Tolpar Ufa captain Pavel Yelizarov in-depth interview.
Tolpar Ufa enjoyed their most successful season in the past ten years. Ufa were able to win Junior Hockey League bronze medals and made it to Kharlamov Cup Semifinals, falling to future champions JHC Dynamo Moscow. Tolpar defenseman and captain Pavel Yelizarov, who began his junior career on Omskie Yastreby Omsk Region, once again was one of the most noticeable players on his team. As a defenseman, he really had begun making a name for himself back in the 2019-20 season when he led Junior Hockey League with plus-56 and also in points among d-men with eight goals and 39 assists for 47 points. He was named the best defenseman of the season as a result. In this in-depth interview Yelizarov looked back on the series against JHC Dynamo Moscow, opened up about his trouble with skating and reminisced about the time when he didn’t want to become a defenseman.
– How did your career begin?
- One day my dad just bought tickets to a hockey game and took me with him. Back then Avangard [Omsk] still played at the old Blinov rink. I don’t remember if I liked it or not but after the game my parents asked me if I wanted to play hockey. I agreed and they signed me up for a junior hockey school. So I started playing hockey when I was five years old.
- Was your father a hockey fan?
- No, I think he just decided to go there for fun and took me with him. Omsk is a hockeytown. Almost everyone follows Avangard there.
- What was your first impression after practice?
- I remember that I didn’t want to go back there (laughs). I was struggling with skating. I missed most of the practice because I just sat on the bench. I had to put in a lot of effort and I don’t really have a great work ethic. I would step on the ice by the end of practice when the drills were over and we would just play hockey. But as time went on I learned to skate. A lot of parents sign their kids up for sports at a young age so they wouldn’t end up in a bad company. Sports push you forward and you become more outgoing. I studied and practiced my whole childhood so I never ended up in bad companies.
- Why did you become a defenseman?
- I was a forward until I turned ten years old. And then my first coach Dmitry Viktorovich Smagin put on defense at a tournament. Actually, my dream was to become a goaltender. The least I wanted to do was becoming a defenseman (laughs).
- And now you’re one of the best defensemen in Junior Hockey League.
- It seems that the coach was right then (smiles).
"I was a B-student until geometry came along”
- How well did you do in school?
- In elementary school I would have just a couple of B’s a year – at Russian, English and some other additional class. Later on I had to make a choice between hockey and academics. As my first coach Dmitry Viktorovich used to say, if academics get in the way of hockey, you should drop it. That’s exactly what happened. I was a B-student up until Grade 6 but then geometry came along. Due to tournaments I missed all of the basics of the class and I didn’t feel like learning everything on my own later on. The only D I have on my Grade 9 diploma is for geometry.
- Did you go to regular or sports school?
- I went to in-depth learning school in Omsk. But when I moved to Khanty-Mansiysk, our whole team studied at Yugra College of Olympic Reserve.
- So you moved to another town even before joining Ufa?
- I did. My first move was from Omsk to Khanty-Mansiysk when I was still in junior hockey school. It went pretty smoothly because our whole team stayed at one place and there was always someone to talk to. As for moving to Ufa, it was difficult even though I knew a few guys on the team. Obviously, they waited for me here and relied on me but it still was difficult at first. I was constantly alone with my thoughts. I was worried how I would fit into a new system. But about three days later we went on the road and that’s where I started feeling at ease on the new team.
- Where do you study now?
- I study at an Omsk college. I’m majoring in coaching. To be absolutely honest with you, I never showed up for a class there (laughs). But I’m always in touch with the head of my class. If I have to do some homework, I do everything I must and send it to them. I’m very grateful to her. She really helps me out a lot.
- If you weren’t a hockey player, what would you do?
- I don’t know. I didn’t have much time to think it over. Let’s put it this way – I don’t know anything but hockey.
- When did you realize that you truly wanted to become a hockey player?
- I wouldn’t say I want to become a hockey as much as I need to. It’s too late to study or do anything else. All there’s left for me to do is to play hockey. I realized it in my rookie Junior Hockey League season.
– Mikhail Vasiliev said in his interview mentioned that you didn’t have a stedy season. Do you agree with him?
- Yes, it was a bumpy kind of season. Everything went well in Junior Hockey League but I didn’t manage to get coach’s trust on my side in VHL and I played just about three to four minutes in some games. That’s why I asked to send me back to Junior Hockey League so I could play more and gain confidence. When VHL team had a full set of defensemen, they sent me down to Junior Hockey League for a couple of games but I remained there for the rest of the season. As a result, the biggest time I have gotten in VHL was 21 minutes. And that came in the very last game.
- Are you not satisfied with your VHL experience yet?
- I’m not. Hockey is a little different there. My buddies, who played in VHL, say that it’s even a little tougher to play there than in Kontinental Hockey League. Most VHL teams play dump and chase. There’s also more physical battles. I wouldn’t say that there’s any difference in terms of game pace. I can name a few teams that stand out – Metallurg [Novokuznetsk], Yugra [Khanty-Mansiysk], Rubin [Tyumen]. Besides, VHL players are older and every mistake made by young players means a lot to them.
- Would you say making a debut in Kontinental Hockey League is one of your goals for the upcoming season?
- Of course it is. It’s high time I made a name for myself. I struggle with skating and it impedes my progress. As soon as I get it fixed, everything is going to go uphill for me.
- What’s wrong with your skating?
- I almost don’t bend my knees at all. Some say that this kind of skating is my specialty, while others say that means I have weak legs. I developed this problem in Junior Hockey League. The pace of game is higher here than in junior hockey school. But in Omsk nobody said anything about my skating. I knew that I had a problem with that and that I needed to address it to make KHL team. I’m not ashamed of it or anything but I certainly do my best to make my legs stronger.
- What’s your take on Tolpar’s season?
- I believe it was a good – even successful – season for us. I think [JHC Dynamo Moscow] was just stronger than us. We had full-face mask kids on our fourth line. They’re just young squirts, while Dynamo had players who had played 20 games in KHL.
- What mistakes does Tolpar need to fix in the off-season?
- We just have to keep moving in the same direction and keep working hard. At the team dinner I said that I would be ready to play in Junior Hockey League next year so we’re going to have another chance to win a cup together.
- How did you like the atmosphere in the dressing-room?
- There weren’t any problems whatsoever. Everyone on the team is a young kid. We like to have a few laughs and can’t wait for the games to start.
- You led the team at average ice-time with 25:14 in the regular season and 21:53 in the playoffs. When you play so much, do you feel it right away or only after the game?
- It depends. Especially when the first game is in the evening and the following is in the afternoon. For instance, if I played 30 minutes the night before, I have less than 24 hours to recover. Also, I have a hard time falling asleep after games. It’s not even that I keep replaying certain game situations in my mind, but I just have a lot of adrenaline pumping through my veins. So it kind of feels like I want to sleep but I can’t. To be honest with you, I don’t even understand how can anyone be satisfied with playing very little. For example, in VHL I would play 15 minutes a game. It’s decent but it wasn’t enough for me.
– Salavat Yulaev Ufa system has a system for player development. How exactly does it work?
- Team management comes to all of our games. I don’t know if there’s a system like that anywhere else. But it’s really great. Because if you had a successful game, you have a chance to be called up to a men’s league right after. During the coronavirus outbreak our team management didn’t cancel any games and gave Junior Hockey League boys an opportunity to prove their worth in VHL, while VHL players got a chance to play in KHL. Obviously, if young players get a chance it’s great for their development.
- KHL has officially legalized loan system. Do you see it as a positive, being a young player?
- It depends on the team you’re on. If it’s a top team, then the loan system is good for you. Because young players don’t get roster spots on KHL teams for nothing. That’s why you get a chance to prove your worth on another team, especially on teams who put a lot of effort on working with young players. If you play for a weaker team, there’s no reason to think about being loaned out because you have to battle for a roster spot. In any case, I see the loan system as a positive.
– What do you normally do on road trips during the season?
- I usually listen to music, play cards with the boys or Mafia. I’m not one for long bus rides. I can’t fall asleep on the bus at all. I would rather ride a train for three days. One time I travelled for 19 hours by bus with VHL team and I just couldn’t force myself to fall asleep the whole time. I even took sleeping pills and yet it didn’t help. I just waited for us to finally arrive.
- Would you say flying is most comfortable way to travel?
- I struggle with long flights as well. I flew to Sochi with my friends for vacation and it took four hours. I barely made it through.
- What kind of music do you like listening to?
- I can’t listen to songs in English because I don’t understand anything they say in them. I listen to Russian rap and chanson. My favorite song? My friend and I love Golden Domes (laughs).
- What do you like to do on vacation?
- I spend most of the season at home so on vacation I go out with my friends as much as possible. We take the same strolling track every time in Omsk because there’s nowhere else to go (smiles).
- What’s your take on travelling?
- I don’t really like it because my idea of resting is lying on a chaise longue. My friends tried to take me somewhere in Sochi but I grumbled every time and they grumbled at me back (laughs). Turkey is my favorite vacation. We were planning to go there but then they shut down the borders so we went to Sochi. Actually, I would like to go to the Maldives one day.