VANCOUVER – Friday wasn’t the first time an interpreter in Vancouver was involved in a conversation with Vasily Podkolzin. It was just the first time the interpreter was for him.
“I was talking to Danila Klimovich yesterday,” Canucks player development director Ryan Johnson said Friday morning, referring to the Belarusian the National Hockey League team drafted in July.
“There is a language (barrier) there. Vasily came right over to see if he could help. He’s an engaged kid. Anything and everything … Vasily is kind of throwing himself into this. He’s hungry. This is where he wants to be.”
Where Podkolzin, the Canucks’ 10th-overall draft pick from 2019, was Friday at the start of Vancouver’s prospects camp at Rogers Arena was seated next to interpreter Alexandra Makarevsky for the Russian winger’s introductory Zoom call with reporters.
The 20-year-old spoke his answers in Russian to Makarevsky, who translated. But it was clear Podkolzin understood most of what was being asked in English.
He smiled a couple of times, surprised everyone by immediately answering in English “No, I am not nervous” a question about transitioning to a new city and language, and generally looked happy and at ease. This is important.
The Canucks have had such a dismal history with Russian players – at both drafting them and getting them to want to play here – that the foremost question when general manager Jim Benning selected Podkolzin two years ago was not whether the Russian could play, but would he actually want to play in North America when his Kontinental Hockey League contract expired in 2021?
Despite intense pressure from former club SKA St. Petersburg to stay in the KHL, the power forward fulfilled a promise he made to Canucks management on draft day and signed with the NHL team in May.
He arrived in Vancouver earlier this month, skated informally with new teammates and other NHL pros the last two weeks, and is expected to make the Canucks’ roster after he graduates from rookie camp to the team’s main training camp in Abbotsford next week.
Yes, as Johnson said, Podkolzin looks hungry and wants to be here. It is a relief.
“There was a lot of pressure on him in Russia to re-sign and to keep him there,” Benning said Friday. “But his goal was always to come over here and play in the NHL. He said he wanted to play in the best league in the world. I’m just happy that it has worked out so far and he’s finally over here and ready to take that next step.
“He’s a little bit like Nils Hoglander (the player the Canucks selected after Podkolzin in 2019) where he wants to get to the puck first, and he’ll battle to get it, but then he’s got the skill to make plays, too. We’ve got a bunch of good shooters who are going to want to play with Vasily because he will get in on the forecheck and get the puck for them.”
As a 19-year-old, Podkolzin had 11 points in 35 games for St. Petersburg last season, then matched that scoring total in 16 playoff games when the team mostly stopped suppressing his ice time as punishment for refusing to extend his KHL contract.
At 6-1 and 200 pounds, Podkolzin is built like a Russian tank. He plays a direct, physical game. But he possesses enough speed and skill to provide options for Canucks coach Travis Green, who should be able to play the left-shot right winger up or down the lineup.
“For a young player, he has really over the last few years defined himself,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you get guys, even high picks, that aren’t really sure what they’re going to be at the pro level. I think he has worked really hard at defining his game. I think he’s very comfortable in that and how he plays, which I think is going to really help him in this adjustment.
“He’s a hard-area player, a hard-skill player. He’s good along the walls, wins puck battles, he’s got a heavy stick. He’s very dependable, very aware defensively. He is a complete player.”
Podkolzin admitted through his interpreter that there were “a couple of unpleasant situations” in the KHL, but he is grateful for his development time there. He said he feels he has matured and is ready for the NHL.
He and his wife, Sasha, will hire an English tutor to help them, Podkolzin said.
He is also getting to know his new teammates. Hoglander, a Swede, is already a friend and Podkolzin this week posted on social media a photo of himself, Hoglander and Klimovich out in Vancouver. Podkolzin and Klimovich are rooming together.
“I try to speak English as much as possible,” Podkolzin said through his interpreter. “I understand everyone around me, and I just need a little bit of time to learn (to speak) English in interviews.
“On ice, all of them are very highly-skilled players. Off the ice, they’re very pleasant people, and there’s always something to talk to them about. Very good people.”
The Canucks always touted Podkolzin as “very good people,” believing he’d be an excellent teammate and embrace playing in Canada.
“Every NHL team has hesitations with some guys in the draft (about if and when they’ll come to North America),” Johnson said. “With Vasily, we never felt that would be an issue. We always felt he wanted to be a Canuck. We knew when he was done in the KHL, this is where he wanted to be. And now that we’ve finally got our hands on him, it’s exciting.”