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Much ado about Igor Ozhiganov

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Igor Ozhiganov stars as this summer’s player quoted out of context in a Russian interview.

Toronto Maple Leafs practice before game four against the Boston Bruins in their first round play-off series
Practising with the scratches in the playoffs.
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Nikita Zaitsev usually does a fun interview every summer in Russia, where the tables are turned, and the most taciturn man to ever play for the Maple Leafs is suddenly joking around and slagging off Don Cherry.

With Zaitsev gone, the role passed to the also-departed Igor Ozhiganov to supply the hot quotes. And are they ever hot.

Now, I like Igor Eronko, and find his contributions invaluable, but this was a bit... well, I’ll let a Russian speaker tell it:

Imagine going and reading the original interview in full, and forming an opinion from all of it. That’s a hell of an idea, why don’t we try that?

In case you’ve forgotten the exciting tale of Igor Ozhiganov and his brief flirtation with the NHL, it goes like this: He played for CSKA (Zaitsev’s old club) and fell out of favour with the coach, and couldn’t get any ice time. The Leafs came calling and offered him an NHL contract, and he was then played even more carefully than Roman Polak and Connor Carrick rolled together. Ozhiganov was never terrible, but he never actually did anything much either. He promptly went back to the KHL and took a job with Ak Bars.

Most of his interview is about his new job, his old KHL experiences, and the issues between him and his former coach, so that was a theme established in the presentation of the article. His experiences in Toronto were added as a contrast.

Note: I’m using the Google-supplied translate function in Chrome, and not even correcting this with a real Russian translator, because the meaning and context doesn’t require it.

The first discussion of his life in Toronto is about his state of mind, and how he got along there. He says this very interesting thing:

Did it [his hard final year with CSKA] help to mentally prepare for the role of a substitute in Toronto?

- Yes. No matter how silly it sounds, it helped me. I will not hide, if everything was fine with me at CSKA, I would not have gone to Toronto.

- It was necessary to change the situation?

- I understood that I would still find myself a team in Russia. I’ll go and try. No, no, no. I got a motivation and a desire to play.

Ozhiganov basically used the Maple Leafs to reboot his KHL career, and it worked! He got a spot on a good team, and he’s likely a better player now, or more widely experienced. He denies he was just looking to jack up his KHL salary because, in his case, he was done at CSKA for good.

Now to the ass-licking and/or kissing or whatever the Russian term for brownnose is. It’s not even remotely a surprise that the interviewer starts the ball rolling on this topic:

Coach [Konstantin Kurashev], who worked a lot in Switzerland, said that in Russia a player who communicates with a coach is considered either a licking or a snitch. How is it in Canada?

- This is a huge difference. When you arrive there, you go into the locker room - and it seems to you that they are not just licking an ass, but it is not known what they do with it at all. They just wait for the coach to appear, to laugh, to say something to him. On the plane, as soon as they see that a coach has appeared in the aisle, they run to him. We, Russians, look at this and understand that we would simply not communicate with such a person in a team.

And that’s it. He’s just confirming a cultural difference Zaitsev has discussed in the past. He had to explain to the press in Canada why he never smiled.

Now for the fun stuff! After some discussion of his role on AkBars, Ozhiganov goes on to dish on the coaching in Toronto a little:

- Mike Babcock is the most expensive trainer in the world. What is its uniqueness?

“Well, dear, because he won everything possible in his career.” There are nuances in his approach. Every day he will ask how are you, how are you in the family and so on. Do not go past him! Mike knows how to build a homely atmosphere.

“Do you know who Mike Commodore is?” - Yes, I heard about that.

“Have you heard his sayings about Babcock?” He called him a charlatan and a piece of shit.

It’s hard for me to understand him. On my own example and on the example of Nikita Zaitsev, I can say that Babcock is a very decent person. Why did the Commodore say such things? I don’t know.

- Babcock kicked him out of the team twice. Perhaps this is still the case.

- There are such cases when a player intersects with a coach in different teams. Like Oziganov with Kvartalnovym (laughs) [Ozhiganov’s former coach at CSKA and current coach at Ak Bars]. And the opposite situation happens. This is a normal occurrence. Looks like Commodore just didn’t suit Babcock. But he did not give a shit about him to make such statements. Well, in fact, that Mike changed him, and did not send him to the AHL.

- In your career there was a coach about whom you would like to say the same words as Commodore about Babcock?

- Yes, but I won’t name it.

I don’t think he really needs to name him, not even for us reading this in semi-garbled translation. It’s easy to see he means the man who replaced Dmitri Kvartalnov at CSKA, and the point of all of that Babcock talk is revealed to be a way to say his old coach was a piece of shit without ever saying it.

There’s one more interesting bit later on. Ozhiganov discusses the fan response to Russian players versus local boys:

- In the NHL, is it different [the way a foreign player is received vs in the KHL]? - In Toronto, how? A guy from Ontario appears on the ice - the stands screech and squeak. It turns out Nikita Zaitsev, who played for the club for three years, and simply restrained applause. I’m not talking about Tavares or Marner, they are stars! Zach Hyman is an example. He came with Zaitsev almost at the same time, only he was local, and Nikita was from Moscow. And the attitude towards them is different.

- Probably, it should be so.

- I think yes. They will adore you if you are head and shoulders cooler than locals like Ovechkin or Kucherov. To ordinary guys, and there are such ones in the NHL, they have a slightly different attitude.

There’s more in the interview referencing how the game is different in the NHL or in the KHL, and this theme of how a foreign player is treated and received in the two leagues comes up a little more. In fact, the site took that idea and made an editorial out of it that took that quote above about Hyman and Zaitsev, and conveniently left out the follow up. The point of the editorial was that foreign players are raised in hot house conditions in the KHL, while in the NHL, it’s sink or swim.

Is there some truth in that? Yes, absolutely. But it needs to be remembered that most foreigners in the KHL (where there are limits) are not third-pairing defenders. They’re often huge stars or at least very good players. Meanwhile, in the NHL, there’s a lot of depth, middle-ranked and top-ranked players from every origin.

Can the NHL do a better job of helping players from other countries acclimatize? Likely they can. Both the Leafs and the Flames had Russian-speaking former hockey players on the ice at their development camps this year for the first time. In the past, the Leafs have been relying on players to help the less able at English get along. It seems like this is a bit late in the day to be getting this figured out. But the NHL has been made lazy by the Swedes and Finns who speak better English than the Canadians and Americans.

Meanwhile, in the KHL, the very recent trend to foreign coaches like Bob Hartley has made it easier for English-only speakers to get along. But moving to Russia is an order of magnitude more difficult than moving to Sweden or Switzerland, so if the KHL has to help the players succeed, that’s only reasonable.

And that’s the rest of the story that won’t fit in a tweet.