Former Capitals winger Dmitri Khristich was recently interviewed by Vladimir Topilsky of the Team Russia Pro Olympic Journal website. The interview covered several topics, including Alex Ovechkin’s chances of passing Wayne Gretzky in career goals, his friendship with Andrei Nikolishin, his coaching career, and his passion for golf. This interview report will primarily focus on the hockey topics covered in the interview.
At the present time, Khristich lives in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, “I’ve been living here for three years with my family. I work as a coach at a local hockey school” [youth hockey supervisor].
“Now, of course, there are no activities – quarantine. We only leave the house for groceries or visit relatives. Just the day before, we visited my father-in-law. His house is in the country and we had barbecued food. At the same time, we celebrated the birthday of my adopted son. He turned 14 years old, and dreams of becoming a hockey player.”
Q: In Kremenchuk, do people wear masks when they walk along the streets?
DK: Basically, the elder generation, who are known to be at risk, wear them. Personally, I am uncomfortable wearing the mask: it’s hard to breathe and my glasses fog up. But you always need to take the mask with you – without it you are not allowed into the store.
Q: What is the status of the epidemic in your nation?
DK: In Ukraine, with a population of 40 million people, more than 9 thousand are already sick. My wife works on an ambulance. She argues that not all methods of testing for coronavirus are reliable. The most accurate tests are expensive, and it takes longer to wait for the results.
I was told that in the United States, they are now exploring the possibility of developing a quick test for infection in any pharmacy. Then the sick person will be 100% convinced of the need for self-isolation, and putting everyone under one roof and locking them in quarantine, is not entirely correct.
Q: Where do your parents live?
DK: They’ve lived in Philadelphia for over 20 years. They are elderly: mom now eighty and father eighty-six. We call each other every day. My parents sit at home and do not venture out. If they need groceries or some other goods, they can use a delivery service, which is very developed there. In any case, I am very worried about them. After all, the number of people infected with coronavirus in the United States has exceeded one million people.
Q: You played in the NHL for 12 seasons. Ever wanted to stay in North America?
DK: When I played there, I did have such a desire. Then life happened and I returned to Ukraine. I thought there would be more options for developing a coaching career there. But intentions do not always coincide with reality. Although I have an American passport, as they say, in case of emergency. My parents say that it’s good to live in the United States at their age as it’s calmer. I’m only fifty.
Dmitry Khristich with a children’s team from Kremenchuk. Photos from the personal archive.
Q: So, you are now actively engaged in the development of hockey in Kremenchuk?
DK: Our city does not have much hockey history, only about five to seven years’ worth. Fortunately, there were people who invested money and time for the development of hockey, but also the soul. Thanks to them, the local HC Kremenchuk, which includes a children’s sports school and a stadium receive everything necessary for success.
Q: Do you have a lot of pride in it?
DK: This season, Kremenchuk hockey players took first place in the regular season of the Ukrainian Hockey League. In the playoff semifinals, we were scheduled to play the “White Leopard” (Bila Tserkva). Just the other day, we learned that the sports department decided to hold a series of games in early September.
Q: Does that seem fair?
DK: In my opinion, not really. If you consider that the new season starts on September 30, and that, for many players, their contracts end in the spring, then fall, you need to recruit a new team. And they still must finish the remaining games from last season. But the decision has been made, and we’ll see how it will be applied. I think that all this is in the hands of Donbass, which once again wants to become the strongest team in Ukraine.
Q: Have you talked to any of the Russian teams about work?
DK: Unfortunately, no. In 2015-2016, I worked as an assistant to Andrei Nikolishin, with whom I’ve been close friends with since playing for the Washington Capitals. I worked as his assistant for Chelyabinsk Tractor and Khabarovsk Amur. At that time, I did not have the appropriate coaching experience, and I had to learn a lot on the fly.
Q: Besides Nikolishin, who else are you in frequent contact with?”
DK: I keep in touch with former Capitals’ teammates Sergei Gonchar and Dainius Zubrus. Gonchar, I would say, is not a public person. He is a defensive coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins and he does not like to especially talk about his work. Dainius, who lives in two countries, Lithuania and the USA, is more open. I saw him a couple of times, relatively recently.
Q: In your NHL career, you played with legendary Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles? What memories do you have of that time?
DK: Wayne was definitely the Great One. He was a hockey player who brilliantly read the game and instantly made the right decisions. Only one thing was required from his line mates – to be open without thinking whether he would understand you or not. If you do your job, then Gretzky will pass to you. I will never forget his passes, after which the puck somehow fell on the stick in a special way.
Q: And what was your relationship with him on the team?
DK: I can’t say that we were friends. There was an age difference of almost 9 years. But everyone would communicate well and listen to what he had to say. Not as a captain and team leader, but simply as an amazing person with a simple and quiet voice. After I left the Los Angeles Kings, our paths no longer crossed – only a few times on the ice.
Q: Will the Russian, Alexander Ovechkin, be able to catch up with Gretzky, who leads the NHL sniper in career goals with 894 goals? He now has 188 goals less than Gretzky,
DK: I am impressed by the powerful style of Alexander’s game. He has a great shot and is a great skater. But Ovechkin will turn 35 in September, and at that age it is difficult to compete in the NHL with youth on an equal basis. If he stays in proper athletic shape for several more years in a row, then Gretzky’s record can be surpassed.
Q: The NHL season has paused, but there is talk of its resumption. What do you think about this?
DK: I do not want to make any assumptions because I am not dealing with this issue. I know only one thing – the decision will be deliberate, balanced and the best at the present time. All clubs will accept it unanimously, without dissent.
Dmitry Khristich with his wife Alexandra. Photos from the personal archive.
Q: You were part of the USSR national team, which in August 1990 won the Seattle Goodwill Games in hockey. Those competitions games were mostly remembered by the defection of Sergei Fedorov, who wanted to play in the NHL without the blessing of the country’s sports leadership. Did you envy him then?
DK: No. For me, his defection was a complete surprise. I had no idea that Sergei had such plans. The tournament was attended by scouts of the Washington Capitals, with whom I had contacts. They verbally made it clear that no radical action is required of me – everything will be official. And so it happened – soon I left to play in the USA.
Q: In Seattle, you performed on a line with Pavel Bure and Valery Kamensky.
DK: I remember well that I started on a line with them. In the final, we beat the US in a shootout. I did not play at all in the ten-minute overtime period. [The game was tied 3-3 at the end of regulation] But made one shot in the shootout, as did Alexander Semak. The Americans did not score even once. In 2015, after an exhibition game took place between Russian and world hockey veterans within the framework of the Night Hockey League that took place on the ice of Lake Baikal, Valery Kamensky discussed details of the Goodwill games.
Q: In 2017, you were the head coach of the club of the Edinburgh Capitals in the British elite hockey league. What do you think about hockey in that region?
DK: British hockey is good quality thanks to players from Canada. The main league of the country, although subordinate to the jurisdiction of the International Hockey Federation, mainly follows its internal laws, which differ markedly from the continental ones. For example, British club can play in a game [in the KHL, only five]. Canadian players can get higher education in the UK for free or for less money than at home.
Khristich continued to talk about the progress of the British hockey team in the international competition.
Q: What happened with your coaching job in Scotland?
DK: In Edinburgh, they failed to create the proper conditions for the life and training of athletes. In other words, the idea was little financially supported. For the club where I was engaged in the training process, my assistant had his own business and could only be present for classes in the evening. There was not even a doctor. Volunteers had to handle the duties of a doctor and many other positions. It was very difficult to get used such an attitude towards the team. In the same league, there were some teams that traveled from Wales to Scotland by private jets, while we had to take 9 hour bus rides. It was such an unprofessional approach of the organization to how the team had to live.
Q: Did any Russian hockey players play in Edinburgh?
DK: [One player who played] was Pavel Vorobyov who had formerly played with two-time Russian champion in the Yaroslavl Locomotive. He had played briefly for the Chicago Blackhawks, and he stayed in Scotland for two seasons.
Andrey Shevchenko, Dmitry Khristich and Irina Deryugina on the Avenue of Stars in Kiev, Photo from the personal archive.
He continued his interview by discussing his passion for golf. He had noticed golf was a popular pastime in the USA and when he returned home to the Ukraine, noticed that golf was becoming more popular there.
He closed his interview by saying, “As a person who grew up in the Soviet Union, I can say that sport is the world. Now the main priority is to defeat the pandemic, invent a vaccine against the virus, and then try to overcome all existing conflicts. Once the borders open, I will be sure to visit Andrei Nikolishin in Moscow. He has wanted me to visit him for quite some time.”
The original interview can be found here.
By Diane Doyle