Washington Capitals prospect Aliaksei Protas recently completed his first season in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The season included a trip to the postseason where he was awarded “Best Rookie” of the first round of the Gagarin Cup.
Last week it was announced that the Capitals have subsequently re-assigned Protas to the Hershey Bears. The 6’-6” centerman will travel on Monday and serve his required international quarantine before he embarks on the next step in his hockey career with the Bears.
Before departing from his home in Vitebsk, Belarus, Protas sat down for an extended interview with the KHL’s website. Protas, spoke about working with former Washington Capital Mikail Grabowski, motivation from his KHL coach, Craig Woodcroft, Alex Ovechkin’s advice and the desire to play for the senior national team of Belarus.
The following is a translation of portions of the interview.
You have been recognized by the KHL as the best rookie in the first round of the Gagarin Cup, but at the same time Dynamo Minsk was eliminated. Emotions are probably contradictory.
“Of course, it’s a shame. Not even for myself, for the team. There is a certain understatement. I don’t want to say that the score in the series is not according to the game. We all fought and tried. It’s a shame that we did not survive in the end of the last game. I wanted to go as far as possible, but we were opposed by a serious skilled opponent.”
Was there some kind of piety or excessive respect for SKA?
“Probably not. Firstly, we met with them in the regular season. From that game, we realized that this team can be played. They have a very good mix of young guys and veterans. But in every game we were tuned in only to win.”
You played your home games against Dynamo in front of almost full stands. Was the contrast strong compared to the regular season?
“To begin with, we played the last match in the regular season in St. Petersburg. And then I was amazed by the SKA fans. Especially the way they sang the anthem throughout the stadium. When it became clear that we were getting them in the playoffs, I immediately thought that it would be great to have the same support in home matches. I am glad that we managed to fill Minsk-Arena almost to the point of failure. When I was a kid, I used to go to matches, but playing with such an audience is incredible! The support was really felt. I think our series was one of the best in the first round in terms of entertainment.”
Have you ever played with so many fans?
“When I played in the Western Hockey League in Canada, the arena was almost always full. People even slept before the game to buy tickets. We pitched tents. But there the maximum capacity is 3400. And in Minsk 15,000! This, of course, is a different experience. It was a great occasion for the team and the city.”
Surely, people from other Belarusian cities came to the games with SKA. For example, from your native Vitebsk.
“Of course. My family came to cheer at least from Vitebsk. The same goes for relatives and friends of other guys. And, in principle, there were many non-Minskers among the fans. Children’s teams were in the stands. This is an event for the whole of Belarus, after all, Dynamo hasn’t played in the playoffs for a long time.”
Francis Paré said that he calmed you and other young Dynamo players on the bench. Did it help?
“It was not only from Francis, but also from all our leaders. Excitement was present. If not all, then many. More experienced guys helped in these moments. Thanks to this support, we managed to join the series from the first shifts.”
At the same time, Craig Woodcroft does not seem to be a coach who will calm down. On the contrary, he gives the impression of a motivator, which rather emotionally pumps up the players.
“Craig is a crazy motivator! I had heard about it before, and now I have experienced it myself. His speeches before matches are never repeated. He always finds the words that are necessary and appropriate at the moment. If necessary, he can scream and it helps.”
You played in the Canadian junior league for several years. If you compare with the coaches with whom you have worked before, is Woodcroft a typical Canadian coach?
“He has a typical feature of all successful coaches – he is demanding, sometimes tough. Craig asks us to clearly follow the system and give our best one hundred percent.”
Craig talked about your conversation with him, which took place in December. Can you expand on what was discussed.
“The initiator of the conversation was the coach. At that time, I had a slight recession, many things did not work out. This was my first season, not everything went smoothly. Craig helped me, if not to avoid the recession, then to go through it as quickly and painlessly as possible. After that conversation, I started to improve. The dialogue turned out to be very motivating and helped me to have a good ending to the season.”
I remember you said a couple of years ago that you need to work on your speed, improve your skating. Have you been able to take a step in this direction?
“In such a serious league as in the KHL, skating is very important. There are a lot of fast players here. If you don’t want to give in to them in movement, you need to work on yourself. I feel that I have improved over the past two years, but there is still room for improvement.”
There is an opinion that with your impressive size (6’-6”) you need to use them more productively.
“The coaches tell me about it too. I am not a great specialist in terms of power techniques, but in modern hockey, there is nowhere without it. I try to use my size whenever possible. It helps a lot to control the puck.”
Who is your reference point in Dynamo in terms of power game?
“Rob Klinkhammer. This is our leader. I was lucky to play with him in one line, to be next to such a master. He confidently plays in the power plays, using his size, and in his zone. Looking at him, you are sure that he will take the neutral puck. Or take Ilya Usov. He also had his first season in the KHL, but he was not worried, did not worry, but churned out one power move after another.”
What did the season of working with the great Belarusian hockey player, and now a coach, like Mikhail Grabovsky give you?
“Mikhail really helped me a lot. We watched games all the time. He achieved a lot, although injuries prevented him from fully realizing himself. But now Grabowski has become a coach, suggests various nuances. I have before my eyes an example of a Belarusian player who played at the highest level.”
It is believed that Grabowski has not yet completely killed the player in himself. Did you feel it?
“Of course. Mikhail is in full swing in training. He has a gambling passion. No matter how much hockey you play, when you leave, you will miss it. I think, if not for the injury, he would still play. He would definitely help Dynamo. But now he helps as a coach.”
You do not have the most outstanding percentage of won face-offs in the playoffs. Which of the central strikers did SKA give you the hardest time?
“Morozov caused the most problems. A young guy, but already plays well on the “dot”. It was hard with Kemppainen. I have a lot to strive for. Face-offs were my weak point during the season. Tried to learn from Klinkhammer and Mitchell.”
How did you come up with the idea to come to Dinamo Minsk and did you have any alternatives?
“The virus had its own plans for the season, at that time they played hockey only in the KHL. I accepted the offer from Dynamo with pleasure. It’s great that the club gathered all the young Belarusian guys and allowed us to develop in our homeland.”
You immediately became a team?
“It’s hard to become a real team right away. It took some time to rally. At the beginning of the season there was a kind of team building, we went with the guys to nature. Soon we became much closer to each other, which was reflected in the results. It also affected the fact that the team consisted of many young guys of about the same age with similar interests.”
“That was Dynamo’s philosophy this season. We really played aggressive hockey, most of the guys understood English. There is something in this, you are right.”
Considering that you left Belarus for Canada at the age of 14, did you feel like a veteran at Dynamo?
“No no no! Indeed, I left at the age of 14, but after eight months I returned back and for the next several years I developed in Belarus, played hockey in my homeland. I definitely didn’t feel like a veteran, but the experience of life in Canada helped when communicating with our foreigners.”
Why did you stay until the end of the KHL season, unlike Yegor Sharangovich, Ivan Lodnya and Maxim Sushko?
“Initially, there was such an agreement between the clubs. Due to the coronavirus and the situation in the world, it was difficult to predict the development of events overseas. So for my development it was better to spend the whole season with Dynamo.”
Have Dynamo’s chances of passing the first round dropped significantly without this trio?
“Of course, Sharangovich was one of the leaders of the team. Lodnya spent a lot of time at the leading lines. Max was helpful too. But after their departure, there was a chance to show themselves to other players. Interchangeability is a plus for our team. This manifested itself even during the coronavirus, when some guys fell out, while others insured them.”
Is your former teammate Lodnya more American or Belarusian?
“He knows Russian – I can tell you for sure (smiles). It is interesting that I did not meet Vanya before, but with his father. I worked under his leadership in a training camp. Because Vanya already knew in absentia. It was nice to meet in person and play on the same team.”
PK Subban, congratulating Sharangovich on a goal, called him Russian. Was your nationality often confused in North America?
“Of course, I’ve come across this. But every time I tried to emphasize that I am Belarusian. And two years later, in the city where I played, people already knew a lot more about my country.”
How do Russians differ from Belarusians, if we talk not about hockey, but about mentality?
“Good question. It’s hard to say, but it seems to me that Belarusians are generally more peaceful. Take, for example, Roma Gorbunov from our team. He always fought for the team, stood up for partners. In a good way, an aggressive player. For me, he is the embodiment of the Russian character.”
You played with your peers at the KHL level, now the next stop is the adult national team of Belarus?
“Certainly. I crossed paths with many guys even on the youth team. I hope we will all see them on the first team. I think this is the goal for all of us.”
Is there an understanding that you can become the generation that will lead the Belarusian hockey out of the crisis?
“It seems to me that this season has become a good opportunity for fans, functionaries and the entire hockey community to see young Belarusian guys, to see their potential. Of course, I would like to become the one who will help overcome the change of generation, for whom the Belarusian fans will worry. I hope that our generation will help the national team rise.”
Alexander Ovechkin once told you: “work and everything will be.” Are you following this advice? Does the “Ovechkin formula” work?
“Yes, I always remember this advice. You need to believe in yourself, work and not give up. Then everything will be fine.”
The words are, in principle, banal. Or do they sound differently from Ovechkin’s lips?
“Of course! Such words are perceived completely differently when you hear them from a person who has achieved everything in hockey. More precisely – almost everything. I know that Alexander really wants to win the Olympics.”
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