Transmissions from an American journalist's 44 weeks in Moscow.



Maxim Afinogenov has spent ten years in the NHL and KHL each, still chasing his passion on the ice at the age of 40. A Buffalo Sabres third-round draft pick prized for his speed, Afinogenov returned to his home city of Moscow under the watchful eye of storied Russian national coach Vladimir Krikunov. I caught up with Maxim after morning skate at VTB Arena, Dynamo Moscow’s state-of-the-art facility that opened only ten months ago.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You celebrated your fortieth birthday in September and are still playing professional hockey. Where is the fountain of youth located?

Maxim Afinogenov (MA): It’s no secret: just love the game. I have two passions—my family and hockey. That has helped me a lot.

GK: A lot of players say that they want to play until 40 or 50, but their bodies give out before their wills.

MA: You know, last year I got the biggest injury of my career—I had surgery on my shoulder. I was happy that it happened when I was 39 years old, not 18 or 15. It’s the end of my career right now, and I spent all of last season not playing and preparing for this one. It was a tough start, but right now, I am healthy and feel good.

GK: Maybe you’ll go until you’re 50.

MA: I will play for as long as I have passion to get on the ice, and the power to practice. I love hockey, it’s most important.

GK: There are obvious differences between the KHL and the NHL—ice size, speed, physicality. Is there anything not so obvious?

MA: Definitely the NHL is number one, no question about that. All of the best players are there. But the KHL is really good—we have good speed and are changing the ice size to be smaller. Half of the teams have probably Finnish-sized arenas, and maybe six or seven have smaller, NHL-sized ice. Three or four have bigger. I think it’s good—smaller ice. It’s good for the fans and good for us because we have more opportunities to score goals. The games were usually focused in the corners all of the time, but now it’s in front of the net.

GK: Do you have to make conscious preparations for when you play in different-sized arenas across the K?

MA: I mean, if I know we are playing on the big ice…I’m like, “oh no, please!” [Laughs] I mean, it’s just three arenas. Right now, the World Championship will be played on smaller ice. The game has changed and it is played faster, which is better when you have smaller arenas. Fans won’t fall asleep.

GK: Vladimir Krikunov just won his 300th game as a KHL head coach. What’s it like playing for him? I hear he’s tough…

MA: You know, I played with him when it was a lockout year in 2004. I was back home in Dynamo and he was the coach—we won the championship.

It’s lots of practices, not many days off! But that’s his style. You can’t change a person when they’re 70 years old. He has his own thinking. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t…but he has his own way. It’s good.

GK: Vitali Kravtsov, the prized New York Rangers prospect, recently decided to come back to the KHL after being sent down to Hartford. You’ve played in both systems…where do you think he can best progress?

MA: Everybody is different. For some, it’s better to stay in the KHL and improve your game here. For others, you go to North America and spend 1-2 months in the AHL. In my case, when I came to North America, they sent me after camp to the AHL for one month. I was there, and after they called me up, I never went back.

If you take the Kravtsov case, maybe he thinks he will play more here. It’s tough to say.

For me, if you go there…you don’t need to come back right away. That’s my position. Of course you’ll go through some bad things, but you are going to be stronger after that.

GK: You spent very little time in the AHL.

MA: That’s right, fifteen games.

GK: What was going through your mind?

MA: I was pissed off! I was like, “oh no, I want to go back!” I did everything I could to go back to the main team—the Sabres. I tried to play my best in the AHL.

GK: Coming back to Russia was never an option you entertained, then.

MA: No.

GK: Whenever I see roundups of the Sabres’ most memorable moments, your 2007 OT goal against the New York Rangers always comes up. What is your most cherished NHL memory?

MA: We had a good team. The year 2005, I believe, we came close to winning the Cup. We lost against Carolina in Game 7 in the semifinal. It was a great year, but something small was missing. It was great to be so close. For sure I wanted to win the Cup, but my time there is gone.

GK: When you were at Vityaz, Alexei Makeyev said he used to play as you on his video game console. How does it feel to play alongside youngsters who grew up idolizing your career?

MA: Young guys always come to me and ask questions about practice, the game. I help them and I want them to improve. If they ask about some episodes in the game, I will always help. I like that. When I was young, I was always asking all the older guys too who helped me a lot.

GK: What do you miss most about Buffalo?

MA: The fans are unbelievable there. I love them, and I hope that they love me too. I had a great time.

GK: Did you bring any Russian traditions to the Sabres locker room?

MA: Yes—drinking tea between periods! [Laughs] That’s a tradition in Russia. I got some of them to do it.