In Game 1 of 2021 Parimatch Junior Hockey League Kharlamov Cup quarterfinal series Irbis Kazan took 52 shots on Belye Medvedi Chelyabinsk net but ‘Polar Bears’ goaltender Ilya Gorbunov stopped every last one of them. That shutout win was Gorbunov’s fourth in Kharlamov Cup Playoffs. Earlier Gorbunov posted three shutout victories in the first round series against Stalnye Lisy Magnitogorsk.
After Game 1 against Irbis Kazan Gorbunov repeated Kharlamov Cup Playoffs record for shutouts in a single post-season run. Only the following netminders had been able to post four shutouts in one playoff run – Igor Shestyorkin (JHC Spartak Moscow), Ilya Konovalov (Loko Yaroslavl) and Vladimir Galkin (Avto Yekaterinburg). All three netminders played for teams that eventually made it to Kharlamov Cup Finals.
Belye Medvedi Chelyabinsk weren’t so lucky. That win over Irbis Kazan turned out to be their last one in the post-season. Tatarstan team went on to win the following three games and clinched a spot in the next round. Ilya Gorbunov wrapped up his final Junior Hockey League season with getting eliminated in the quarterfinal, while tying the league record for shutouts in a single playoff run.
Chelyabinsk – unofficially known as the toughest city in Russia – is Gorbunov’s hometown. That’s where the goaltender began playing hockey and he’s going to continue doing that after retiring from Junior Hockey League. His contract with Traktor Chelyabinsk expires after the 2022-23 season. Perhaps, Gorbunov will spend the upcoming season in VHL with Chelmet – Traktor’s minor league affiliate. In this interview Gorbunov spoke about his first steps in hockey, why Chelyabinsk’s perceived toughness is a thing of the past and what goals he sets for himself for next season.
“I didn’t like skating with the box right away”
– How did your athletic career began?
- When I was about five years old, my dad sign me up for a junior hockey school in Chelyabinsk. I remember that I didn’t like skating with the box right away. I refused to do it almost right away. But I was very much emotionally involved in the process by that time and I just didn’t want to leave the ice. Even though, in the beginning we didn’t plan that it would last that long. My family is pretty athletic on the whole. My father is a master of sports at judo, while my mother and sister are master of sports at rhythmic gymnastics. In my spare time I also took some judo and acrobatics classes just general development.
- Why did you decide to become a goaltender?
- In junior hockey schools usually no one wants to play in goal. Everyone is after scoring goals. My coach simply offered me to try it out and I agreed. In the end I kind of liked it and began improving in that direction.
- What grades were you getting at school? Did you have to skip classes because of hockey?
- I’m no wunderkind. I was an average student. I went to a sports school. You could say that the curriculum was adjusted for our needs. Most of classes were scheduled for the first half of the day, after which we would go to practice. So there wasn’t a chance of skipping any classes.
- Where do you study now?
- I study at Ural State University of Physical Culture. I’m majoring in coaching and instructing. I have dedicated most of my life to hockey so I have a certain knowledge that I would like to relay somehow. And besides it would be interesting to try myself out as a coach sometime in the future.
“Older guys told me that you could get your phone taken away around school back in a day”
– You’re a Chelyabinsk native. According to stereotypes, it’s a rather tough city.
- That’s right, but it has gotten better over time. Older guys told me that you could get your phone taken away around school back in day along with clothes. And yet many athletes still used to dress pretty well. It wasn’t anything like that when I was a kid. I believe, there are tough guys in every nook and cranny of Russia.
- Does sports help you to get distracted from unnecessary hobbies?
- Most likely, yes. I believe, every kid should play sports so that they wouldn’t aimlessly walk around the streets and develop bad relationships. When you’re really into something, you spend all of your time on it. That protects you from the crowd that could have a bad influence on you. I have had acquaintances like that but I haven’t really crossed paths with them.
- How do Chelyabinsk fans support you during the season?
- Chelyabinsk is a hockey town. Our fans always support us regardless of the results we provide. It’s a great thing. We had an awesome support in the playoffs. After all, post-season games are more exciting and there’s more at stake. We always hear the fans and the ambience at the rink is truly energizing. If there are a lot of people, it’s a great thing to see. It’s a lot of fun to play hockey with that kind of atmosphere.
- What do you feel when the whole rink roots against you at the road games?
- It’s even more fun then (laughs). It gives you a lot of energy and that helps a lot.
“I had just one goal and it was to win the cup. So I can’t say everything went according to plan”
– Let’s talk about the past season a little bit. How would define it for your team?
- We had a decent regular season. We struggled a little bit in the beginning but later on we found our rhythm and get our legs going under us. We had a great group of guys and we bonded pretty well as a team. And obviously in any case the outcome was rather disappointing as we expected to get a much deeper playoff run. I had a feeling after the season that it didn’t go the way it was supposed to. I had just one goal and it was to win the cup. So I can’t say everything went according to plan. Personally, I had a lot of moments I didn’t like and would like to do over. I’m going to do my best to fix them. What were those moments? I’m going to have to keep it a secret (laughs).
– You repeated the record for shutout wins in a single playoff run. Were you thinking about it going into games?
- As the matter of fact, it all just sort of happened the way it did. We had only one goal going into every game and that was to get a win. The boys, obviously, helped me to get that achievement and for that I am grateful to them. But still I feel a little disappointed with the way the season panned out. What do these record mean if we ended up not even winning a medal? Coaches, obviously, praised me. But all of that is history now and that’s why we kept working hard. So I didn’t even have any positive emotions regarding that achievement. The whole team worked for that and deserve credit on that as well.
- What world class goaltender’s style do you like the most?
- That would probably be Juha Metsola, Juuse Saros and Anton Khudobin. All of them are small-framed goaltenders just like myself and they play at a high level. It’s exciting for me to watch them play. There is a lot to learn from them – the right way to move, the quick pace.
– Take us through your regular gameday.
- It all depends on when the puck drops. If it’s an afternoon game, I do my best to sleep as long as I can. If the game is in the evening, I go to bed later and get up early so I could get a nap in the afternoon as well. I have my won playlist for the warmup. I always put it on and listen to in my headphones when I’m getting warmup on my own away from the skaters. It’s important for me to listen to specific music so I could get pumped up for the game. That’s probably the only real specific thing I do while getting ready for the games. Other than that I don’t really have a set routine or anything like that.
- How do you usually get to road games?
- It depends on the schedule. Our team administrator chooses the way we travel. Over a year we, obviously, get to travel every way possible – flying, taking trains and busing. This season we once had a very long road trip. We didn’t come home for about a whole month. We travelled by bus because we played in town located close by – we went to Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Almetyevsk and Nizhnekamsk. It was just a bit unusual to be on the road for such a long time. It’s a pretty rare thing to happen.
- Was it the most memorable road trip for you or was there something that topped it?
- I once saw standup comedian Nurlan Saburov on a plane. Although, I have never truly figured it out if it was him or not (laughs).
- What do you usually do during travelling?
- It’s a pretty standard list – I watch movies and listen to music. I’m not really into reading books, although sometimes I get the ‘awakening’ feeling. Whenever I read a book, it’s something science fiction – Sannikov Land, for instance.
- What do you do in your spare time during the season?
- I enjoy going to sauna. I also like watching documentaries on historic events. For instance, about dinosaurs and evolution. I like comedies and action movies too. The latest movie I watched and really like was Gentlemen by Guy Ritchie. There was a time when I played a lot of videogames on PC and console. Although, I have probably haven’t touched either for about six months now or something like that.
- What’s your take on travelling?
- I really like it. The most memorable trip for me was to Spain. I was 14 years old and my family went on vacation there. The thing was there were one flight per three weeks there, so we stayed there for a month. I would also really like to visit Abkhazia and St. Petersburg.
- Where did you go on vacation this year?
- I went to Cyprus for vacation. I was swimming in the see and getting tanned. It’s something I enjoy. I like family-type vacations. There are a lot of breathtaking views and sights over there, too.
- What are you hopes for the upcoming season?
- I have only won goal and that is to win the cup. Moreover, I’m going to be playing in a whole other league in the upcoming season – VHL. I have to prove my worth, show that I can play at that level and get a regular spot on the roster.