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Flames’ Zadorov embracing pressure, challenge of playing in Canada

Not only did the Calgary Flames acquire one of the NHL’s largest defencemen when they traded for Nikita Zadorov, they also added one of the league’s biggest personalities.

The 26-year-old defenceman drove that point home this summer when his candid thoughts on Nathan MacKinnon’s strict dietary approach made international headlines.

Zadorov went into great detail with a Russian journalist about his former Colorado teammate, comparing his intense focus on winning and doing whatever it takes to win championships to Michael Jordan.

He spoke of the exorbitant money the star spent on an in-house dietician and trainers, and said he’d give teammates a hard time for eating poorly.

It wasn’t overly appreciated by MacKinnon, who told 32 Thoughts: The Podcast that he texted “Z” to let him know.

MacKinnon responded publicly last week, saying his former mate “is a bit of a donkey,” and is often “looking for a good quote.”

Zadorov said he was surprised by how big the story got and how MacKinnon took it.

“It was originally in Russian, so probably I was surprised,” smiled the six-foot-six, 235-pound defender. “I saw his comment at the media tour. Maybe he got caught up a little bit in the translation, but I think what I meant is how big he was as a professional, but he also is a normal person as well.

“He hangs out with teammates and we go out when we have team dinners and he eats cheat meals and everything. It’s not like he’s super, super strict and he’s just sitting at home and is so dialled in on his diet.”

He insists he meant it as a compliment, not a slam.

“There’s just so much I learned from him and lots of guys who played with him in Colorado in the past will say the same things,” he said. “It’s just the mentality he brings to the rink all the time — the hard work and preparation for the game. When I entered the league in 2013 my first year in Buffalo was a totally different mentality. The guys weren’t training, weren’t warming up, weren’t watching what they eat and all that stuff. So that was another step forward for me and for the league and I think that’s why this league is so fast and so young, because guys are preparing like professionals.”

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As Flames fans will see, the chatty first-rounder takes the attention in stride.

He knows the scrutiny on everything he says and does is only going to intensify in his first Canadian market.

“I played junior in Canada and it was super exciting — playing in London, probably one the best places for junior hockey in the world,” said Zadorov, who signed a one-year-deal worth $3.75 million after the Flames gave Chicago a third-rounder for him. “I saw how you guys love hockey, how you are about hockey and pretty much everything is hockey here. It’s definitely exciting.

“People who say they don’t like to play in Canada don’t like the pressure. But I feel there’s pressure in every hockey city… maybe not if you are in Arizona or something.”

For a team trying to fill the loss of Mark Giordano by committee, the pressure will be on Zadorov to play top-six minutes in a shut-down role.

“I’m definitely not a power play guy,” he laughed, when asked if he was comfortable playing against the opposition’s top players. “I played top four in 80 per cent of the games. I’m open for the challenge. We’ll see how the camp goes. I really enjoy this role and think we’ll have a pretty good shutdown role and I’m ready to play big minutes.”

So far in camp Darryl Sutter has had Zadorov paired alongside the team’s top defender, Chris Tanev. It’s a pairing subject to change, as the coach vowed to tinker with assignments on his unproven back end.

“We’ve got to find a partner for him, and where he fits and how he fits into how we play,” said Sutter. “It’s his fourth team so at some point he’s going to have to settle in.

“He’s been used as a sort of shut down guy the last few years. It’s one thing to be a shut-down guy, but to be really effective at it… I think the style we play he can fit in, if he can get into everything we want him to do.”

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FANS RETURNING

The Flames open the pre-season against Edmonton Sunday night at the Dome, where fans will be allowed in for the first time in 18 months.

A crowd of roughly 13,000 is expected, and everyone over age 11 must prove at the door they’ve been double vaccinated.

“If the Saddledome was a country it would be the safest country in the world,” suggested Sutter, amidst concerns from the medical community pointing towards ICU capacity across the province. “Our protocols and double vaccinations and everything we’re doing… I’m excited about that. It’s pretty cool.”

The Flames have been careful to follow all Alberta Health Services guidelines, which currently allow them to play games in front of capacity crowds.

The club has prepared the Dome with a series of health and safety enhancements, including an extensive cleaning regimen, improved circulation, added hand sanitizers, mask requirements and a new cashless/contactless policy that includes all ticketing done via mobile devices.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

ROSTER TRIMMED

The Flames sent several players to junior Saturday, including Lucas Ciona (Seattle, WHL), Cole Huckins (Acadie-Bathurst, QMJHL), Cole Jordan (Moose Jaw, WHL), Rory Kerins (Soo, OHL) Ilya Nikolaev (Tri-City, USHL), and Cameron Whynot (Halifax, QMJHL).

Ben King (C), Carter Serhyenko (G), and Connor Ungar (G) have been released from their amateur try-out contracts and will report to their respective junior teams.

Those sent to Stockton included: Koletrane Wilson (D), Greg Moro (D), and Reid Perepeluk (RW). The Flames have 51 players remaining at training camp (five goalies, 17 defencemen and 29 forwards).

The Flames signed third-round pick Jeremie Poirier to an entry-level deal Friday, following an impressive pair of showings from the offensively gifted 19-year-old defenceman in prospect camp games.

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