“It’s not necessarily the most expensive team; it’s the one that can come together as a unit, follow the leadership of the coach, and work together to make the sum of the team greater than the individual parts. Vityaz is a great example.” – Mike Keenan, Stanley Cup and Gagarin Cup winning coach.
Under the guidance of coach Valery Belov, Vityaz has been little short of a revelation, even in a season of surprises. At the ninth attempt, the club from Podolsk, Moscow Region, has qualified for the playoffs, defying a limited budget and the predictions of most pundits. Some of the success is down to wise heads on experienced shoulders, and many have praised the contributions of 37-year-old former Buffalo, Atlanta, and SKA forward Maxim Afinogenov, with 47 (20+27) regular season points, and 33-year-old Alexei Kopeikin, who chipped in with 51 (21+30) points.
But youthful exuberance has also played its part. There is the 23-year-old Finn, Miro Aaltonen, who racked up 44 (19+25) points, and there is the subject of this interview, 25-year-old Alexei Makeyev, who with 22 goals is the team’s top sniper and who on Tuesday night scored against SKA in Petersburg to record his and the club’s first ever playoff goal.
This is undoubtedly Makeyev’s breakthrough season. His goal tallies for his four previous campaigns – three at Vityaz, one with Avtomobilist - read 3, 4, 4 and 10, or 21 in all, so this year he has already more than doubled his career total. He took time off during a torrid playoff series to speak to khl.ru from the northern capital.
“Belov sets us a goal every day”
Alexei, do you have any explanation for this vertical take-off?
Alexei Makeyev: “When Valery Belov came in the spring, we realized straight away that we would have new, more attacking tactics. As for me, personally, I did nothing different. I just carried on training as before. And this was my fourth season playing in a line with a master like Maxim Afinogenov, so we already have a great understanding.”
Four years with one team makes you almost a veteran in the modern era. You are the best one to ask. Apart from more emphasis on offense, what else has changed since Mr. Belov’s arrival?
Alexei Makeyev: “Many things, starting with team selection: a lot of good players have come in. I think we now have the most skilled, the strongest roster in my time here, and that’s why we reached the playoffs. Now we’ve made it here, we might make a bit of noise (smiling). The atmosphere is different, more relaxed and cheerful, whereas before it was a bit stern. Valery Belov has a fine sense of humor, but he is a tough character who hates to lose.”
Do you remember any words of motivation from the coach at any crucial point in the campaign?
Alexei Makeyev: “After the victory over Kunlun, when it was certain we were in the playoffs, he came to the locker room and said, “Guys, we can achieve anything, and it’s all up to us.”
“On the very eve of my KHL debut, I played for the youth team, and then I got a call: “Tomorrow we play against SKA and you’re in the roster.” I’d never felt such strong emotions.”
Was that the goal he set? Qualification for the playoffs?
Alexei Makeyev: “In fact, sets us a goal every day, and says we must not rest on our laurels, but go further. There are no teams now that cannot be beaten.”
Whenever a team reaches the playoffs for the first time, it is often said that the minimum task has been accomplished. This could cause complacency in some teams, but others react in the opposite way – the pressure is off, so they play more freely.
Alexei Makeyev: “We’re not the relaxing kind. We want to show what we can do and carry out the coach’s orders. We are in no mood to give anyone an easy ride is exact not about us. Even if SKA get the better of us, we’ll stay calm and focused, and I think we showed that in Game 1.”
“As a child, I partnered Afinogenov in computer games.”
Maxim Afinogenov has also had a great season. You have played alongside him for a long time, so what can you tell us about him?
Alexei Makeyev: “Max was my boyhood hero. Even when I was playing on the computer console, I always put him in my team. Now I’m in the same line as him in real life. It’s impossible to describe the feeling. I remember the moment. The coach at that time was Yury Leonov, and when he put me in Max’s line I was fine, but I was shaking a little.”
A word about the beginning of your career You are from Novouralsk, a city with a strong hockey tradition. Did that greatly influence your choice of career?
Alexei Makeyev: “Not really. My mother is a biathlon judge, and she often worked in competitions with the wife of my first hockey coach. The families were friends, and he even gave me my first skates when I was four. I put them on and off I went.”
“After the victory over Kunlun, when it was certain we were in the playoffs, Belov came into the locker room and said, ‘Guys, we can achieve anything, and it’s all up to us.’”
Growing up in Novouralsk, your nearest major hockey cities would be Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk. As a child, did you dream of playing for either?
Alexei Makeyev: “It made no difference to me. The main thing was just to play. I left Novouralsk when I was 19 and had no idea where I would end up, but Yekaterinburg invited me and it suited me fine.
What kind of town is Novouralsk?
Alexei Makeyev: “It’s a small and cosy place. Not even as big as Podolsk. It has long streets, and it’s a closed city, so it is surrounded by a fence. My parents, my wife, and her parents… they’re all from Novouralsk, so if we get any time off, that is where we go.”
Do you remember your KHL debut for Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg?
Alexei Makeyev: “Yes, I remember it very well. It was on the 13th of October, 2012. We played against SKA and lost 5-6. The coach at that time was Andrei Shayanov. On the very eve of the game I played for Avto, the YHL team, and then I got a call: “Tomorrow we play SKA and you’re in the team, in Alexei Simalov’s line.” And in the morning I went to train with the main roster. I’d never felt such strong emotions.”
And do you remember your first goal?
Alexei Makeyev: “Oh, yes. It was on the road against Atlant. I cannot describe the feeling when the puck hit the net. We won 6-2.”
I would have joined Vityaz in the tough-guy era. No problem.”
Did Vityaz’s history of fighting not put you off in any way?
Alexei Makeyev: “It was strange. I arrived here, and I didn’t know a single face in the team. Then, when we got together at camp, I realized the fighters had all gone and they were building a new team.”
And if you had been invited to join the team in the days of Jon Mirasty and Jeremy Yablonski, would you have accepted?
Alexei Makeyev: “Yes, and why not? It wouldn’t be a problem.”
Your early years in Podolsk were not too successful. Did you find it difficult?
Alexei Makeyev: “It was hard at first, yes, and I’m not sure of the reason. First there was one system, then another… My wife at that time was finishing her studies, so maybe that had an effect, but then everything started to improve. Now that we’re completely settled, I hope that things will get even better.”
Do you feel at home in Podolsk now?
Alexei Makeyev: “It suits us. It is small and cozy, like my hometown. We have everything we need. There are a lot of shopping malls, cinemas, places to stroll. Sometimes people recognize me and ask for an autograph or a selfie, and I never refuse. And Moscow is not far. If I get a day off, I take my wife to the capital.”
Where did you meet your wife?
Alexei Makeyev: “In Novouralsk. Her school had hockey classes, and I sometimes played for their team. She used to attend the games and that’s how we met. We’ve been together eight years now. No children, yet, but we’re planning to start a family. Children bring happiness.”
“A call-up to the national team would be a pleasant surprise”
What short-term and long-term goals have you set yourself?
Alexei Makeyev: “Right now, the main thing is to give a good performance in the Gagarin Cup, and I hope I continue to make progress with Vityaz.”
Which games in your time at Vityaz do you most fondly remember?
Alexei Makeyev: There was a home game against Ak Bars, in which we were 1-2 down after the second period. We came back to win 3-2 and I scored a short-handed goal to level the score. And in January of this year, we managed to beat Magnitogorsk 3-2 here, and that was a very memorable match, Afinogenov scored the game-winning goal. I think the Magnitka guys will remember that game, too.”
“I think we now have the most skilled, the strongest roster in my time here, and that’s why we reached the playoffs”
What do you think of the current League season?
Alexei Makeyev: “It’s been great. In the Eastern Conference, there was a really tense struggle for playoff places that continued right until the final day. It previous years it was in the West where you had to battle for a playoff place, but this year the East surprised everyone.”
Is there any chance that your impressive progress this season will attract the attention of Team Russia’s coaches?
Alexei Makeyev: “I haven’t even thought about it. That’s entirely a matter for the national team’s coaching staff, and not for me to decide. It would be a pleasant surprise if I did get a call-up out of the blue.”
“My heroes are Pavel Datsyuk and Patrick Kane”
Do you still have any heroes among the players?
Alexei Makeyev: “Among the Russian players, my idol has always been Pavel Datsyuk. Such a master of the game – great hands, a great mind… and he’s a fellow countryman, which is also good. As for foreign players, my hero would be Patrick Kane. I really admire his playing style.”
Do you ever get a chance to talk with Datsyuk during matches?
Alexei Makeyev: “So far, only Hi-and-Goodbye, but maybe we’ll find time to talk a bit more during the playoffs.”
Sometimes, when a team is the rank outsider of a pairing in the playoffs, the players take a vow, make a promise to do something if they overcome the strong opponent. Are you ready to promise anything?
Alexei Makeyev: “It has never even occurred to me, but it’s an interesting idea. We will think it over.”
“We’re not the relaxing kind. We want to show what we can do and carry out the coach’s orders. We are in no mood to give anyone an easy ride is exact not about us. Even if SKA get the better of us, we’ll stay calm and focused.”
Can you pick out the best and the worst things about your time at Vityaz?
Alexei Makeyev: “The best part is making it to the playoffs and the worst part is that it took so long to do it.”
Are you active on social networks?
Alexei Makeyev: “I have a profile on Instagram, Vkontakte, Facebook. I use the Internet quite a lot, but I try to avoid reading about the team or hockey in general, especially before games.”
Are you willing to correspond with fans?
Alexei Makeyev: “Yes. I do it all the time.”