A few words with: Kirill Safronov

Kirill Safronov
Kirill Safronov, an aspiring young defenseman during the early years of the Atlanta Thrashers.

About five years ago I got in touch with former NHL defenseman Kirill Safronov. At the time, Safronov was in the first of parts of three seasons with Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. Since that time Kirill and I have remained in contact. Having retired from professional hockey after the 2014-15 KHL season, Kirill is still quite busy and very actively involved in hockey. I thought it would be nice to reach out to my old friend again, and share a bit of his story from the time that he had spent in the NHL, and what led him to the rinks of the North America.

Safronov was born in Saint-Petersburg, Russia; one of the most beautiful cities in the world (I spent two weeks there in the mid-2000s, and the beauty and culture that are found there are like no other). At the age of five, Kirill began playing hockey. Living in a 2-bedroom apartment with his parents, grandparents, and a dog, there were outdoor hockey rinks to be found in nearly every park of the neighborhood where Kirill grew up. Parents used to do all of the ice work for their children, cleaning the surfaces and freshening it with water. The first team that Kirill played on was called “Titan”, and it was where he took his first steps on the ice; the Soviet Union in 1986.

Fast forward ahead about 10-years or so, and Safronov is playing for the Russian National U-16 team; this was when Kirill first found aspirations of playing in the NHL. Playing for the Russian national team, Kirill traveled a lot and was able to speak with multiple NHL scouts. Safronov had a leg up on many of his peers, as he was readily able to converse with scouts; Kirill’s English was always very good, as his grandmother, an English teacher herself, taught him to the point where he became very proficient in the language. Something that certainly helps when conversing with NHL scouts.

Safronov would find great success while playing for the Russian national team, most notably at the 1999 World Junior Championships held in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Team Russia would win the Gold Medal in a 3-2 overtime victory against host nation Canada. Safronov was one of numerous players on the Russian team who would eventually play in the NHL, including Roman Lyashenko, Vitali Vishnevski, Denis Shvidki, Denis Arkhipov, Maxim Afinogenov, Petr Schastlivy, and the game winning goal scorer, Artem Chubarov. In seven tournament games, Kirill recorded 2-assists and was a plus-5.

The gold medal in January 1999 was just the beginning of a great year for Safronov. That June, Kirill would be a first-round draft choice of the Phoenix Coyotes; nineteenth overall, and the Coyotes second pick of that draft. The 1999 draft was a considerably deep draft, as it was also the same draft which saw the Sedin twins be chosen by Vancouver, as well as longtime NHL mainstays like Nick Boynton, Ryan Miller, Henrik Zetterberg, Radim Vrbata, Martin Havlat, Barret Jackman, Jordan Leopold, Mike Comrie, Craig Anderson, and numerous other players get drafted by NHL teams; many of whom are still playing in the NHL today. Safronov, being taken as early as he was in the opening round, would be drafted ahead of many of these players. Kirill shared with me that “it was great to be drafted, especially in the 1st-round. I felt, and was told by the management that I would play in the NHL for many years. It was amazing for a young man from Russia to come to the USA in the early-2000s and see a different life”.

After he was drafted by Phoenix, Kirill went to his first NHL camp at 18-years of age. In order to adjust both to life and to hockey in North America, Coyotes management felt it would be best that at the completion of training camp that Safronov be sent to a junior team. Safronov’s first season in North America would be with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the 1999-00 season. Safronov would have a great first year, leading the Remparts in scoring amongst defensemen with 11-goals and 32-assists for 43-points in 55-games. The Remparts would make it to the second round of the playoffs, where they would lose a hard fought, 7-game series to the Moncton Wildcats. Safronov would finish the Remparts 11-game playoff run with a pair of goals and 4-assists.

After one year in junior, Kirill Safronov began his professional hockey debut in the American Hockey League with the Coyotes’ affiliate at the time, the Springfield Falcons. With the Falcons, Kirill would play his first two full seasons in North America. Both seasons in Springfield, Safronov and the Falcons would miss the playoffs but Kirill would garner valuable playing experience under coaches Marc Potvin, Norm Maciver and Brad Shaw; the latter two having been highly accomplished NHL defensemen themselves prior to beginning their coaching careers.

It was during his second season of professional hockey that Safronov would receive his first taste of the NHL during a December 23rd, 2001 call up by the Coyotes. Kirill recalls, “My first NHL game was a nightmare. I was very nervous…”. The game would be a 4-0 loss against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in Phoenix. Kirill would play just over a mere 6-minutes in the game, and ended up as a minus-2. Definitely a tough first start in the league. This would end up being the one and only game that Safronov ever played for the Coyotes, the team that had initially drafted him. A few months later, at the March 19th, 2002 NHL trade deadline for that season, Safronov was shipped to the Atlanta Thrashers along with Ruslan Zaynullin and a 4th-round pick in the 2002 draft in exchange for Darcy Hordichuk and 4th and 5th-round draft picks. It would be in Atlanta that Safronov found his groove and have his longest stay in the NHL.

During the 2001-02 season, Kirill Safronov ended up playing professional hockey in four different cities; Springfield, Phoenix, and after a trade, two games in Atlanta with the NHL’s Thrashers and their AHL minor league affiliate Chicago-based team, the Wolves. While Safronov would only play two more NHL games that season, both of which were losses for the Thrashers that came at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche and the New Jersey Devils, his ice-time improved to over the 20-minute mark. But perhaps more importantly for his experience level in North American professional hockey, Safronov was able to be part of a Calder Cup championship run with the Wolves, appearing in all 25-playoff games as the Thrashers affiliate would capture the second oldest trophy in professional hockey, after the Stanley Cup.

The Wolves were a collection of some of professional hockey’s golden oldies; former NHL sniper Rob Brown leading the way, along with other over-30 players like Steve Maltais, Dallas Eakins, Guy Larose and longtime minor leaguer Bob Nardella. You probably could not assemble a better grouping of veteran players for Kirill’s tutelage.

Coming off of that Calder Cup championship, the 2002-03 season would see Kirill Safronov make his big break in the NHL. Though they suffered a number of losses along the way, the ’02-’03 Thrashers were a helluva fun team to watch, as they possessed two of the best young snipers in the game; Dany Heatley, who would rattle off 41-goals that season, and Safronov’s fellow countryman, Ilya Kovalchuk, who would net 38 himself that season. The Thrashers were very young and very Russian. With Kovalchuk leading the way on offense, veteran presence came from 30-year old, two-time Stanley Cup champion Slava Kozlov, as well as forward Yuri Butsayev, and Kirill himself. The three other Russians were Safronov’s closest friends on the team, and Kirill would end up suiting up for 32-games that season for Atlanta.

Safronov 3
During Atlanta’s 2002-03, Safronov was one of four Russian-born players who helped bring excitement to the NHL’ newly founded Thrashers franchise.

Kirill’s first NHL goal would be scored October 19th, 2002 in a 5-4 loss to the New York Islanders in Atlanta. He would add a second goal in March coming in a victory against the Predators in Nashville. On the whole, Safronov would finish the 2002-03 season with 2-goals and 2-assists, and would average over 15-minutes of ice time per game.

Despite this fair amount of success with the Thrashers, Kirill Safronov would play just one more season of professional hockey in North America – but this final season would definitely be another successful one and an exciting one. Though he would begin 2003-04 with the Thrashers’ affiliate the Wolves, a December 2nd 2003 trade would see Kirill become property of the Nashville Predators along with Simon Gamache in exchange for Ben Simon and Tomas Kloucek; the irony being that Safronov’s last NHL goal had come against the Predators. Safronov would never actually suit up for the Predators, as he was assigned to their AHL affiliate team, the Milwaukee Admirals.

Though not in the NHL, Kirill and his new teammates would enjoy a most prosperous season in which the Admirals would make a run for the Calder Cup, and Safronov would thus win his second American Hockey League championship. Despite coming over late in the season, Safronov would still finish third amongst defensemen in scoring for the Admirals, and he would play in all but one playoff game during their championship run. The champion Admirals were a very diverse group of players, comprised with the likes of 37-year old Stanley Cup champion Tony Hrkac, 6’4″ and 240lbs. Latvian monster Raitis Ivanans, 35-year old journeyman netminder Wade Flaherty, and up-and-coming youngsters like Scottie Upshall, Vernon Fiddler, and fellow Russian Timofei Shishkanov; Shishkanov being one of the few players from his North American days that Safronov still remains in touch with. The Admirals were a fun, unique team that won the championship despite any variance in the players’ backgrounds.

The NHL lockout would come for the 2004-05 season, and Kirill Safronov would find himself back in Russia playing for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and Voskresensk Khimik during the stoppage in NHL play. Unfortunately, it was also during this time that Kirill’s father would become ill with cancer. With no offers to return to the NHL, and the more important need of taking care of his family, Kirill would accept a 3-year offer to play for his hometown Saint Petersburg SKA so that he could continue his professional career and be close with his family. Quite sadly, Kirill’s father would pass away from his illness a year after he started playing hockey with SKA.

Starting with the 2005-06 season, Kirill would play a total of 10 seasons in his native Russia, 5 seasons of which were with St. Petersburg SKA. Upon completion of the 2014-15 KHL season, Safronov would hang up his skates for good, at least as a professional hockey player. Injuries and age had hampered his knee, despite training very hard from month to month to keep in game shape. Though there were offers from various European leagues, Safronov decided to let go of playing professional hockey. Kirill is still very much involved in hockey these days, and keeps himself plenty busy. Safronov finished his degree in sports management at Lesgaft University in Saint Petersburg, and also received his agent’s license. Kirill also does some television work as a hockey analyst and expert, and serves as Vice-President for a kids hockey team called “Red Star” in Saint Petersburg as well. He will skate three nights a week in a recreational league, and finds that nowadays he often works from 7:30AM until late in the evening. Kirill told me that “thanks to hockey in my life to give me a strong character and a will to win”.

KHL Season 2009/10
Safronov skating with Saint Petersburg SKA.

Though Kirill Safronov’s NHL career may have been brief, he still had remarkable success in North America by winning two Calder Cup championships. Not to mention the fact that Safronov found international success by winning a gold medal in the World Junior championships. In addition to being an accomplished hockey player, Kirill is one of the nicest guys I know, and I thank him greatly for sharing his story with me. All the best to you, Kirill!

 

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