In this interview with KHL.ru, last year’s bigger surprise talks about psychology, working with Oleg Znarok, his last year’s playoffs, his ties with records, awards, and much more.
Vitaly Kravtsov started making a name for himself pretty much as he first hit the ice in the MHL and VHL. However, he became a real star only in last year’s playoffs, when the 18-year-old Traktor forward started scoring at will and beating one record after another. He got his first KHL record in 2017 February scoring against Barys at 17 years and 61 days of age, becoming the youngest player to ever score a goal during the Gagarin Cup playoffs. He set the record defeating Evgeny Kuznetsov and Valery Nichushkin.
With an assist in the fourth game during the series against Salavat Yulaev allowed Kravtsov to defeat the same opponents in another list – the youngest KHL playoffs scoring leader as at that moment he had 11 (6+5) points. Regarding U20 players, you can find only stars in such list: Maxim Afinogenov with 16 (10+6) points and Evgeny Malkin with 15 (5+10). Kravtsov celebrated his 19th birthday only in December.
- Last year was a great season. For your team too.
- Yes, I managed to show good hockey in the playoffs, I had to fight a lot with myself on a psychological plan. I was mostly helped by my teammates, especially Alexander Sharov and Alexei Kruchinin. I have to thank my team and my coaches as they gave me great advice and didn’t allow me to get frozen up and start worrying. At the start of the playoffs all the negative thoughts disappeared, I had more confidence, and I loved it. I want to go on the same way. Now at the training camp, I am trying to start with an empty head and start the season in great shape.
- Does it mean that being worried and having a lack of confidence were last year’s main problems?
- I think yes. I wouldn’t say that I am physically weak. I believe that regarding technique or reading of the game I am not worse than veteran players. Of course, I still need to work, and psychology is one of the critical components.
- When your team started gaining confidence, did you understand that you were about to start playing well?
- Gradually, we started understanding that we were able to reach the highest levels. There was a lot of euphory in the locker room, and our coaches were constantly telling us that we could do whatever we aimed to. We were living following the day-by-day rule. Like, we need to win today’s game, and we don’t need to think about tomorrow. When the result in the series against Salavat Yulaev was 2-3, [our head coach] Anvar Rafailovich [Gatiyatullin] got to the locker room and said “Guys, don’t even start thinking about what it will be if… You just need to go and win the next game. You deserve it.”
- What was the most memorable game in the regular season?
- Probably the game against Kunlun on October 18. On September 17, during a game against SKA, I fractured my wrist, and I have been told that I would stay out until November 6. But I was sure that I would probably recover earlier, and I was right. In the end, I got back after a month, I scored my first goal and also scored during the shootout.
I’m happy here, I signed a one-year contract, and we’ll see what happens next. After this season I will take a serious decision.
- You were so eager to get back to ice that you managed to get back earlier and heal your wrist?
- I mostly need to thank our doctors and all the people that helped me to heal my wrist in only three weeks. Of course, the will to get back had a significant role. I attended the games, and I followed our younger players – Maxim Shipin, Marsel Sholokhov, Ivan Bezrukov – and I seen that some of them were already getting more ice time. Of course, I was sincerely happy for them and congratulated in the locker room, but at the same time I was thinking “I should be there instead of you.” I could not fall asleep because of that. I needed to get back as early as possible to show that I wasn’t losing myself. And also, that I wasn’t going to get eaten from inside the team.
- In the last regular season game, against Sibir, the winner would get to the playoffs, and you scored your first KHL game-winning goal as Traktor won 4:1.
- Frankly speaking, I didn’t pay attention to the standings and I wasn’t aware of who was going to get to the playoffs or not. Our opponents had their goal, we had our goal, that is to get ready for the postseason and be sure that we can win games. Only when the regular season ended, a couple of days later, I could be happy for Amur. Khabarovsk is not far from my native Vladivostok, where I started playing hockey.
- What do you remember more about the playoffs series against Neftekhimik: your OT goal in the first game, your double in game three or the fights in the same?
- Neither of them. I remember only that we were a true team. There was a great atmosphere in the locker room. We had no pressure, there was nothing like “Guys, we can’t lose no matter what.” Quite the opposite, we were very calm, and we did not have any fear. During the playoffs, our trio with Sharov and Kruchinin played best. No matter what will happen in my future career – I will always remember how my teammates helped me.
- Do you have any resentment left on Neftekhimik? It was a lot of stuff, probably not necessary.
- All that happens on the ice remains on the ice. You can go to work, get your salary, but someone will still not be happy as you did better and got more. But you don’t do it for these persons, you do it for yourself and your family. Why should you care about anything else? Yes, there was a lot of stuff, many provocations, but this is part of the game.
- During the playoffs you had a lot going on, you were scoring, giving assists, your name was every day in the news. Was it hard or did you try not to read?
- Why not? But I tried not to overthink. This is just a little part of what I should do to be completely satisfied. I always want more and I am not going to stop.
- You won the sixth game of the series against Salavat Yulaev with a 7:1 score. Can it be said that after such a defeat the opposition just surrendered?
- No. No one pays attention to the result of a single game. It’s not like you win 7:1 and you get one and a half wins. Of course, that game was a huge morale boost for our team, but I wouldn’t say that it was a big problem for Ufa. It’s not like they are a kids hockey team.
- Oddly enough, in neither of the seven goals you can find your name.
- I tried to work where I was needed the most. I don’t have anything bad to say about my game for that match. Someone scores, someone else works for the result.
Once we played in Orsk, the security arrived at the rink and started saying that we, the players, couldn’t stay there. So Igor Valerievich just jumped out of the locker room and said: “If you want to tell them something, is it better if you tell me. And they are going to sit there where I told them to sit.”
- After that huge win, were you already thinking about winning the Cup?
- As I said, we were just living today. Yes, maybe we had some thoughts, but we also should not forget that, at the same time, we had tiredness and injuries. I wouldn’t say it as an excuse, but it has been hard. Just take the first two games in the series against Ak Bars Kazan. We were up in both games, but in the end, they rallied and won. I’m glad that Kazan won the Cup, I was cheering for them in the finals.
- In the series against Ak Bars, you didn’t score any point. The opposition was paying more attention to you?
- For now, I am not such a player against whom teams have special tactics. But I earned powerplays for my team, we created chances, simply we didn’t manage to score.
- What do you think about your records?
- Of course, it’s great! Records, achievements… in the end, it’s because of them that you practice and hit the ice. But you don’t think too much about it, of course. Then you go to Instagram, and you realize that you just broke another one. I get to the locker room, and Kruchinin yells at me: “Our record man, the next one!” He was just joking, but at the same time, he did all he could not get me relaxing too much. I will miss him a lot. But Alexander Sharov and I will keep the ties with him and, at the first chance, we’ll fly to St. Petersburg to meet him.
- Now instead of Alexei Kruchinin, you have Ryan Stoa.
- Alexei is not comparable to anyone. And not because I don’t talk enough English to talk with Ryan. I do.
- Did you expect to get to the KHL Closing Season Ceremony and get the Rookie of the Year award?
- Yes, it’s great and very prestigious, but I think that mostly I didn’t deserve the award. I played well in the playoffs, but Eeli Tolvanen played great for the whole season. I was the chosen one, but if someone rethinks it, I can return the prize. I can even ask Eeli when we’ll meet if he wants the trophy. If he says so, I will give it to him.
No one pays attention to the result of a single game. It’s not like you win 7:1 and you get one and a half wins.
- Were you surprised when on the stage your first coach Igor Znarok appeared?
- I was simply amazed. I was just thinking “Now someone is going to see his first coach,” and Igor Valerievich appeared! He gave me a lot, explained so many things. By the way, he didn’t like that I got there and smiled. I thought that it was my moment, but he raised me as a true man, and he did everything to get me to understand that hockey is a serious thing and not a joke. That I needed to learn how to battle, to fight…
- Once, during an interview, you said that you told your father that you have fun playing hockey. Couldn’t you tell it your coach?
- I could tell everyone. Yes, I can simply score on an empty net, but if I see that I can score a beautiful goal, I’ll do it. Hockey is also a show. There are many “meat and potatoes” players, not so many creative ones. Just think about Pavel Datsyuk. People love him because he is unique, football fans love Leo Messi because of his creativity, not because of the sheer number of goals scored. I adhere exactly to this style: combination hockey, with rushes, moves, dekes.
- Is Igor Znarok similar in his character to Oleg Znarok?
- I have never met Oleg Znarok one-on-one. I haven’t had a chance to see the way he works yet. But considering what Igor Znarok tells me, they are two true men who aren’t going to surrender in front of anyone. They are ready to fight for themselves and their guys. Once we played in Orsk, the security arrived at the rink and started saying that we, the players, couldn’t stay there. So Igor Valerievich just jumped out of the locker room and said: “If you want to tell them something, is it better if you tell me. And they are going to sit there where I told them to sit.”
- How are you influenced by this summer’s talk about your possible move to the NHL?
- It had no influence at all. It’s life, you need to risk. There were many rumors, but only a few people know the whole truth. My parents and a couple of persons more. I don’t want to think about it now, I’m happy here, I signed a one-year contract, and we’ll see what happens next. After this season I will take a serious decision.
- How did you like the NHL draft?
- Everything is organized at the highest level. It’s hard to explain by words what you feel once you hear your surname. A childhood dream. I didn’t really know what to expect, I was just sitting there and hoping. Probably I shouldn’t have, but I got really nervous, just like all my friends and relatives.
- How did you spend your summer?
- At first, I got back to Vladivostok. I was at home for about a month and a half, and I was visited by a friend, Ivan Mikhailov, who played in the United States and just got back. We visited many places, talking from the morning until the night and never got bored. A great person. I met all my friends, my relatives; generally speaking, I had fun. Then I flew to America to get ready for the new season: Buffalo, Colorado, then the draft, then again in New York.
I remember only that we were a true team. There was a great atmosphere in the locker room. We had no pressure, there was nothing like “Guys, we can’t lose no matter what.” Quite the opposite, we were very calm, and we did not have any fear.
- Did you manage to follow the FIFA World Cup?
- Only when I had some time. I’m happy for Team Russia, frankly speaking, I wasn’t expecting such a result. They showed everyone that Russian football is still alive. Once the Russians were sent home, I cheered for the French. I like Kylian Mbappe. He’s just 19 years old and isn’t scared to make mistakes.
- How is the Traktor preseason going? Most likely, you will play with Ryan Stoa.
- He is a great player. He is always trying to get open or getting you a great pass. Anton Glinkin is also a very fast and creative player. I enjoy playing with them. The rest will depend on what hockey we are going to show and if we’ll bring in the results.
- Do you understand that next year you won’t be a rookie anymore? In spite of your age, you will have a lot of expectations on yourself.
- I’m ready to all, and I am not really thinking about it. Maybe I'll start to score, give assists, people will start praising me, and then – bang, I’ll get into a scoring drought, and I’ll start thinking that I cannot play. If you start thinking about it, you get stressed, and you start to think about how the people will react to the fact that you’re not scoring. I try not to react if people write bad things about me.
- Did you already read such things?
- Yes. For example, when rumors were going about a trade to SKA St. Petersburg. I am a traitor, I just wanted money, the sky is falling… on the other hand, it would have been a trade so my opinion will not be of any importance, in case. SKA would just have bought out the rights on me, that’s all. In a word, I was very disappointed with some people. But this is experience as well.
Born on December 23, 1999 in Vladivostok.
Career: Belye Medvedi Chelyabinsk, Chelmet Chelyabinsk, Traktor Chelyabinsk – 2016 until today.
Achievements: Winner of the Rookie of the Year Alexei Cherepanov Award.