In his first six NHL seasons, Alexander Semin dodged interviews in English as deftly as he sidestepped defenders.
It left his fans wondering what he was thinking. It annoyed teammates who were asked to speak for him, whether it followed one of his electrifying hat-trick performances or a scoreless one. It meant reporters had to use interpreters and second-hand translations to cobble together accounts about the Washington Capitals’ second-best goal scorer.
All that, however, slowly is starting to change.
At the urging of General Manager George McPhee, his agent and team officials, Semin, Washington’s longest-tenured player, has agreed to speak to reporters — and, by extension, his fans — in English.
“It was time to speak English,” Semin said in a one-on-one interview at Kettler Capitals Iceplex before the team headed to Nashville for Wednesday’s preseason game. “This is important year for Caps and for me, too. I want to try to speak English.”
Semin, 27, understands almost all of what’s said to him. It’s articulating a response in English that sometimes proves to be a challenge. When it comes to doing interviews, it doesn’t help that he’s more than a bit self-conscious about the way he sounds speaking his second language.
“We felt that Semin is at the point where he’s progressed enough that he could handle it,” McPhee said, “and people would like to hear from him. He’s a good kid with a good sense of humor, and we’d like to get people to know who he is.”
Sergey Kocharov, the team’s director of media relations, first broached the subject with Semin in the first round of the playoffs last season. There was considerable demand from local and New York-based media outlets for an interview with Semin, who insisted that Kocharov interpret for him. Kocharov, who immigrated from Russia with his family when he was 11 years old, was hired at the start of last season.
“I told him we should do things differently next season,” Kocharov said. “And he’s come in with a new mind-set.”
Semin’s turnaround comes about a month after his character was called into question by former teammate Matt Bradley, who said on sports radio in Canada that Semin “just doesn’t care.”
Shortly after arriving in Washington for training camp, Semin refuted Bradley’s comments in an interview with Yahoo Sports, which translated his response from Russian into English. Then later that day, a video was posted on the team’s Web site featuring Semin addressing Bradley’s criticism in his own words, in English.
“I don’t worry about this,” he said in the video. “Different people have different . . .”
Semin trailed off, looked up at Kocharov, who was off camera, and asked for a translation. “Opinions,” Kocharov told him. With that little bit of help, Semin finished his thought.
A few days later, Semin was interviewed by Comcast SportsNet, also one-on-one and in English.
“Who knows me, my teammates, the coaching staff, he knows how much I care,” he said when asked about Bradley’s comments.
Asked Wednesday why it has taken him so long to begin giving interviews in English, Semin smiled and shrugged.
“I did not need to,” he said.
Semin’s English-speaking teammates, meanwhile, have applauded the effort he has made.
“It’s more for the fans and the general public, but it helps us communicate with him, too,” defenseman Mike Green said. “It’s nice that he’s being aggressive in this situation and is being accountable.
“It’s tiring when we have to answer questions for him. But he is our teammate and we did it for him. He’s trying, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Linemate Brooks Laich added: “We’re happy that he’s stepping out. If he makes a mistake, we’re not going to judge him on it. It’s his second language and that’s not easy. He’s a guy that cares, and I’m glad he’s going to voice his opinion.
“I don’t live too far from him and quite often we ride to the airport together,” Laich added. “We have good conversations. He can speak pretty well. But in front of a camera and microphone it’s a little bit different. You don’t want to say something that could end up on the [bulletin board] in the opposition’s locker room.”
The team is going to take things slowly with Semin, meaning there are no plans to put him in a public service announcement or give him a speaking role in a team promotion. Semin also won’t be asked to speak before dozens of cameras and microphones just yet.
“We’re taking some small steps,” McPhee said. “We’re monitoring how he does. If he does well and he can handle it, we’ll do more.”