Zach Fucale left the Washington Capitals organization this summer, signing a one-year deal with the KHL’s Traktor Chelyabinsk. Fucale, who backed up Hunter Shepard during the the Hershey Bears’ Calder Cup championship run, will play in Russia for the first time in his professional career.
Before he made the decision to go overseas, Fucale consulted with several Capitals about playing hockey in the KHL, including Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was brought up through the Traktor system, Aliaksei Protas, and Bogdan Trineyev.
Fucale arrived in Russia earlier this week. He recently spoke about the move with Sport-Express’ Mikhail Zislis.
“I spoke with a lot of different people and only then made the final decision,” Fucale said. “When I was in Washington, I talked a little with Evgeny Kuznetsov. At Hershey, I discussed various issues with Aliaksei Protas, who played in the KHL for Dynamo Minsk for several years, and Bogdan Trineyev.”
Kuznetsov made his way up through Traktor’s youth system before playing his first full KHL season in 2009-10. After that year, he was drafted by the Caps in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft and then played four more seasons for Traktor before coming stateside.
Protas spent the 2020-21 season with Dinamo Minsk in Belarus while Trineyev came up through the Dynamo Moscow youth system and played there in the KHL for the past three seasons.
Kuznetsov personally recommended Fucale to Traktor Chelyabinsk management.
“(That’s) nice to hear,” Fucale said. “When I was promoted to Washington, I worked hard to stay in the team as long as possible. It was always interesting to work with Evgeny during training. He loves to play and chat, just like me. I did not manage to spend much time on the Capitals, but I managed to become friends with Kuznetsov. I hope that with my work at Traktor I will be able to confirm all the good things he said about me.”
Fucale also got advice from fellow Quebecers Francis Pare and Philippe Maillet. Pare has played the last decade abroad in Europe, taking the ice for Traktor for two seasons (2014-16). Maillet, who was a teammate of Fucale’s in Hershey and got into two NHL games with the Caps during the 2020-21 campaign, has played the past two years with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL.
The Traktor team currently has one other Canadian player on their roster, Robert Hamilton. Hamilton, like Fucale, was also an AHL veteran before making his way to Russia.
“My wife and I asked [Pare] and his wife about everything,” Fucale said. “I also consulted with Philippe Maillet. He played in Magnitogorsk. This team is considered the biggest rival of Traktor. I received a lot of information, analyzed everything, only then I agreed to the transfer, and now I am glad to be part of such a wonderful club.”
Fucale, who was Hershey’s starting goaltender last season eventually lost his number one spot to Hunter Shepard. Shepard led the Bears through the playoffs on the way to their Cup victory and was awarded AHL playoffs MVP. Shepard signed a two-year extension with the Caps in July. Fucale says he wasn’t worried about the situation and did his best to be the best teammate possible while playing understudy.
“Hunter had a great season and looked great,” Fucale said. “This circumstance must be acknowledged, and as a good partner, you must support your teammates in every way. For my part, I did everything to ensure that Hershey came to the playoffs in the best possible condition. There was no point in worrying. Shepard did well and the head coach made his choice, which turned out to be the right one. It’s not about a personal relationship with me or anyone else. This is a professional sport. Hunter was on fire and helped Hershey win the title.”
Fucale revealed that he has had past talks with Traktor general manager Alexei Volkov about making the jump to Russia but decided to stay in North America to chase his NHL dream. Fucale achieved that dream during the 2021-22 season when he got into four games with the Caps.
Traktor was in the bottom 10 teams of the KHL in terms of goals against last year and missed the KHL playoffs entirely. The team saw four different goaltenders suit up in games including KHL veteran Ilya Proskuryakov (31 games), Sergei Mylnikov (29), Kirill Ustimenko (11 games), and Andrew Hammond (2 games). Fucale is being brought in to help soothe some of those issues.
“Alexei Volkov and Traktor really wanted to see me in the team,” Fucale said. In their opinion, I am able to help the team win. When people believe in you, this is already the first step in the right direction.
“It fills me with confidence. If people in Chelyabinsk are concerned it’s because they are waiting for victories. At the same time, I want to be myself and show my best game.”
Fucale sees his move to the KHL as a new way to grow his game. After a few years of great success in the minor leagues in North America, Fucale’s career had seemingly stalled out at the AHL level and he says he’s ready for a fresh start.
“I don’t see anything strange in this,” Fucale said. “The NHL is now full of Russian goalkeepers, and not just high-quality, but fantastically strong. I won’t say that I’m going to Russia just to become just like them. Hockey in the KHL is at a good level. It will help me become the best version of myself.
“I still have a lot to learn in my career. Playing for Traktor is a challenge that should make me stronger as a player. I love to always give my best in order to grow.”
Headline photo: Ian Oland/RMNB
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