Alexander Radulov knew the question was coming.
Earlier this month it had been reported that the impending free agent Montreal forward was seeking an eight-year contract extension from Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin.
During a lengthy interview with Sportsnet earlier this week, the 31-year-old was asked again if it was true.
“That was bulls—,” he said.
“I’m not going to lie to you. I would be happy to have a contract for eight years, but it’s not realistic and it’s not what I’m asking for. I wasn’t even asking for anything, because I’m trying to play the whole season and see what happens.”
Questions surrounding the Russian’s long-term future with the club have been constant since Radulov emerged as Montreal’s biggest offensive catalyst. He’s currently on a one-year, $5.75 million deal he signed last July.
Radulov, who has 16 goals and 49 points in 71 games, told Sportsnet negotiations on a new deal between himself and the team are currently on hold, and that while there had been previous talks, they never got to the stage where a formal offer was presented by the club.
“When it happens, I’m sure you guys will be the first to know,” he said.
Here is the rest of our chat with Radulov, in which we discuss his time playing for Patrick Roy, what went wrong in Nashville, why he was left off Team Russia at the recent World Cup of Hockey and what it’s like playing under the spotlight in Montreal.
Sportsnet.ca: Where did your dream of becoming a hockey player start?
Radulov: My dad played hockey, and from what I remember I started skating at three or four years old. Every kid goes to hockey school in my hometown (Nizhny Tagil, Rus.), and I just wanted to be a hockey player from when I started.
There wasn’t much NHL hockey games I could see. With the time difference, they didn’t show it a lot on TV. I remember it was Saturday [night], at 11:25. I even remember the time. It was a hockey program that showed highlights of every hockey game of the week and of the Russian players who played in the NHL. I watched it all the time.
Who were your favourite players?
Sergei Fedorov and Alex Mogilny.
I played on the same line with Fedorov at the 2010 Olympics, in Vancouver. He came back from Washington [in 2009] and played in Magnitogorsk [KHL], and then we got to the Olympics and he was on the team. It was something really special to play on his line and I told him that when I signed [in 2012] with CSKA Moscow (Fedorov is the general manager). I said, "Sergei, it was my dream come true to step on the ice with you."
What was it like going from Russia to the QMJHL at 18?
My brother [Igor, who is four years older and was a third-round draft choice of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2000] opened the road for me because he’s the one who first went to Mississauga of the OHL.
When I was drafted by Nashville, the Predators asked me if I was looking to come over and play in junior. I said, ‘If you want me to come, I’ll come. Why not?’"
At that time it was the right decision for me because it was a lockout year [2004-05] and a lot of NHL players came to Russia and took jobs on the top teams. I couldn’t really make those teams when I was there, and I didn’t want to play in the farm team. I wanted to take a step forward because I always wanted to play in the NHL.
When I talked to my brother, he told me to go over. Everyone in Russia was saying some talented guys go to junior leagues in North America and never make out of there. That kind of scared me at the beginning, but when I spoke with my brother and my dad, we all decided it was the right way to go.
What did you learn about yourself during that time?
It was unreal. It was just a great run. It was my first experience with winning a championship [Memorial Cup in 2005-06 with the Quebec Remparts], and it meant a lot—even if it was in junior.
Patrick Roy was our coach and he was teaching us how hard we had to work and to never look back and to give everything we had on the ice every time we stepped on the ice. Basically, that’s what I learned.
If you want to be on top of your game and you want to win championships, you have to work hard and not lie to yourself. That’s the bottom line.
At the end of the day, whatever you do, you do it for yourself. Yeah, it’s all about the team, but you’re working to get yourself better. If you do that, obviously you’re going to make your teammates better and help your team to win.
What was that first experience like with Nashville and with NHL hockey?
I was nervous, because at first when I got to training camp after the Quebec experience, I had a good camp and they sent me down the day before the season. First game was against the Blackhawks, and they sent me down before it.
I felt like it cut me deep. It kind of hurt me a little bit because everyone was saying you need to have a good camp and you will stay. But then things turn around and I did have a good camp but didn’t stay.
A lot of guys were on one-way contracts and I was the youngest one on a two-way, so they sent me down.
But I was mad. I had things in my head about going back home. I didn’t want to play in the minors, but my dad and my family—my mom, my dad, my brother—said to just go there and play like you do and see what’s going to happen.
I went there for like a month and played 10-12 games and played pretty good and then eventually got called up. I played like six games, and I remember my first game was against Vancouver at home. We lost like 4-1 and I got two penalties… Not the start you want to have.
But my second game, against San Jose, I got a goal, and then we played another four games on the road. We were coming back from the road trip and I was on the plane when the coach called me to come see him. He told me, "You’re going to fly back to Milwaukee because our guys are healthy."
So I went back for another month and a half and then they called me up again. I started playing and every shot I took was going in, so I remember them telling me to get an apartment.
Never give up; that’s the point. When you work hard, good things can happen.
Four years later, in your second stint in Nashville, you broke curfew before a playoff game [Game 3, 2012, Nashville-Phoenix] and you were punished for it and publicly embarrassed. Do you feel that when you came looking for an NHL contract again last summer (after four years in the KHL), you were still being punished for it?
I was ready for that. It’s not like I wasn’t expecting that. I knew that wherever I was going people would not forget that and people were still going to talk about it and ask what happened there and I would have to answer. Every time I’ve been asked, I’ve answered.
I made a mistake, but it should be about how I respond in life. It was about how I was going to answer to that and live with it. Whatever I did, it’s my cross and I have to carry on.
Detroit, Florida and Montreal were all in the mix for your services this summer…
There were other teams, too. But those three were in it, yes.
You were one of the highest scoring players in the KHL for the last four years, but no team offered you more than one season on an NHL contract. That’s why we’re asking if you feel like you were still being punished for that one incident.
I was thinking about it. Obviously I was getting updates from my agent, and every time I was speaking with an NHL team they were asking, "What happened there?"
And I was being asked why I wanted to come back. And it’s simple for me and simple for everyone who knows me; I wanted to play in the best league and I wanted to prove to myself that I could play here and that I could be a good player and help a team win a championship.
That was my mistake and [a one-year deal] is what I got from it. It’s in the past and I think right now people see that it’s not the same that it was four years ago.
I could’ve waited longer, and maybe I would’ve got two or three years [had he not signed right away on July 1].
But after I got the first real offer from Marc, I just said, "F— it. I want to go and this is my chance, and I know it’s going to be one year, but I’ll try to do my best and prove to everybody that I can play here.’"
Was there anything that attracted you to Montreal ahead of the other teams?
I really had a good conversation with Marc on the phone, and then I flew to New York and Marc flew to New York and we had lunch together. I really enjoyed it. I really saw the guy was saying the same thing in person as he was on the phone. I told him that if he wanted me to come, I’ll come, and that whatever he wanted me to do, I’ll do it.
What was his message to you?
He was just saying that he was looking for a forward who can be a leader and work hard every time. And I told him that’s what I’m trying to do, and that’s my game. I think he spoke with Fedorov and (Shea) Weber, and then I got that offer. I was just like, "Yeah, Marc. I’m in!"
While you were in New York, Team Russia was having its camp for the World Championships (held in St. Petersburg and Moscow in May)…
It was a complicated situation. We lost in the final against Magnitogorsk, and after that seventh game our assistant coach with CSKA, who was also the assistant coach for the national team, told a few of us that we had a week off and then they’d call us to let us know when there was going to be a camp.
So I took seven days off in Moscow, and I didn’t go anywhere. And then no one called me or texted me. Also, in the finals, I hurt my groin right before the first game. It was the last practice, and I hurt my groin and had to play the finals through the pain, getting treatment and pain killer injections into the area to play through it. It was a final, and I wasn’t going to miss it.
My agent called me and said he could set up a few meetings because at that time the [NHL] teams really wanted me to come and show that I’m interested. They didn’t want to just talk on the phone. If they were doing business, they wanted to see me, talk to me, see my face. So I was open to that. At that point, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to play in the World Championships because I was hurt. I got the tickets and I jumped on the plane and I was only supposed to be gone four days.
I was sitting on the plane and as we’re about to take off I got a phone call from Alexei Zhamnov (assistant GM of the national team). He says I gotta be in training camp in two days. I told him I can’t really be there in two days, I can be there in five days because I’m on my way to the States to have these meetings and I can’t change that. I was waiting for them to tell me about my schedule in those seven days, and after that I made my meetings. How long did I have to wait? I had no contract, and everyone knew in Russia that I wanted to go back to the NHL. I was asked about it all season and I was talking about it all year. They gave me the offer to extend my contract with CSKA and I turned it down. They knew that, it was reported.
When I came back from those meetings I went straight from the airport to the national team camp. And no one told me it was such a big deal until the media was saying, "Radulov’s doing bad things and he’s on his own."
I went there and apologized to the head coaches for missing two days, but at the end of the day I was hurt and they knew that. Everything was reported in the paper about my injury and that I did an MRI and doctors said I couldn’t do anything for three weeks so it could heal.
They still made me skate. They wanted me to go on the ice to try it. So I went on the ice to try it. I had been off for 10 days, and when I went on the ice it didn’t feel bad. But as soon as I started to push it in 3-on-3 and contact, I felt like I couldn’t do it.
No one listened to me because they wanted to have me on the team.
I said, "Come on, listen: I can’t play. If I’m going to play, it’s going to get worse. Then I will have surgery and I’m going to miss four or five months for recovery. I won’t have a pre-season or anything and I don’t have a contract. I’m not 20-years-old, I’m 30. I’m risking missing the whole year with teams building their teams in the summer. If I’m hurt, no one is going to talk to me in the summer."
Is this the reason you weren’t named to the World Cup team?
I don’t know. No one talked to me after that. I was hanging around with the team until the World Championships started, they were trying to do some treatments.
But it was simple: Doctors had said I needed time off. There was nothing I could do, the muscle needed time to heal. That’s it.
They were trying to push it and I told them I couldn’t do it. I told them I could try, but what was the point? If I played a game then had to stop, they would be in a bad position. You can only add three players after rosters get made.
Why take the risk with a hurt player instead of taking a healthy player?
They still wanted me to go. I told them I want to, but I can’t. If I’m not 100 per cent, I’m going to step on the ice and hesitate. I can’t do that. I don’t know how to play without trying 100 per cent. That’s not who I am.
They were mad and they made that decision about the World Cup.
Obviously I was disappointed. I’m not going to lie; I wanted to hit that tournament, but it wasn’t up to me. I can’t get inside of their heads and what they were thinking or expecting.
But I was happy to see the team play pretty good in the World Cup. I was still cheering for them because I have a lot of friends on the team.
They didn’t take Ilya Kovalchuk, either. The guy plays every tournament, always goes to every World Championships, and they didn’t take him.
Let’s move on and talk about your chances with Montreal this spring.
In the NHL, if you have a good goalie, you have a good chance.
We have the best goalie, Carey Price. I think we have a good chance. We just have to stick together and play the right way, and we’ll see where it’s going to take us. It’s all about the team and the work to get the job done. There’s going to be some losses, but we have to put it behind us and focus on the next one.
Do you have a different gear for the playoffs?
I’m just really excited about it. I really want to do well.
It’s not all about scoring or getting points. I played in Russia, with Ufa, and in my second playoffs I had 11 or 12 goals (it was eight) and 20 something points (19) and we got eliminated in the semi-finals 4-1 to the team that ended up winning the whole thing.
The next year we won the championship and I only had three goals and 18 points, but we won the whole thing and I was the happiest man in the world.
It’s not all points. When you hit the playoffs it’s all about winning the hockey game. Winning 1-0 or 5-0, it only counts as one game. I just want to come in and do my job right and win games.
Back to the contract talk: People understand that you’re 30, you have a wife and a one-year-old son, and that this is your best chance to get a long-term deal.
Obviously you want to have a good contract, but you want to play on a good team to have a chance to win.
Honestly, I don’t want to sign a deal and be out in April every year. That’s not what I really want, and I think that’s normal because I really want to win.
Do you see that opportunity with Montreal?
It’s a huge hockey town, and every time the Canadiens [start a new] season they put that goal in front, wanting to win the Stanley Cup. It’s been a while since Montreal won, but we have a good opportunity to change that.
Do you see yourself staying with the Canadiens?
I would love to stay here. I like it here. I love the fans. I love this [training] facility. I come here even at night time; it’s all open doors. I can come and do whatever I need to. I really enjoy it, it’s really nice. You got everything here just to make yourself better.
The city and the people here—I really enjoy it. The people are nice, they’re not mean to me. Even when we lose some games, or when I wasn’t scoring for nine games before, people weren’t hard on me because they see how hard I’m working and trying.
Sometimes it doesn’t go your way, and people understand here. We’ve really clicked here. I like that.
When you see those people really care about you and the team, I can’t just not play with all my effort. They really want us to win and do it well, and that’s really special.