One of Justin Azevedo’s earliest hockey memories centers on a green helmet. His hometown colors were black, yellow and white, but Azevedo’s parents, Portuguese immigrants to Canada, had strayed from the local color palette. “Here I was going out and power skating with a green helmet,” Azevedo laughed. “It is pretty funny how I remember that.”

The irony, of course, is that Justin Azevedo would lift the Gagarin Cup in a green helmet—and has worn one for the past six years as an integral member of Tatar powerhouse Ak Bars Kazan. Azevedo, 31, was drafted in 2008 by the Los Angeles Kings in the sixth round. He logged time with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs before moving to Europe to play for Finland’s Lukko Rauma in 2012. His first KHL start came in 2013, when he signed with Lev Prague and made it to the Gagarin Cup Finals with an impressive postseason showing. Despite their on-ice success, Lev departed the league in 2014 and Azevedo moved to Kazan. Ak Bars won the Gagarin Cup in 2018, with the immensely-skilled forward picking up playoff MVP after sniping 24 points in 19 games. Fast-forward two seasons, and Azevedo is the team’s top-scorer. We caught up on the eve of a pivotal clash with Bob Hartley’s Avangard Omsk—Kazan would ultimately defeat Avangard 5-3, clinching the top playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

From Ak Bars’ otherworldly locker room to the local delicacy of chak-chak, Azevedo shared his thoughts on a wide-range of topics from Tatarstan’s historic capital.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): I think we have to start with the fact that Ak Bars is on a tear. How do you explain the team’s success this season?

Justin Azevedo (JA): We have a lot of depth on our team. We started off well and didn’t really come into any adversity at the start of the year. Halfway through the season, maybe three-quarters, that’s when the injuries started happening—but we still always found a way to win. That’s where our depth comes in. It didn’t matter who was in or who was out, we still found ways to win games. I think that comes down to the system of how we play. We play a pretty aggressive system, fast-paced. Our special teams, penalty kill especially, have been great all year for us. Knock on wood, hopefully it continues. Hard work and a good system: I think it paid off for us pretty well so far.

Justin Azevedo. Credits: Ilnar Tukhbatov

GK: You won the Gagarin Cup with Ak Bars in recent memory (2018). Are there any elements of your current team that remind you of that championship squad?

JA: There are similarities there, again with our depth. I think we had four lines that could contribute a lot to a game. They’re all hard-working guys who go to the net and tire the other team down. Wear and tear, put pucks in the back of the net. That year was something else—something I’ll never forget.

GK: Dmitri Kvartalnov played in the NHL and has had great success with Kazan in a short period of time. How would you compare his coaching style with that of Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, who led your Gagarin Cup-winning team?

JA: I want to say [Kvartalnov] demands a quicker tempo. He wants a high-paced game. I’m not saying that Bily didn’t want a high-paced game, but I think anyone would agree that he was very defense-minded, and obviously that paid off for us. I am going to say that is probably the biggest difference.

GK: That’s interesting, because a lot of expats say to me that defense is the key to success in the KHL. Especially on the larger ice sheets, how do you maintain that tempo?

JA: Our home ice is not the biggest in the league, but if you go to China for instance, it’s a huge rink. You can’t be doing that run-and-gun type of style. You’re just going to get yourself out of position. We practice mostly out of our main rink, but then if you come to the Baza [team base], they actually rebuilt the ice surface to a smaller rink. So if we are going to a team with [North American-sized] ice, we practice there beforehand and get a couple of skates in to get a feel for it. Kvartalnov is very well-prepared. I think it’s really smart, to be honest.

GK: I have never met [Ak Bars captain] Danis Zaripov, but he seems like a beauty. Players across the KHL have so much respect for his career. What can you tell me about him?

JA: You know what? That guy can make me say “wow” at least once a game. I do not know how he’s done it for this long, and he still has it too. The guy himself, off the ice, is amazing. Very genuine, down to earth. Like you said, he is a beauty. On the ice, man, the stuff he can do—it’s unreal. He can turn on a dime and still have the puck on his stick. Even just yesterday, [Stanislav] Galiev and I were on the ice trying to do one of his spin-o-ramas on his forehand. The puck just goes flying off of our sticks, but I bet he could do ten in a row and still have the puck on his stick, which is unreal.

He’s somebody I look up to still, and I think a lot of the guys on this team have nothing but the utmost respect. He deserves it and has won something like five or six cups. He’s one of the best of all-time.

GK: What would you say is the toughest team you’ve faced this season?

JA: Now you’re putting me on the spot! Maybe CSKA. It’s a fun game too. They’re tough but fun to play because you know it’s going to be a hard game, and they play a good system. Crash and bang, a good powerplay. I have to go with them.

GK: Which youngsters around the KHL have stood out to you? Let's get everyone else’s answer out of the way first—Kirill Kaprizov.

JA: He stands out the most. I think he’s maybe going to the NHL soon, and I think he’ll have a good career there. He’s a special player. You know who I think will be a good player in this league? He’s one of the young kids on our team—Artyom Galimov. He’s actually developed into his own kind of player this year. From training camp to now, he has really developed and he’s only going to get better and stronger. I am excited to see where his future takes him. You can see that he gains confidence every day, every game—that’s obviously what you want from him.

GK: One name that I have to bring up on your roster is Viktor Tikhonov, grandson of the famed USSR National Team coach. Do you see any glimpses of that Soviet style in his play?

JA: [Laughs] He’s very Americanized, to be honest! The first time I met him this year, I said, “You’ve got a little bit of an American accent when you speak Russian!” I can hear the English in his Russian, you know what I mean? He’s a great player too, I think. He’s solid all-around—big, strong. He sees the ice really well. His grandfather is a legend here. Unfortunately I haven’t had too many conversations [about his grandad], but I know he had a big influence on Russian hockey.

GK: It sounds like his grandfather would have a lot to be proud of, if he were still alive.

JA: Absolutely. He’s done well so far in his career.

GK: One of Kazan’s famous regional dishes is chak-chak [a dessert make of unleavened, fried dough and coated in honey]. In fact, you play a series against Ufa that involves a trophy made of chak-chak! What’s your take?

JA: Yeah, we have one more game to go with that. If I’m being honest, it’s not my favorite. It’s good and I enjoy it, especially when it’s fresh…but I’m more of a chocolate guy myself. You’ve never had it?

Danis Zaripov and Chak-Chak Cup. Credits: Ilnar Tukhbatov

GK: No, and I haven’t been to Kazan. Top of my Russia bucket list.

JA: You have to check it out, it’s a really nice city. Playing hockey here has been awesome for me. If you go down to the center, there is a lot of history. It’s crazy how they built these buildings so long ago, and they’re still standing…still strong. We have the Kremlin here which is a beautiful attraction, and even now, they’re always building something new. They have a pretty nice set of restaurants along the river. In the summertime, when we get here for training camp, we’ll go for dinner a couple of times down there.

GK: Speaking of new builds, I saw that your locker room got a makeover earlier this season. Can I confirm that there are stars embedded in the ceiling? Epic feature.

JA: Yeah, there is! It’s top-of-the-line, NHL-style. We are pretty lucky as players and coaches to have a locker room like that. There’s a sauna, a hammam, cold tubs…

GK: Hold on, you have a hammam in your locker room? Where do I sign up?

JA: It’s right in the middle of the bathroom too! It’s pretty cool. But yeah, there are fake stars in the ceiling there.

Ak Bars Locker Room. Credits: Ilnar Tukhbatov

GK: On a more personal note, moving away from your time at Ak Bars—who gave you your first pair of skates?

JA: I have to say my dad. I didn’t start skating until I was six—late compared to kids nowadays.

GK: What’s your earliest hockey memory?

JA: My parents are Portuguese and moved to Canada, so they knew I had to be a hockey player—or try, at least. But my first memory was my parents buying me a green helmet. The little town I grew up in was black, yellow and white—and here I was going out and power skating with a green helmet. It is pretty funny how I remember that.

GK: Ironic because you wear a green helmet now! Who were the players you idolized growing up?

JA: My guy was [Detroit Red Wings captain] Steve Yzerman. I had posters and hockey cards of him. I remember that one year they won the Stanley Cup, he crossed the blue line and took a slapshot. I don’t even remember the goalie, just that slapshot. I remember thinking, “Man, I want to have a shot like that.” He was a warrior too—playing on a broken foot and what not.

GK: Who gave you the nickname “The Wizard of West Lorne?”

JA: You know what, I don’t even think I’ve heard that! Is that my nickname?

GK: It came up in probably five articles I read.

JA: There was a guy that I used to grow up watching, Mike Oliveira. He played junior with the Kingston Frontenacs and they used to call him the “wiz kid.” They came to London and he ended up getting in a fight against the Knights, and they called him that in the paper. I didn’t even know—wow!

GK: It’s a nice title, maybe you should have t-shirts made!

JA: Yeah, I’ll take it.

GK: You mentioned it already, but your parents are Portuguese. How close are you to the culture? 

JA: On Christmas, we have a pretty close family, so we all get together. We eat turkey and something like Italian Wedding Soup, except it’s Portuguese. There’s also a cod fish and potatoes dish, it’s actually really good with a little olive oil and vinegar. [To his son] Hi buddy! Sorry, my son just came in the room.

GK: Is your family with you full-time in Kazan?

JA: Yes, they are. My daughter is three and my son is eighteen months. They actually came this year in September.

GK: What has it been like, raising two kids in Russia? Has your daughter surprised you with her Russian language skills yet?

JA: She’s not full-on speaking Russian, but if she goes outside, she’ll come in and will say a word here and there. My wife and I will look at each other and be like, “Wow, that’s impressive.” At this age, they’re just sponges. It amazes you how they listen. You don’t think they do, but they hear everything.

GK: I remember reading that you came close to making the Canadian Olympic Team for PyeongChang. What transpired around that time?

JA: I got hurt just before that, and I think I came back too late from that injury. They didn’t have enough time to look at me. I went to a preseason tournament in Sochi, and then on October 13th, I got hurt—so I was out for about two, two-and-a-half months. By the time I came back on December 27th, they were getting really close to making the team. I don’t think they had enough time. Would it have been nice? Yeah, absolutely. Do I have any hard feelings? No, not at all. I understand that it’s a business and it is what it is.

GK: Did you ever imagine, back when you were playing juniors in Canada, that your career would take you to Russia?

JA: No, never. It’s funny how you say that, because I never thought of it. I didn’t even know how good the league was. To think now that I’ve been here and have been pretty successful, it’s crazy.

GK: Do you chirp in Russian ever?

JA: No, I just chirp in English. [Laughs] I think I get my point across!

GK: What are you watching and listening to these days on the road?

JA: Netflix, I download as many episodes as I can. There was Mindhunter, which I think I crushed on that road trip to China. And just music. I kindof listen to anything—I like my hip-hop and dance music.

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