STAKES ON A PLANE
A version of this article first appeared in Спорт-Экспресс under the title “Кто три самых талантливых хоккеиста в НХЛ и КХЛ? Интервью канадца из "Авангарда" – Коди Фрэнсона.”
Former Chicago Blackhawk Cody Franson never imagined the turn that his last season in the NHL would take after bouncing back from injury. He chats with me for Sport-Express about those final days in Chicago, the infamous Teddy Purcell podcast, and how question number one for Bob Hartley centered around the state of Avangard’s plane.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Take me back to the time of your injury last season, a moment where the tides really changed for you in the NHL and with the Blackhawks. How would you summarize it?
Cody Franson (CF): It was a slow start; [Chicago] had a couple of young guys that they wanted to see early. The first few games of the year, I was a healthy scratch because the guys played well. But once I got in, I started playing well and was paired with Keith, and we played almost twenty games together. We were starting to really find out groove, and then I took a cross-check against Buffalo and broke three ribs. I was out a couple of weeks with that. When I came back, the team had decided to go in a completely different direction, and we went from being in and out of the playoffs to outside of the bubble. I think that had a big part in them wanting to see what their young guys could bring, and what they would be like next year.
When I came back in the lineup, it was a couple of games, but then I went down to [Chicago AHL affiliate] Rockford and tried to make the most of it.
GK: What was the tone of your conversations with coaching and management at that time? You were playing well, you must have been pissed.
CF: Oh, I was very upset. I think it was 10:30 at night when I got the call, and I didn’t see it coming. You don’t expect to get that call.
It was [Joel] Quenneville who was calling me, so I assumed I was getting traded. When he said he was putting me on waivers, that caught me by surprise. Q was great about it, and I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Q. He was a great coach and I really enjoyed playing for him.
You start trying to wrap your head around going on waivers, and you start trying to get a feel for teams’ needs, what the media says about it. Things start popping up where there are 5 or 6 teams that should claim you, and then once you go through waivers, it really sets in that things have drastically changed and all you can do is put your best foot forward.
GK: Around the time that you signed with Chicago, surely there were other offers. Do you have any regrets about going to the franchise?
CF: If I had to go through this situation again, I would have done it the same way. Chicago is a great organization and a situation that I wanted to be a part of. I think obviously with losing [Corey] Crawford, we went from being in-the-mix to slowly falling out of it a bit. I think that if we had been having a winning season, we wouldn’t have gone through that. But that’s how the chips fall sometimes. Unfortunately for me, it meant the team was looking at the younger guys.
GK: Chicago has had quite a change of fate in recent memory. You mentioned Crawford; do you look at his departure from the lineup as a big reason for the slide?
CF: I wouldn’t say he was the main reason. But I think from their view, when you lose a guy like that who is such a big piece of the team, and when you’re having a tough time not falling down the standings and can’t get a guy like that back, it’s tough to claw your way back into the playoffs. Knowing that they weren’t getting Crawford back, it made it easier for them to commit to a different plan.
GK: I looked back at the news from this past summer—a lot of the Toronto Maple Leafs bloggers were clamoring for you to come back. Would you consider a return?
CF: Oh, I would have loved to! That was probably the best portion of my career. I grew up a Leafs fan as a kid, and playing for them was my childhood dream. I have a lot of good friends and relationships there and never wanted to leave Toronto. But obviously that’s part of the game. I would have gone back there in a heartbeat.
GK: Our sources say you make over a million per year, which puts you in a special class in the KHL. I’d assume offers were better here?
CF: When I was in Rockford toward the end of the year, the offers were ones that had to make you seriously consider coming.
GK: Coming here, you mean?
CF: Yeah. We had some other options, but Bob was a big part of eventually coming to Omsk.
At the end of the season last year, I was still in an angry mindset and didn’t feel I was in a place where I couldn’t play. I felt short-changed a little; I still have a lot to offer and could have made a difference somewhere. I wanted to claw my way back in and extend my career in the NHL for a few years. As the summer went on, and you start to see what your options are going forward, I kept coming back to the fact that I didn’t think I was in a position to clear waivers last year. It would probably be even easier to do so this year, but if it didn’t go perfectly, then I didn’t want to go through the whole process again.
In talking to Bob throughout the summer, and what it was sounding like here and the group of guys they had, how they treat them, the financials are obviously a big part of it—your window to try and set your life up after hockey is small. It came down to whether I risk trying to play in the NHL selfishly, or do I do what’s best for my family and go this way? Eventually, we landed on this.
GK: Was Bob Hartley the reason you signed in the KHL?
CF: I was considering it before this summer.
GK: Any specific clubs?
CF: I’d rather not say, but I think Bob was definitely the piece that pushed me over the decision-making line.
GK: What were some of the things that he told you about life here?
CF: Obviously Bob had been in the NHL for a long time, so he knew what the lifestyle was like. He knows what guys expect over there.
Bob was adamant that the organization was strong and treated their players well. They have translators who follow us around to make it a lot easier. He had a few other imports here—guys I knew from playing—and obviously Omsk is one of the higher-tiered franchises in the league, so there’s comfort in that.
One of my first questions was, “what’s the plane like?” Obviously when talking about this whole situation with my family, the question was—is it safe? Have they committed to being a safe organization? You hear some of the crazy stories back home where you’re getting on planes that belong in museums.
GK: Alright, so—how is the plane?
CF: [Laughs] It’s great! The team makes sure that they do it right.
Bob was very open, gave me all the answers I was looking for. My wife’s pregnant so we had to get a feel for how that would work out here, and find an English-speaking doctor. We had to make sure she was comfortable, because she’s too far along to fly back—once she came, we knew we were having the baby here. Bob really helped out, got us in touch with people who had children at the hospital that we are going to. The assistant coaches have been great; one coach’s wife delivered at that hospital and she came with us to our appointments. Stuff like that has made the whole experience great.
GK: Teddy Purcell’s war stories about Avangard come to mind when we talk about life in Russia. Did you listen to his segment on John Bissonnette’s podcast? What does the team think?
CF: I’m one of those guys who doesn’t have Facebook, Twitter, anything like that—so I’ve heard about his interview, but I haven’t seen it myself. I know that there was some stuff being tweeted out from [Avangard’s] standpoint, just making jokes about some of what he said.
Some of the things I’ve heard he said, I haven’t seen myself.
GK: Such as?
CF: The financial comment he made—we haven’t experienced that. They’ve done nothing but take care of us.
GK: The guys have to be talking about it in the locker room.
CF: Yeah, the guys were talking about it a little bit, and everybody had a couple of laughs over some of the stuff that the organization was saying back.
GK: I interviewed Kozy at Lokomotiv. He’s one of the only English speakers on that team, and he mentioned that sometimes the coaches run drills and only speak in Russian, so he has to try and figure out what’s going on. What’s the vibe like in a primarily Russian squad for a foreigner?
CF: This was part of my decision-making as well. I talked to Jeff Glass a lot about Russia last year when we started considering things, and he had good insight for me on what to expect. He was in a situation where he was the only English speaker for a year, and said it was the longest year of his career. With Bob, even his Russian coaches speak English. And I played with Pokka last year in Rockford for a bit, played against Max, David…so I’ve known all of those guys. Knowing that I had a couple of people to converse with over the course of the season made it easier to wrap my head around coming.
We are fortunate that all of our Russian coaches speak English, and when we have our team meetings, Bob will say what he needs to say and every thirty seconds they pause for Russian translators. For me, fortunately, nothing has changed…all the drills get explained in English, then in Russian. It hasn’t been too much like what Kozy’s going through.
GK: Do the Russians and foreign players hang out, or is there a clear divide?
CF: We hang out a lot more on the road. Everybody eats together, we travel together and hang out in the hotel. When we’re at home, all of the imports live in Moscow in the same building. We practice, go home and hang out with the families. When we’re home, there isn’t a lot of hanging out outside of your family.
GK: Tell me about the best and toughest places you’ve played in the KHL so far.
CF: Toughest place—Magnitogorsk has a good team, but going in there, that was one of the early games when I came over. My first game on the road was in Astana, which is a really nice place. And then you go into Magnitogorsk and it’s more of a normal Russian city, and gets dark early. A little bit of a different vibe, if you will!
GK: Who are the three most talented players you’ve faced here and in the NHL?
CF: Well Datsyuk’s here [laughs]…so, you know, him! There are a couple of really skilled guys in SKA. Mozyakin is obviously a high-end scorer in this league. And then maybe Dawes—he’s obviously put up good numbers. Those three jump out at me.
Over there? McDavid, Crosby, Ovechkin. Probably your typical top three.
GK: Avangard is in a strange situation as the club is only temporarily exiled to Moscow. Would it have changed your mind at all if you had to play in Siberia from the outset?
CF: No - when we started making our decision to come over, the team hadn’t really announced that they were making this move yet. We were fully ready to go to Omsk. I’ve heard some nice things about it—apparently they have more Colorado-like weather. Cold, but a lot of sun. I can live with that! Coming out here, I got to watch a couple of games before I started to play; we had full crowds and the atmosphere was great. We were playing Kazan and Magnitogorsk—and those were big rival games. I didn’t even really know that at the time! The atmosphere was great, had a bit more of a soccer feel to it with the crowd singing and stuff. It has been a lot of fun.
GK: You guys are in playoff position—have to wonder what the impact of the missing home crowd will be on that experience.
CF: I’ve been told Omsk is very much a hockey city—people are very passionate about Avangard, so obviously having access to that fan base would be great. But at the same time, we’ve had a great turnout here.