Sergei Safin-Tregubov moved to Ufa aged six. Without knowing Russian, he enrolled in a new school and started playing hockey.
Sergei Safin-Tregubov is Tolpar’s top-scoring defenseman and was born in Portugal, where he lived until he turned six. When he was three, his father gave him to the Sporting Lisbon academy, the same football school that produced players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma. He showed promise, but when he was six, his family returned to Russia, in Ufa. It wasn’t easy for him at the start, and his father didn’t find a suitable football club for him. So, the defenseman enrolled in the school and started playing hockey without knowing Russian language.
Over time, Safin-Tregubov became one of the hottest prospects in the Ufa organization – he’s known in the MHL for his thundering hits. He still plays with his full-face visor, despite turning 20 a while ago. With 16 (5+11) points in 27 games, Safin-Tregubov is one of the top 10 scoring defensemen in the league. He always said that he never had an ideal technique, but that he compensates with his character, as he demonstrated in early November, picking up an injury saving his team’s crease. In this interview, the Ufa defenseman talked about life in Portugal, the shock after seeing the snow for the first time, his experience in the VHL, and how to correctly perform a hip check.
“I don’t remember it myself, but as my father told me, he had a chance to take a vacation either in Scotland or in Portugal,” the defenseman starts his talk. “In the end, he picked Portugal. My parents flew there, and in the meantime, I was born. It so happened that they stayed in a foreign country for an indefinite period of time, they didn’t know the language, but they worked, everything changed drastically, but they did just fine. I lived there for six years and after kindergarten, before going to school, they decided that it was time to return to Russia. I turned out to be the reason for the whole trip!”, he says laughing.
And if that wasn’t enough, he also had to deal with his double surname. “My parents gave me the full right to decide for myself about it,” he explains. “I admit I thought about it, but I never wanted to give it up. I grew up with it, I got used to it, and I am very comfortable with it. If the thought of changing my surname sometimes crossed my mind, I immediately put it in the garbage can. No one has given me a nickname yet. In hockey, people call me Tregubov more, and in school they call me Safin more often. Officially, I have double surname, but in practice, it depends on whom I talk about.”
Safin-Tregubov grew up in Caminha, a municipality in the north-west of Portugal which sits on the border with Span. “Caminha is a beautiful little resort town, the beach is contiguous with the Spanish town on the other side of the border,” he says about that part of his life. “15 minutes, and you’re already in another country, just like in the movies. There isn’t much remarkable in the town itself, everyone knows each other. There are no big cities in Portugal, except for two or three. It’s just a corner of the world, and when you fly in winter, sometimes you don’t want to go back.” He still has found memories from his time in Portugal. “I remember going to the park with my dad. We practiced with him all the time, we ran, we worked with the ball every day, everyone greeted us,” he recalls. “We always tried to play actively with the ball. I have lots of memories; I simply can’t list them all.” In that period, the two were practicing hard seeking a football career for the young Sergei. “We were training from the age of four, and I not only trained with him, but with others professionally as well. Back in Russia, when we played soccer, I was a head taller than the other players. I could beat the whole team, football sport was very easy for me. When I was 7-8 years old I could do push-ups until I hit the hundred, I’m not exaggerating, you can ask my father,” he ends with another laugh.
However, back in Russia, Sergei’s life changed not only in day-to-day tasks, but also in sports. “- I was just studying, then we decided it was time to come back. My parents decided that my future in Russia was connected to another sport, even though FC Ufa hadn’t even been established yet. I went to swimming, wrestling, and whatever else my parents sent me to. But when I attended my first hockey training and stood on the ice at a try-out practice, I decided that it suited me the best. My mom pushed me, I liked it, and that’s how all it started.”
Moreover, in Russia, Sergei also discovered another thing he never experienced back in Portugal. The snow. “The first time was just unforgettable. In Portugal, people see snow like a miracle,” he explains. “They know what it is, but for them it’s a wonder. I remember the first time in Russia my mother gave me mittens. I was in shock: I got up and just started shaking off the snow. I remember I was scared because the snow was sticking to me. I shook it off my mittens, but it kept falling and falling from the sky. At that moment I even cried because I didn’t understand what it was all about. My parents explained me, then I got used to it, even tasted the snow, but I will never forget that first feeling. But I didn’t have to get used to the cold – I was perfectly comfortable with my warm clothes.”
He also had to deal with the language barrier: “At first I was really a silent kid, trying to point at something with my fingers. My first acquaintance with my friends, with whom I still communicate, was through my mother, because I didn’t really know the language. My parents taught me the language, my grandparents also taught me, my teachers at school helped me with the writing. All went on in small steps. At school, my mates weren’t particularly hard on me, the little kids themselves didn’t understand much, but when I grew up, I was already like any other kid in the city.”
Different from most of other Russian kids, however, Sergei had no practice in skating. “My first coach had me skating a lot with the walker to get used to standing on skates. And I was told that I skated more than anyone else, I just skated around, in circles, trying to stand up. Our coaches didn’t really look at how you skate. There were guys who had almost benchmark skating as kids, a great shot, they scored a lot, were stars, but they didn’t turn pro. I was winning more on my character, I didn’t have a very good shot, nor did I skate that well, but those guys were losing to me in some other ways and getting left out. Skating in general has been improving all my life. I’m a little clubfooted, a little flatfooted, but overall, I think I’m doing pretty well.”
Hockey is also a sport that requires more power, if compared with football. “My father instilled these qualities in me since childhood,” Safin-Tregubov explains. “We even practiced wrestling, it’s about you and how you position your body automatically, you don’t understand it sometimes, but the body does it by itself. Then I started to practice other elements, but already when I was attacking. I had a good physical training in my childhood, and I rarely lost a fight.”
Today, the defenseman often falls in MHL’s top hit clips with his signature move – a thundering hip check.
“I’m on the smaller side, and I love it when you have a forward coming at you and you’re quick, it’s just an indispensable technique that you should have. It helps any defenseman whose size allows it. If I was taller by a head than the coming forward, it would be more difficult. I worked on hip checks in practices, there were some unsuccessful ones. My partners, I hope, understand that it was for the good. I practiced a lot of this technique, but without a partner, just the maneuvers. Now when I see a forward flying at breakneck speed, why not take him on a merry-go-round?”
However, it’s not easy. “It’s a difficult play. If you want to get it to automatism, you have to work and work all the time. A lot depends on your skating and on how you adjust your weight. You also need to straighten up correctly, these are very subtle elements, and they really need to be taken into account. I’ve been working on it for a long time and I’m still training; there’s no limit to perfection. If you want to do it on a regular basis, you must practice, practice and practice.”
Safin-Tregubov has already played with the pros in the VHL, last year with Toros, another affiliate club of Salavat Yulaev. “It’s the same guys from the MHL, really, just older,” he explains. “At first, yeah, different rhythm, different hockey. It’s more risky, more tactical, and there are pro hockey players on the rink. If in the MHL players see one step ahead, in the VHL it’s two or three steps ahead. However, the MHL is not inferior in terms of speed, the difference is mainly in physical play.”
He also had to deal with the sometimes-challenging conditions of some VHL venues. “In Voskresensk, for example,” he said, “I loved when we had to charge our phones at the gas station because there was no light in the hotel,” he recalls with a laugh. “I liked the city as a whole; we didn’t get to walk around, but even from the stands you can feel the hockey of the past. If a referee makes a wrong decision, the fans just destroy him. They don’t cheer like that in the KHL, it’s more elegant.”
The young defenseman is now primed for KHL debut with Salavat Yulaev. “I don’t know when I’ll play my first KHL game. Probably, when I’ll learn to do things that other Salavat Yulaev defenseman can’t do. I’m trying to work on those things.”