Friends in high places
Friends in high places
Ovechkin's former linemate from Estonia
When a 14-year-old Kuznetsov left his native Narva in eastern Estonia for the bright lights of Moscow, it was to be three-and-a-half years of his life he would never forget.
Recruited for the junior program of Dynamo Moscow, it was in Russia's capital that the highly-rated Kuznetsov befriended another bright prospect sharing his first name but with the surname Ovechkin. Soon the pair teamed up to form a lethal first line for Dynamo Moscow's juniors.
"We played together on the same line for almost two years," said Kuznetsov. "I was quite bulky already back then so I soon was given the nickname Tyson," he said in reference to the American heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson.
With Alexander Ovechkin on his side, the youngsters shared many goals and great times as juniors at a time when Ovechkin had not yet grown into a complete standout in comparison to his peers.
"He already had a hard shot back then and was clearly a very talent player who produced a lot of points, but we had a lot of other guys on our team who also did that," said Kuznetsov of the young Ovechkin. "But then he started to take big steps upwards for each season."
The third player that made the influential Dynamo junior line complete has since carved out a fine career in the game at the top level.
"Konstantin Romanov also played on our line and today he plays for Barys Astana in the KHL," said Kuznetsov.
Since those junior years in Moscow, the troika's careers have meandered in different directions but brought them all to suit up at the World Championships albeit for three different countries: Ovechkin for Russia, Romanov for Kazakhstan and Kuznetsov for Estonia.
But being alone as a teenager in Moscow, with your family still at home in Estonia was a challenge for the young Kuznetsov. He was lodged together with other fellow sporting prospects and also finished his education while being in Russia's capital. But for Kuznetsov, a career in hockey was all he had in mind. Then came a serious blow when a knock badly injured his knee and three years after leaving Estonia, he found himself back on home soil.
Fighting his way back, Kuznetsov recovered from his injury setback and was playing his hockey at home when in 2004, he made his debut for Estonia's senior national team during the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I in Gdansk, Poland. Having just turned 19, he found the net in his second game, an 11-0 demolition of Korea. One of many moments to cherish from a long international career.
"That first goal at the World Championships was a fine memory, but perhaps my best game was in 2007 when we beat France," he said about a memorable encounter when the Baltic nation toppled France after penalty shots at the 2007 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I in Qiqihar, China.
But with Kuznetsov venturing down the memory lane, it is a changing hockey world he has experienced throughout his career. Beating Korea by double digits or downing an established top division nation like France would now be unheard of for Estonia as Kuznetsov's role in the team is also entering a new phase at the age of 31.
"At that time when I made my debut it was us young kids that played and learned from veterans on our national team such as for instance Eduard Valiulin. Now I am getting into the same situation and no longer being the young one," he said.
Kuznetsov is one of three on the Estonia's current World Championship roster who also played during his debut year in 2004 with Andrei Makrov and Aleksandr Petrov being the other two. Old heads who still prove their worth when called upon, which was on display during the final game at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Eindhoven when hosts, the Netherlands, were defeated in an exciting final day encounter which sealed Estonia's survival in the division.
As for the former lethal tandem of Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, once playing on the same free-scoring junior line. Have they kept their friendship alive since?
"Sometimes we keep in touch," said Kuznetsov. "We last met two years ago when we were in Stockholm at the same time. It was the first time in ten years that we had seen each other."
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