Going East - Nick Vilardo: an American guy in the steppe

Going East - Nick Vilardo: an American guy in the steppe

Davide Tuniz21 Dec 2022Davide Tuniz»

American Nick Vilardo is the only Western player playing in Kazakh League. Eurohockey talks with him about the experience in Almaty, the life in the country and the goals for the future


Nick Vilardo is an American goalie playing for HK Almaty, in Kazakhstan League. With a career in Austria, Sweden and Poland, the Clarence, NY native landed in Kazakhstan this season, being the only western player in the league.

Mr. Vilardo talks with Eurohockey about his career and his experience in the Central Asia country

Eurohockey: your career takes a turn in 2015 when you go to Austria at the Red Bull Academy. How did this idea come about?

Nick Vilardo: I wanted a new hockey experience. The offer came up at Red Bull and I took it. It didn’t go as I planned as I was not healthy at that moment and had to get surgery afterwards, but I am so thankful I went there. I grew up a lot as a person and learned a lot with being on my own in a different country.

EH: Did you choose to play in Europe because you think it's easier to stand out than the competition in North America?

NV: I chose Europe in the beginning because of new experiences. It didn’t really have anything to do with trying to stand out or anything.

EH: Before arriving in Kazakhstan you played in Sweden in the third division and in Poland in the Extraliga, what are your impressions on these two leagues? Did the level surprise you, positively or not?

NV: I had some great times playing in those places. My first pro experience in Opole, Poland was great - I loved it there. It is a good level league. I think overall the level in Polish Extraliga is higher than in Sweden div1, but in div1 the organizations take great care of the players. For example when I was in Kalmar, they treated me like gold. We had a great team president, Tobias Johansson. I would say that overall poland was more fun to play in, but in Sweden it’s a little more modern with the conditions.

EH: Perhaps the most obvious question, how did you end up playing in Almaty?

NV: I wanted a Russian hockey experience. I believe that tough challenges make you stronger, and I know how tough it can be playing hockey in these places. I was in contact with the team president and he got me in touch with the coach of the team, Andrei Spiridonov. I was offered, and I took the offer. It was actually a tryout deal, but I showed myself well in my first few games and they offered me a full contract then. I am very thankful I took the chance to come over here.

EH: What are your impressions of the Kazakh league? Your club is a long way from the top of the table

NV: Kazak league is a pretty strong league. Every team has guys with KHL experience. Practices can be long as most Russian teams have them, but I like challenges. Unfortunately, we are not towards the top, but have been doing a lot better as a team compared to beginning of the season. With the losses, come learning experiences. Recently we had a 7-game winning streak, and I was chosen as best goalie in the Kazakhstan League for month of November. It’s an honour, especially in a league with a of good goalies.

The travel in the league is crazy. Long road trips, and days of travel. We have had a couple 30+ hour travel days. The layout of our schedule is usually: a few weeks at home, then 1-2 week road trip. Play 4-6 games, and then back home.

EH: You are the only non-Russian foreign player in the club, indeed in the whole league. How do you live this situation? Is there more pressure on you? Is it difficult to communicate with teammates, coaches, fans?

NV: I would say there is some pressure with fans and opposition knowing I am American, but I like having pressure. It’s not difficult at all to communicate with anybody, as I speak Russian. I really haven’t had any communication issues at all in my whole time here. The media even trusts me enough for live interviews in Russian. It was tough at first, but I’ve gotten used to it (laugh). I have great relationships with guys on my team and have made some amazing friends.

EH: Whats it like being an American in an East European county?

NV: It is definitely a different world over here. For me, the first few days are tough, and then once I am settled in I’m good to go. But the first day of travel, time change, figuring out living situation, meeting everyone new, and then needing to perform on top of that, can be tricky. And actually technically, I believe it is even considered Central Asia here, which is even more crazy (laugh)

EH: Do you like the city and the country? How do you spend your free time?

NV: I absolutely love the city of Almaty. It is 100% my favourite place I have ever played hockey. There is so much to do here, and it is difficult to be bored. The city life is great, but then you have the nature and mountains surrounding the city. It is amazing. I have spent my free time doing a lot of stuff. First off, the food is amazing. Kazak, or other food like Uzbek, Georgian, etc is very common here. Many great restaurants and places to eat. Another fun thing I do is ride horses in the mountains. It’s a great way to take in the beautiful surroundings and relax. I’m also a golfer and have gotten to play a few rounds at one of the local golf clubs here. There are a handful of golf clubs here, as there are many foreigners from Korea and Asia living here. And as you may know, golf is popular over there, so they brought it here too.

EH: What are your future projects? And your goals as a player?

NV: My plan is to continue playing and see where it leads me. I will be playing in Almaty for the foreseeable future here because I really do enjoy it. I believe I am capable of playing in the future in a tier 1 league such as the KHL, SHL, etc. We will see where it goes…

I own a goaltending school based in Buffalo, NY, called @VilardoGoaltending. I have also recently opened up a player agency called @IntegrityPlayerManagement.

I plan to continue to build those up while I am playing.

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