After serving a three-game suspension, Evgeny Kuznetsov will make his season debut tonight against the Dallas Stars. For me, as a hockey fan, I’m excited because tonight’s game will finally give Kuzy, both the hockey player and the man, a chance to move forward and make amends for his positive cocaine test over the summer.
“Just a chance finally to get out of here from my house,” Kuznetsov joked Monday before turning serious about how difficult the summer has been. “It’s pretty much the same routine every day. Just come here, practice, get back home. If something happens, it’s pretty short.”
As someone who has covered Kuznetsov over the last nine years, I’ve seen a player with unrivaled talent – even as early as his teenage years in the KHL with Traktor Chelyabinsk – dominate. It was easy to predict he’d become a star and one of the most important Capitals players of all time. From his stickhandling and skating to his breakaway speed and shot, Kuzy is and always will be a top-tier hockey player. But what makes this bird so different — what makes him truly a superstar that we all rally around — is his joy for the game. When he doesn’t have it, he scuffles. He seems lost.
“How much do I love hockey? I can’t even describe,” Kuznetsov wrote in a 2015 Players’ Tribune article. “In Russia, we don’t really have a Christmas break, but from December 31 to January 3, everything closed. Even hockey school. These were the worst days of my life. Four days with no hockey, I get so depressed. I can’t even sleep. Just sit watching YouTube of Kovalev and wait.”
Kuznetsov first fell in love with hockey as a child after watching an older player at the rink slide on his knees after scoring a goal. It’s one of his earliest memories. Fast forward a decade later, when Kuznetsov had success in the KHL, he’d express himself inspired by that very moment. Kuznetsov did push-ups, kayaked, and played dead after scoring goals.
But there were times that Kuznetsov struggled and the joy waned. In 2013, Kuznetsov, who had waffled over going to the NHL or staying in Russia, got off to a slow start due to an injury and his hometown fans turned on him.
“That injury at the beginning of the year really put him out of step,” Valery Belousov, his head coach then, said in 2013. “He came back then, started scoring but the consequences are still felt. His physical shape is just not there. We gave him a couple games of rest, he scored again, but the problems are still there. Our fans shocked me too. I’d never think they can do anything like that. They started to whistle him. And I’m telling Evgeny to not pay attention to that. Because these very same people will applaud him if we start winning. But now they whistle as soon as he gets the puck.”
Kuznetsov scored 8 goals in 31 games in his final season in the KHL. Traktor missed the playoffs. He was not himself. He flew to Washington DC immediately after the season ended.
Five years later, back at the top of his game, Kuznetsov showed he was the missing piece.
During Game Six against the Penguins, Kuzy tapped the puck away from Sidney Crosby, broke away from the pack, and slid the puck past Matt Murray. The overtime goal eliminated the Pittsburgh in the second round, jettisoning Washington to the Eastern Conference Final for the second time in franchise history. Kuznetsov joyfully flapped his arms up and down, doing his famous bird celly on one of the biggest nights in DC Sports history.
“[That] was huge,” Ovechkin said recently to ESPN. “It’s kind of relief. Mentally it was very important for us to get a [series] win (over the Penguins).”
The Capitals would go on to win the Stanley Cup. Kuznetsov had the most points in the postseason. The Russian center would repeat the celebration on the stage of the National Mall during the Capitals Championship Parade.
That joy was mostly absent during Kuznetsov’s first press conference with media this fall. Appearing embarrassed and ashamed, Kuznetsov spoke softly about his positive cocaine test and his difficult summer. When I asked Kuznetsov about his son Fedor who was born in June, he perked up, seemingly relieved he could talk about literally anything else. Kuzy appeared trapped in his own mental hell.
To what I assume was to escape nasty comments, Kuznetsov deleted all of his Instagram photos on his Instagram page before his positive test was announced. That included a video of Kuzy holding up his daughter Ecenia on the ice after winning the Stanley Cup.
It’s a shame. He didn’t need the criticism. He’s already hard on himself. He didn’t need anyone else piling on. He knows he screwed up and is seeking help.
Which is why I have a suggestion. When the Capitals warmup tonight, when Evgeny Kuznetsov first takes the ice, when the Capitals score a goal, and most definitely if the Capitals win, you should do the bird celebration. Everyone at Capital One Arena should do the bird celebration together. If even a few of you do it, it will catch on quickly I promise.
He will notice. It will be a national story.
Rally around Evgeny Kuznetsov. He is one of the special ones. Rally around your favorite team and show Kuzy you forgive him. Make a moment as powerful as this in the stands.
If you want his joy to come back, wave your arms up and down. It’s still there. You have the power to make it come out again.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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