KOZUN ON KHL, UKRAINIAN ROOTS
A version of this article originally appeared in Russian on Sport-Express under the title, "Я признателен, что мне столько платят". За что канадец с украинскими корнями уважает КХЛ.”
Canadian Olympian Brandon Kozun is posting a stellar season with Yaroslavl’s Lokomotiv. The twenty-eight year old forward has put up 20 points so far, yet his future with Yaroslavl was only recently hanging in the balance. He discusses his KHL experience, NHL dreams and more with me from Moscow, ahead of Loko’s clash with Spartak.
Sport-Express (GK): Last summer, your future with Yaroslavl was in question with the invitation extended to David Desharnais (now of Avangard). What was going through your mind during that period of uncertainty?
Brandon Kozun (BK): It was tough to tell; there wasn’t really a whole lot of information given to me. I had a contract, and the way I looked at it was that until my contract was terminated, I was preparing for the season like any other.
GK: We understand that you had talks with Astana and Minsk around that time. What transpired there?
BK: I wouldn’t say it was just two clubs in particular. There were talks in case I needed to go somewhere else. But like I said, as long as I had a contract, I couldn’t go anywhere anyway. It was all just preliminary.
GK: This conversation may never have come up if the KHL import limitation did not exist. Do you find it unfair to foreign players like yourself?
BK: I wouldn’t say it’s unfair. They have the rules for a reason, and I would not say that I am one who is above the rules. I abide by what is.
GK: No pushback at all? Even if it had resulted in your departure from Yaroslavl?
BK: It’s our decision to come play here. At the end of the day, if that’s their rule—I can’t hold that against them.
GK: Speaking of that decision—you are a native of the NHL system. What are some of the biggest differences you’ve experienced between the two leagues?
BK: It is hard to compare—two different cultures, two different ways of developing players. I think mentalities are different…maybe some of the smaller stuff in the way that they’ve trained their whole life. In terms of hockey quality—it is very good, and Russian players are very skilled. It’s obvious to anyone who watches them. For me, it’s nice to be able to get an opportunity to play and make a living doing that.
GK: Can you point to any specifics with regards to training, mentality?
BK: In Russia, they really work hard. I think there’s a bit of Soviet time in the way that they think. You put in the work and the results will come. Maybe in Canada, people are more open-minded in the sense that they question sometimes what they’re doing. I find that the Russian players know ‘this is what you do,’ and they do it.
GK: So would you say players are more obedient here?
BK: Yeah…I think it’s a culture thing. Maybe it’s changing a little. In Canada, maybe we are a little more open and people are more laid back in a sense. I think in Russia, people are very honest and respect the authority. If authority tells you to do something, then you do it.
GK: Speaking of playing by the rules, some have said they were broken when Sport-Express published the salaries of the Avtomobilist players earlier this month. What would have been your reaction if it had happened to Yaroslavl?
BK: I don’t think it’s a huge secret. Being from North America, salaries are published anyway. To be honest, I think it would hurt the team more than it would hurt the player. In a negotiation, maybe that affects things. But a lot of guys have similar agents, so you can find out who’s making what.
GK: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve crossed the threshold of $1 million per year. Is it not advantageous for you to broadcast that—whether it’s to other leagues for possibilities, players or teams?
BK: Yeah, I see what you’re saying. And that’s something you use in a negotiation. An agent would definitely use a number, and that’s their job. I don’t take it into mind for myself. At the same time, if it was published, it wouldn’t really matter to me. Obviously I am grateful for what I am paid—at the end of the day it is a business, and you need to try to take care of yourself. I also have to do my job, and part of that job is performing on the ice.
GK: I spoke with an NHL journalist recently about the salary leak. He said it might help to hold teams accountable to their players. Do you think that’s a necessary measure here?
BK: Well…like I said, I am not one to create the rules. I am thankful to have the chance to get paid what I get paid. I am not here to be some rebel or to create rifts.
GK: What is it like being in a Russian-speaking locker room? Does it ever feel isolating?
BK: I speak a little bit [of Russian]. I am trying to learn as much as possible. For me, it’s a huge respect thing; if I am going to be living in the country, I feel like I should try to pick up the language. It’s a difficult but very expressional language. Russian people have so many words that they can use for their emotions; it’s much different than English.
Sometimes yeah, you do feel isolated. Our coaches will rarely speak in English. Sometimes in practice, they will explain everything in Russian and I have to figure it out on my way. I make mistakes sometimes.
GK: Do any notorious incidents comes to mind?
BK: Not notorious—but in practice, our line usually goes first in the drills. Sometimes I don’t know what the drill is and I’m just trying to figure it out as we go! [Laughs] I’ve gotten actually pretty good at that. Our other imports on the team speak pretty good Russian, so it’s easy to ask them. Our coach [Dmitry Kvartalnov] does speak English, and if I really need help, I can ask.
GK: Kvartalnov has a reputation for being harsh. His former players on CSKA say that there wasn’t a lot of room for creativity. What has been your experience?
BK: He has a system in place that he wants to play, and he’s very demanding. You have to play underneath the system or it doesn’t really work. Under the system, everyone plays the same way or it’s very difficult for it to work.
GK: Have you entertained any offers back in the NHL over the last few years?
BK: I’ve talked to teams over the years, but it never got to the point where I felt so good about the situation that I would go back. For me, it’s about developing as a hockey player and it’s a business—you want to make a living. I’m not twenty years old anymore.
GK: So the offers were better in the KHL?
BK: Yeah—it has been better for me, personally. You grow attachment to certain people, and for me, I’ve been in Yaroslavl for three years. You build relationships and that’s something you want to see out as well. But the NHL was always my dream growing up. I had a chance to fulfill that dream, and I felt very proud of that. I still am. Is it somewhere that I’ve closed off? No.
If I I got the right opportunity in a situation I liked, I would definitely consider it. But as of now, I try not to think too far ahead. Usually when I do that, trouble comes to me. I have to take things day by day.
GK: Do you think your NHL experience would have been better if you had been with another franchise?
BK: I get that question sometimes. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. I am grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given, and proud of myself for accomplishing that dream of playing. Are there times that you wonder what if? I think that’s a natural human emotion. But at the same time, it doesn’t do me any good. It’s in the past, and I have to take things day-by-day.
GK: Let’s talk a bit about the Olympics. You were born in the United States but that is not the flag you were wearing in South Korea. What was your experience of representing Team Canada?
BK: Well it was the second time I’ve done it. The first decision I had to make when I was nineteen years old playing in the World Junior Championships. At that time, I had to choose the U.S. or Canada. I always felt that I was raised a bit more Canadian. I’m proud to be American as well—I have family there and lived there. My mom was Canadian and we moved to Canada when I was ten years old, and she ran the house a little bit! I may have been raised with more Canadian roots. That first decision was a lot harder than the second decision. Once I made that decision, I was always going to play for Canada—I am pretty loyal, and in my mind, once you make the decision…you stick to it.
GK: Your Canada teammate Wojtek Wolski mentioned what an emotional moment it was, getting the call that he was on the squad. Tell me about that day for you.
BK: For sure, proud. Any chance you get to be an Olympian—no one can take that from you. My whole life, I can say that I am an Olympian. It’s like the NHL—no one can take that from me. No one can take the fact that I scored an NHL goal. Moments like that are pretty important.
GK: You didn’t just go to the Olympics—you came home with some hardware. What was it like bouncing back from the Germany game to play for the bronze medal?
BK: You want to come home with something, right? It’s still an Olympic bronze medal—I wouldn’t say there are many people in the world who have one of those. If you can’t motivate yourself to go after an Olympic medal, then there’s something wrong with you.
We had really good character on that team. I don’t think there was one guy in the room who was still thinking about that loss. Of course we were disappointed—we wanted to win the whole thing. But at the end of the day, you have to focus on the next thing in front of you.
GK: You mentioned recently that you have Ukrainian ancestry. Have you explored that at all?
BK: My grandma was born in the Ukraine and she moved when she was very young. Her parents didn’t speak any English and my grandma speaks fluent Ukrainian. And I’m very close with my grandmother—so it’s actually very close to me. I grew up with her making Ukrainian food, and it’s interesting that I ended up close to [her birthplace] at the end of it.
SE: You play with a lot of talented young guys on this team. Whose potential are you most excited about?
BK: I don’t want to single out a certain guy. We have a lot of young players with a lot of potential. There’s definitely some development that needs to be done, but that’s everyone at that age. Some guys are under twenty hears old playing with us; it’s a big step for them— going from playing against boys to playing against men. There are a lot of guys with potential to have long careers. If they do the right things and work the right way and want to get better, I don’t see why that will be a problem.
GK: Do you think Denisenko has a bright career ahead in the NHL?
BK: I don’t want to say that he’s going to have a 20 year career right now. He definitely has the potential to be there. You can see it in him everyday; I think you forget that he’s only 18 or 19 years old. He has the ability, and it will be up to him—how hard he wants to work, how hard he wants to get to that point. It’s going to take a lot of work, and a lot of drive, and there are going to be ups and downs. I don’t see why he doesn’t have the potential to do it.