won the Calder, you said you didn't consider yourself a rookie. How do you feel now?
A: Like I said, at 24 and after playing in the Kontinental Hockey League for a couple seasons back home, I didn't think I should be thought of as a rookie. But I don't make the rules, and I was honored to win it.
Q: When you won the award, you mentioned your grandfather, Vladimir Ilyich Levin. Was he excited about the news?
A: Very. I called him from the car as soon as the ceremony was over in Las Vegas. It was early the next morning in Russia. He has been very important to me. My parents are separated, I left home to play hockey when I was about 10, and my grandfather helped me a lot. He has the Calder Trophy now.
Q: You gave your acceptance speech -- "I would like to thank my family, my friends, my teammates and fans for support. Thank you.'' -- in English. Have you been working on your English?
A: Not too much. I worked on my body and staying in shape more than I worked on my English. After the World Championship in May, I went to Italy and I tried to speak some English there.
Q: What else did you do this summer?
A: Besides Italy, I went with a bunch of friends to Seychelles, which was fun. Then I went with friends to Siberia, also a lot of fun.
Q: Hold on. Most of us think of Siberia as …
A: Altai Mountains. A beautiful part of Russia. Mountains, snow, camping out. You are really away from almost everything. You take a plane, then a helicopter just to get near there. Then we went on horseback for eight hours just to get from one place to another. We were in the outdoors, doing everything for ourselves. Like cooking.
Q: You once said the "Bread Man" never cooks.
A: I don't in Chicago. Cereal in Chicago for breakfast. And I go out to eat a lot at restaurants or with friends.
Q: One of your friends, Andrew Aksyonov, was with you in Las Vegas. He and his wife, Yulia Mikhaylova, took you under their wing as soon as you arrived in Chicago.
A: They are a nice Russian couple with two children. They helped me a lot. I had arranged with Andrew to pick me up at the airport, O'Hare, when I first got here. I didn't know what he looked like and he didn't know what I looked like. I told him, 'I will be carrying hockey sticks. And I will be wearing an SKA St. Petersburg shirt.' That's where I played in the KHL. We found each other. And they came to Russia this summer to visit.
Q: You mentioned the World Championship. How did that go?
A: I played OK, I think. The World Cup in September, most of it in Canada, I didn't like the way I played. I could have been better.
Q: Speaking of which, you are rather critical of yourself. Some nights, when everybody else says you had a good game, you don't agree. How do you improve on your outstanding rookie season?
A: I have expectations, which I like to keep to myself. I am hard on myself. I don't mind being by myself at times, thinking about what I've done and what I could do better. I thought I could play in the NHL. I wasn't drafted, people said I was too small, but I hoped I could make it. The first game in Chicago, I scored. After about five games, I felt more like I belonged. I had some confidence. But this year, after last year, there will be more pressure. There will be pressure from the outside on me and the pressure I put on myself. I have an idea of what I want to accomplish, but I don't want to talk about it and get all caught up in it.
Q: When Kane won the Hart Trophy as most valuable player in Las Vegas shortly after you received the Calder, he said he couldn't have done it without you.
A: That was very nice of him to say. But I would say the same thing about the Calder. I don't think I would have won it without him. Or our center for most of last year, Artem Anisimov. We did a lot of improvising. Artem is very important. And as Patrick also said, Artem did a lot of the dirty work. He told me just to be myself, play my game. And Patrick, he is one of the greatest players in the world. He does so much. The game goes through him. Together we all work well and we think outside the box.
Q: You and Kane seem to communicate on and off the ice so well, even though you don't speak a lot of English and he speaks no Russian. Sometimes he says he tries to talk to you in English, but with a Russian accent. Whatever that means.
A: (Laugh) He said that? I don't know. We do have a feeling of where the other person is on the ice and what we want to do. Even without talking. In the locker room, I can pick up some expressions or just look at him and it's like we're talking the same language. There are times when we laugh at each other and maybe don't really understand what we're laughing at.
Q: Even after you won the Calder, you insisted on saying what you've said all along. You don't think of yourself as a star.
A: I am not a star. The Calder Trophy was very exciting. I was overwhelmed. I traveled 23 hours from Russia to Las Vegas and I won. I was very happy for the journey I have made to the Blackhawks and the NHL. But I will never think of myself as a star.
• 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.