During the first half of Ilya Samsonov’s inaugural season with the Hershey Bears, he struggled to make the adjustment to the North American game as his young team struggled. In 15 games played through December, Samsonov recorded just five wins, and saw several shakeups, including countryman Sergei Shumakov being placed on unconditional waivers.
Then, in the new year, Samsonov switched up his number and became a big contributor to a historic point streak for the Bears, alongside fellow goaltender Vitek Vanecek. With his newfound confidence, he gave two interviews in English without a translator.
On February 22, Samsonov spoke to Evgeny Belousov for Sport-Express about how he’s settled into life in Hershey and finally figured out his game.
“There is a great atmosphere in the locker room, many guys are helping me to adapt,” Samsonov said as translated by Igor Kleyner. “I interact with Vitek Vanecek and Nathan Walker more than anybody else.”
As for when he may play in the NHL, Samsonov added that “[the Capitals] told me if it weren’t for my poor first part of the season, I would have played for the big team by now.”
The interview follows below.
Over the last 12 games your saving percentage is 0.935. Have you finally found your game?
Ilya Samsonov: “Yes. I improved interactions with the teammates, now things are working out well. I talk to the Capitals coaching staff, mostly about my mistakes. They are helping me progress.”
Prior to this run, you would often allow five or more goals against in a game. How did you turn things around?
Ilya Samsonov: “I learned a lot of things from my coach, and also I finally figured out for myself why I am here. My family and friends have visited me here – they helped me to settle down.”
Did your agent Igor Larionov help you get through the tough times?
Ilya Samsonov: “I was a high draft pick, signed a contract, and was given opportunity to play. We talk often, he does everything for me. I have learned a lot from him about life here, how to behave properly.”
What has changed in your game in the half a season in North America?
Ilya Samsonov: “Everything is different here. You are always under pressure, and cannot sit back in goal. You have to be prepared for a shot at all times. They ask you to play the puck more because otherwise your guys get killed behind the goal. You have to pass the puck right to [your teammate] stick blade.”
Early in the season, Washington goalies had problems that were associated with their goaltending specialist Mitch Korn leaving for the Islanders. Now he has turned around the play of Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner.
Ilya Samsonov: “Greiss never had that many shutouts in his life! But our goaltending coach Scott Murray is also great. He worked using the same system with Mitch for a long time. Actually, goaltenders have it tough here, we practice a lot.”
How so – isn’t there less practice time in North America?
Ilya Samsonov: “That is not how our team is. Every day – an hour and 45 minutes of ice time. Half an hour of goalie training, the rest – general practice. But the coaches listen to us and allow us to recover.”
— 2SP Sports Performance (@2SPsports) June 19, 2016
Hershey population is only 15 thousand people – are you missing Magnitogorsk?
Ilya Samsonov: “Yes, the town is rather small, but there are some nice spots. Two hours to New York, an hour and a half to Philadelphia. But getaways don’t happen often, I spend all my time between home and arena. I have a nice apartment not far from the rink. When I get home – sit down to play FIFA.”
Do you often spend a lot of time playing video games?
Ilya Samsonov: “Early in the season, when I lived together with Shumakov, we pretty much never even turned it off. Without language, there wasn’t much else to do. Now, I try to stay away from it before the games. I gave all my FIFA points to Kuzy.”
Why did it not work out for Shumakov?
Ilya Samsonov: “Sergei had issues adjusting to life here. We talked recently – he is glad he returned to Russia.”
What was most difficult after the move here?
Ilya Samsonov: “The language barrier was the toughest, also getting used to the local mentality. Now I have settled in, and even gave a small interview in English. There was a lot of strange things – the bus travel, the weird schedule. I was homesick at first. Then together with Marusya (fiancée) we settled down.”
"Big win today. We want to win tomorrow." Ilya Samsonov, while not a huge fan of shootouts, was happy with last night's win and knows how big a win today will be. pic.twitter.com/uYQuxMlwVz
— Chocolate Hockey (@ChocHockey) February 17, 2019
How often do your parents come to visit?
Ilya Samsonov: “My mom came over once, my dad is coming soon. Marusya is here for the third time. While we are talking, she is watching some fitness bloggers.”
What’s the most shocking thing you have seen in America?
Ilya Samsonov: “Last summer my parents and I drove to Orlando. They thought everything is safe and quiet here. We get on interstate, and there is traffic. All of a sudden, I see – a pickup truck is coming up behind us real fast. Swerves around, barely avoiding hitting us, then flips over and smashes hard! We keep going – in an hour, a car next to us flies off the road. We pull over to a gas station. Barely start moving again – another traffic jam, and there are bodies being covered with blankets. We counted the same number of accidents on our drive back as well, but we were no longer surprised.
“On my drive to the arena, I constantly see roadkill – deer and raccoons. We often see beavers right next to our building. Sometimes there were situations when I simply didn’t understand where I ended up, but I managed to deal with it. The team lives within its means. There is good stuff as well – the arena is great, VIP bus, excellent show. They really like hockey here, there is a sellout in a 10.5 thousand seat arena almost every game.”
Do they sell jerseys with your name on it?
Ilya Samsonov: “Sometimes we play in funny shirts with Star Wars them, or in bright colors if there is an event against cancer. My shirts were selling very well, better than any others. Even when I was letting in too many goals in the beginning of the season.”
How are your relationships with teammates?
Ilya Samsonov: “There is a great atmosphere in the locker room, many guys are helping me to adapt. I interact with Vitek Vanecek and Nathan Walker more than anybody else.”
The save that kept the streak alive. Ilya Samsonov makes a great breakaway save!
14 game point streak in tact! 13-0-0-1.
Hershey is now one point back from @LVPhantoms with a game at hand and they play each other again tomorrow!#HersheyBears #HBH #HERvsLV @CapsOutsider pic.twitter.com/FgVmtvhVcR
— Cory Lyons (@CoryLyonsAHL) February 17, 2019
You recently posted a photo on your Instagram with your colleague Vanecek, and captioned it “Nachalnik” [Russian for boss]. What’s the story here?
Ilya Samsonov: “He calls me Boss, and I translated to Russian. The Czechs understand some Russian, and now we call each other Nachalnik and Big Nachalnik. We have a great relationship with Vitek. I even met his family when they were in town.”
In a recent interview to Sport-Express, Evgeny Kuznetsov told Igor Rabiner: “Last summer, we were sitting together with Ilya Samsonov, telling him some things that we heard from Andrei Nazarov. And then I catch myself thinking Ovechkin was telling me exact same things six years ago”.
Ilya Samsonov: “We were celebrating New Year together, and always talk on the phone. They always give me advice – when to tough it out, what to stay away from. When they called me up to the Capitals for the first time, Ovechkin told me: ‘Everything is going to be fine!'”
You spend the game against Colorado on the bench. Were you ready to make your debut?
Ilya Samsonov: “They told me right away I wasn’t going to play. I flew in around midnight, didn’t sleep at all, went to the morning skate, then the game. For now, I am just waiting for my chance. They told me if it weren’t for my poor first part of the season, I would have played for the big team by now.”
Are you ready to challenge Braden Holtby in a couple of years?
Ilya Samsonov: “Holtby is a good guy. Of course I would like to feel that I am not wasting my effort here. For now, I just need to do my job.”
Translation by Igor Kleyner.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong.
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