NUR-SULTAN NOT ASTANA
A Russian version of this article first appeared on Sport-Express under the title, “Национализм в США – деликатная тема. Что об этом думает американец, выступающий за Казахстан.”
After making it to the semifinals of the Gagarin Cup this season, Barys star Brandon Bochenski has witnessed some big shifts at his club—not the least of which was a name change. Sport-Express caught up with the Kazakh-American forward in the newly-minted capital of Nur-Sultan, where his team prepares for the Group B World Championships.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You were competing in the playoffs when the Kazakh government decided to change the capital’s name from Astana to Nur-Sultan. Did the political story come up at all in the locker room?
Brandon Bochenski (BB): It’s not the first time that they’ve done it! We thought it would take a year to roll out, but the city’s already called Nur-Sultan now. It’s kind of weird, hard to get used to…but it had no effect really on us in the locker room.
GK: Are you already feeling the impact of the change?
BB: I went home for two weeks and only came back about a few days ago. In the airport in Frankfurt, that was the first time I had really seen the name because the flight had changed — instead of Astana, now we’re flying to Nur-Sultan! The people here are kind of laughing about it right now. Obviously it’s respectful to the former president, but it’s just a little bit of a running joke amongst the citizens here.
GK: You’re going to have to update all of your ‘Barys Astana’ gear though.
BB: No, I think it’s better now! It’s vintage.
GK: There was some trash-talking going on between yourself and Avangard star Sergei Shumakov regarding injuries during the Eastern Conference semifinals. Did [head coach] Andrei Skabelka ask you to hunt some of these guys in retribution for last season, or were all of the injuries just coincidence?
BB: No, I think we just played a real physical game. It was really successful for us all year, and then suddenly in the playoffs a lot of guys were supposedly getting injured or laying on the ice. So many more penalties were suddenly being called in the playoffs. For us North American players, it’s usually the opposite. The playoffs are an even more physical game. We didn’t really ramp anything up, we played the same way we played all year. Our coach really wanted to beat them, but as far as telling us to go after guys, that was definitely not the case.
GK: Skabelka left Avangard in tough circumstances - you’d have to think it was a matter of principle for him to win the series.
BB: Yeah, and we struggled against them in the regular season too. He was really hungry, I think, to play well against them. We could tell that he was really intense in the lead up to those games. Nothing out of the ordinary really, just that he really wanted to win.
GK: And now Avangard is facing up against CSKA in the finals. Any predictions?
BB: Well, it will be interesting. I know Avangard has managed to have a week of rest before each series, which has probably helped them. CSKA was the regular season champion and they’re really good—I think they’ve got to be the favorites, but it will be interesting. East versus West…you know last year, I think a lot of teams could’ve seen a different outcome in the final than what happened. So we’ll see.
GK: Speaking of interesting—we have to talk about that hit Torpedo goalie Barry Brust landed on you during Game 7. What do you make of him?
BB: [Laughs] He’s just a guy that battles. In that game, he was just trying to do everything he could to win. He decided to play physical against me, I just happened to be the guy there…it was kind of a funny play because when you run into the goalie, you’re just trying not to get a penalty. So I was just trying to make sure I didn’t get a penalty on that play. But he played all seven games, and played really well - he’s unorthodox, but he battles hard and plays hard. You’ve got to respect that.
GK: You’ve experienced a lot of coaches at Barys. Does Skabelka rank among your top choices?
BB: Probably him and we had another Belorussian coach, Eduard Zankovets, who was here two years ago. They had a pretty similar style and we had about the same success with both. So I would say that I have those guys one and two. But after playing the full season with Skabelka, I’d say he’s probably the best coach we’ve had since I’ve been here—about the last eight, nine years.
GK: Darren Dietz appeared incredibly focused this season. His contract expires next year and he’s only 25. Any chance of seeing him going back to the NHL?
BB: I think that’s always tough. For him, and for most North Americans, you’re not really coming over here to try to get back. You’re here to find a new game and to try something different. It’s possible - I think he’s put up really good numbers. At this point, he can probably do better financially by staying here and with less risk. So that would be a tough decision for him — but you never know. It would be interesting to see.
GK: And speaking of contracts—yours is about to expire. Any word on what’s next? Maybe a coaching role in Kazakhstan?
BB: Yeah, we’ll see. That was something we had talked about before last season - possibly coming in as a coach. I said I wanted to come back — I might as well play. I felt like I was getting my game back throughout the year, and playing better and better toward the end. So I still feel like I can play. As far as next season, I haven’t made that decision yet. I want to see what the makeup of the team’s gonna be, if we’re gonna be competitive, if the budget will be there to have a competitive team where we can really do something. I don’t want to come back and not be able to be a top team like this season. That’s what I’m waiting for now, and I’ll make that decision in probably the next month or two.
GK: There is a tired old saying that goes, “If you want to become a coach, you have to kill the player inside of you first.” Would you be capable of doing that so quickly after your playing career?
BB: I think that’d be tough. For some guys, it’s a really easy transition. I play such an intense, emotional game that I would have a hard time sitting back and not being able to physically impact the game. I think it will be really tough - we’ll have to see. I can definitely understand that saying, and I would say that the player in me has not been killed yet! So maybe that’s not a good indicator.
GK: What are you focused on right now?
BB: We have the B Group of the World Championships — we need to get back in the A Group. I’m in (Nur-Sultan) right now training for that, and at the end of the month we’ll start that tournament. So I’m not focusing beyond that. I got to go back home and spend a couple weeks with my family and recharge. That’s really big and hosted here in Astana—or, in Nur-Sultan! It will be a good crowd and it will be fun.
GK: Nationalism in the U.S. can be such a sensitive thing. Did anyone ever question your decision to play for Kazakhstan on the international stage?
BB: No, not really. Anyone that knows me, knows that I am really loyal and a hardworking guy, so it would be hard to question. I think about decisions before I do them. Nobody really ever said anything to me, there was never an issue. When we played in the World Championships, we never got to play against Team USA. That might have been really strange because I have a friend that I grew up playing hockey with that was on Team USA.
GK: Who was it?
BB: Matt Hendricks. It was the Moscow World Championships. He was the captain of their team, and I was the assistant captain of our team. It might have been cool to end up playing them. Nobody has really said anything negative about it.
The group of guys we have that became Kazakh citizens here have all been good guys too — willing to interact with the fans, stick around, sign autographs, talk to people. Whatever it takes. People always say this, but I think we have a really good group of guys that was easy for the people to get behind outside of hockey.
GK: I am sure you get asked what you miss from home when you’re living abroad. But what do you miss about Nur-Sultan when you are back in the States?
BB: Surprisingly, the food here is amazing. Probably a dozen different restaurants that we go to — you can get whatever you want. A good steak, Italian, Korean, Thai. It’s all really good and kind of inexpensive compared to back home. I really do miss a few of the restaurants when I am away, so it’s nice to come back. Me and a couple of guys are doing a tour now, going back to all of them.
GK: I read a story recently about how you had bought some land in Grand Forks to save the integrity of the neighborhood. How is that going?
BB: You did some research on this! It was a strange deal. We had bought a house in this neighborhood, were really excited about it — but there was a developer there trying to throw apartments up and we fought it. It wasn’t going our way, so we ended up deciding to buy it and winning that way. But it’s in-process - there is a lot of stuff you have to send in to the city with planning. As soon as everything thaws out in Grand Forks, I’ll put the sewer, water mains in, and then they’ll start the roads. I’ll have some lots to sell in the fall, and some houses to sell the year after that.
GK: Aside from the real estate venture, what else keeps you occupied during the off-season?
BB: Well, I picked up tennis! I hadn’t really played tennis at all since high school. When I had taken a year off, I took up tennis and was playing three days a week. That is something I really missed when I came over here, and I got to get back into it the last couple of weeks.
GK: One-handed or two-handed backhand?
BB: [Laughs] Gees, that’s a tough question. I tried to do the one-handed at first and it didn’t work, so I am a two-handed backhander now.
GK: Will we see any dramatic tennis matchups on the Barys roster soon?
BB: We wanted to play, it just didn’t work out this year! But I think Henrik Karlsson wanted to play, and Viktor Svedberg. So I think the Swedes would have been good - that just seems like something that they would be good at. We’ll have to see what happens.