The Yaroslavl defenseman – about junior-to-senior transition, Igor Nikitin’s motivational speeches, Eminem and supportive parents who live in a different city.
Alexei Kozhevnikov is one of the Yaroslavl system’s most talented blueliners born in 2002. The 20-year-old D-man is in his fourth JHL season. In the 2021/22 season, he played for Loko-76 and was recognized as the JHL’s best defenseman. Kozhevnikov had 45 (17+28) points in 62 regular-season games and scored two goals in the playoffs. Alexei has been receiving call-ups to the main team starting from the end of October of the 2022/23 season and has already played 21 games in the Kontinental Hockey League. He scored his first KHL goal in the game against Ak Bars played in late December. Kozhevnikov has also played 25 JHL games for Loko and scored 14 (1+13) points.
In an interview with the official JHL website, Alexei Kozhevnikov talked about Yaroslavl system’s distinctive features, winning mindset, and how Eminem helps him get juiced to play.
– You play for Lokomotiv and Loko, both teams hold leading positions. What is the secret of success?
– Lokomotiv and Loko always aim high and work hard: we discuss tactics, analyze videos, practices are aimed at all-round development. All the guys are professionals, we are result-oriented and strive to win every game. These are the main ingredients for success.
– Is SKA a big rival of yours in both leagues?
– Yes, games against them are always interesting. Lokomotiv and SKA in the KHL, Loko and SKA-1946 in the JHL – these teams are always placed high in the standings. We take games against them like any other ones, but perhaps they do give some extra motivation. Loko and SKA are among the best schools in Russia, and the matchups are always hard-fought. But having played in the Eastern conference in the 2021/22 season, I can’t say that Omsk or Magnitogorsk have bad schools. They also have some great guys who are fun to play against.
– Speaking of playing in the Eastern conference, in what way was it different from playing in the West?
– The main difference is that playing in the Eastern conference implies covering long distances and spending a good deal of time on a plane and on a bus, so recovery becomes the most important thing (smiles). As for games, I can’t say that there was a huge difference, pretty much the same hockey is played everywhere.
– You are now in your fourth JHL season. Do you feel ready for a new challenge?
– Any young player’s main goal is to make it to the main team. I am doing my best to become a full-time player of Lokomotiv.
– Playing in the NJHL, you never scored more than ten points per season. Having moved to the JHL, you started scoring more goals and getting more assists. What is it due to?
– It is due to the experience, which is of great importance at the junior level. Players join NJHL teams at a very young age, while JHLers are older. Every year of work adds to the result and the number of points scored.
– In late November you were suspended one game for an illegal check to the head on a Sakhalinskie Akuly player. Do you do extra correction work after such incidents?
– I was also suspended one game for an illegal check to the head in the 2021/22 season. I guess, such things happen in the heat of the moment, I need to do better job keeping my temper in check, so as to avoid such stupid penalties. I think I am no longer as emotional as I used to be. I don’t overreact, but try to keep emotions under control and channel them.
– Is keeping emotions under control important in the KHL?
– Yes, you must stay focused, keep eyes open during a game, do the right things on the ice and stay in the game until the last second, because an opponent can make you pay for your mistakes.
– As you said, you believe that Loko and Loko-76 are at the same level, but the results of these two teams can’t serve as a confirmation to this. What is the reason for such different runs in the 2022/23 season?
– When Loko-76 was just created, its core featured the guys I had won the cup in the NJHL with. The majority of players were born in 2002-2003. We had the cup-winning experience, some guys had spent several seasons in the JHL by then. While today a large portion of Loko-76 players are very young guys born in 2005-2006, who play for the U18 team. They are called up to the JHL in order to ensure their progress and development, so they might lack experience, but they will gain it with the passing of time.
– Has the addition of the second team improved the Yaroslavl young player development structure?
– Obviously, having another JHL team is for the good of young players and their progress. Being a full-time JHLer at the age of 16-17 is worth a lot. It allows you to develop faster and get adjusted to playing at the higher level. Those who get themselves noticed, keep moving up the tiers.
– Playing in the JHL, you talked about some set plays you and your defensive partners worked on. Is it the same in the KHL?
– In the JHL I was on the power play and penalty killing units, so we had some set plays and always tried to come up with some new moves and use them in games. Working on some set plays in the KHL is not always possible, because my partners often change and I also play with forwards. There are some guys I have better chemistry with, but for now I just try to fulfill coach’s task and do my job well.
– Your first KHL goal was scored when you joined the rush. Was it also a part of the coach’s task?
– I managed to find some free space and get open. Pasha Kraskovsky dished a good pass for me to bury. I always seek to act according to the situation. If there’s an opportunity to join a rush, why not do it? But if you feel that it is not the right moment for it, you’d better not take risks.
– Have you got adjusted to playing for the men’s team?
– I guess, I’m still getting adjusted. You start feeling most yourself when averaging more than 15 minutes per night. You are to keep progressing practice after practice in order to prove that you are ready to play at this level.
– Lokomotiv has not allowed a single goal with you being on the ice. What helps you play solid defense taking that your partners often change?
– When I hit the ice, I try to put all my thoughts aside. Because if you start thinking about some things that might happen, they definitely will. Older guys are also of great help, they give me some pointers and back me up. Thanks to them, my actions and the goalie’s performance, the team hasn’t allowed any goals with me being on the ice.
– How did you find out about the call-up to the main team?
– The first time I was dressed for the game was on September 14 when we played SKA in our barn. I was pleased to hear the news. I didn’t play any minutes that night, but I knew that I just needed to practice, work hard and it would allow me to get some ice time. I made my debut in the game against Severstal. I don’t remember how many minutes I spent on the ice, well, not many. Our team won, it was nice to get a win in my debut game.
– Training camps help players to get adjusted to the KHL level conditioning-wise, but what helps in terms of mentality?
– Both the junior team and the main team have same winning mentality – we seek to win every game and always aim high. I got in the right mindset to perform well and do the right things on the ice, because, as they say, thoughts are things. So far, so good.
– Does the fact that Lokomotiv and Loko have different styles of play make things harder when moving from one team to another?
– The styles of play do differ, of course, but hockey itself is completely different. In the JHL, we play junior hockey and the name speaks for itself, because hockey is kind of joyful and bouncy. There, too, you need to play for the result, otherwise you won’t be able to win. But in the KHL we are to play with the big boys. Many KHLers have the experience of winning world championships, so we must play solid defense. There are many experienced players who will make you pay for your mistakes. It does take some time to get adjusted. Playing in the KHL, you can’t join rushes the way you do in the JHL. Not only a mistake can affect the result, but even some misstep or lapse of concentration.
– What do you feel playing with experienced players and facing some big names on the ice?
– I started receiving call-ups to the main team back in 2022, I’ve had enough time to get to know all the guys well. All the teammates are helpful and ready to give some pieces of advice, there is no division into older and younger players, we have been sticking together and it has been bearing results. To be honest, I don’t let who I play against matter. What difference does a name on a jersey make? We have our task at hand, we must do our best to win every game and play every shift to contribute to the team’s result.
– Which teammate was your mentor or did everyone help?
– At the training camp, I was paired with Alexander Yelesin. He was giving me a lot of pointers, and was of great help for me to keep some things in mind and get adjusted quicker. All the guys were helping me on the ice: Andrei Sergeyev, Alexei Marchenko, Alexander Yelesin, Maxim Osipov. They all were giving me some pieces of advice and backing me up. If older guys help a younger player, he will develop and progress faster.
– Did the fact that you joined the team in the spring really helped you get adjusted to the men’s hockey?
– Yes, it was a very important aspect. I was able to move step by step to get prepared for men’s hockey, it helps young players get adjusted to this level. Being with the main team, I drew valuable insights about playing defense.
– Did the addition of the second JHL team entail the increased competition for Lokomotiv roster spot?
– I believe, competition has always been high in Lokomotiv system. You might as well say that Loko-76 being created means that 30 more guys look to compete for your spot. That is why every single day you have to prove to the coaches and to yourself that you are here for a good reason.
– How does playing for the main team feel?
– When I was a kid, I attended KHL games and dreamed of hitting the ice as a KHLer one day. When such a dream comes true some time later, it is an indescribable feeling, a superior experience.
– Lokomotiv head coach Igor Nikitin said the following: “The philosophy of tolerating, going gently with losses is not mine.” How does he cultivate the right mindset?
– Igor Valerievich often gives motivational speeches. He gets across an idea that we are to hit the ice like winners and get what we deserve. We should think of nothing but the win. That’s the mindset that produces results.
– What do you like to do in your spare time?
– I hardly do anything unusual on days off during a season. I prefer to sleep, relax, take my mind off hockey even for a few hours. As for offseason, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends, traveling or simply going out of town. I love being with my family, because there are a lot of road trips and games during the season - I am either with the team or in a different city.
– Does your family watch your games?
– Yes, of course. My parents and my grandmother watch every single game I play. My parents live in Chita and even in the depth of night they stay awake to watch games. I would not say that they give me any pointers or pieces of advice, since none of them have ever played hockey (smiles). But they are doing a great job supporting me, I want to thank them for that.
– How were you organizing your life away from you parents?
– When I just moved to Yaroslavl, my parents and my grandmother often came to visit me. But when I was at an age of about 15, their visits became less frequent. I was getting older and realized that, probably, the timing was perfect (smiles). I knew that I was able to live on my own in a different city.
– What holiday destination would you go to again? And which country would you like to visit?
– To be honest, the range of choice is pretty narrow. My parents and I once spent our holidays in Thailand, then I visited Sochi on my own. Would be great if I could visit some country every year to get rested and charged with positive energy, because travelling and a change of scenery are of great help. I don’t even know which country I would like to visit, I don’t want to name any banal destinations. Probably, I would like to go to Thailand again, but on my own. I really liked this country.
– Does your jersey number carry any meaning?
– Not really. When I came to Yaroslavl, I was assigned number 25 at school. I had been wearing it until I graduated. When I joined the JHL, I started wearing number 28. And when moving from Loko to Loko-76, number 28 was not available, while number 25 was. I thought why not take it. And I got back to my roots, so to say (smiles).
– Are there any hockey rituals you follow?
– The only pregame ritual I have been following for about two years is listening to the same song - Rap God by Eminem.
– Why do you listen to this particular song?
– I don’t know, I just like it. It helps me get juiced to play and I can never get enough of this song, I enjoy the beat. Not only does Eminem include a blisteringly fast verse, but this track also holds the Guinness World Record for most words in a hit single. This song does please the ear.
– What would you do if it wasn’t for hockey?
– I started on skates when I was four years old and I haven’t considered any other sport since then. I got to like it right away. Of course, being a kid, I didn’t aim at becoming a professional athlete. Not that my parents were trying to throw a scare into me, but they kept telling me that a military school was a plan B for me (smiles).
– Are you ready to do something extraordinary in case of winning a trophy with Lokomotiv or Loko? Some players promise to make a parachute jump, others - to shave off their beards...
– To be honest, I haven’t considered making a parachute jump or doing something of that kind. And I don’t have a beard. Well, I might get a small tattoo with the cup if I feel like doing it.