Ice Hockey and the Wild West: Kirill Tulupov and his stint with the Arizona Sundogs

Photo: Kirill Tulupov after Sutherby fight Dec. 2, 2011 OKC Barons vs. San Antonio Rampage. (Photo: Courtesy Candace Riley. All Rights Reserved.)

 In early March following former OKC Barons defenseman Kirill Tulupov’s return to North America, he kindly granted an interview (published at ArtfulPuck) and I was able to talk to him about his unusual situation and how he ended up playing with the Central Hockey League’s Arizona Sundogs at the end of this season. Tulupov’s straightforward and sincere account about his experiences gives you a glimpse into the odd situations that players find themselves in during lockouts. Do they sit out and wait for the next season, do they play abroad, or do they head to the overcrowded minors?

After the NHL announced their lockout, Tulupov headed east to the KHL and expected to return immediately to North America upon the conclusion of the lockout. In the end however, it did not work out that way. It all came down to timing and the NHL lockout: the date of NHL’s return to play, the release date from his KHL team and the various North American league deadlines for returning European players. In the end upon his return to North America after missing both the AHL and ECHL deadlines, Tulupov joined the CHL’s Sundogs, an affiliate of the nearby Phoenix Coyotes, as they made their push to the playoffs.

Teams like the Arizona Sundogs bring to mind Jason Cohen’s Zamboni Rodeo – ice hockey and the Wild West – which oddly enough makes a great pairing. The Central Hockey League (CHL) is wild and wooly, brash and constantly in your face. It is one of those brazen, bigger than life hockey leagues – hockey coupled with entertainment and just a bit more than the usual zaniness. Take the Denver Cutthroats for instance. Not too long ago this very season the team was short a player due to injuries and the coach suited up to play, while one of the players coached. As for the Arizona Sundogs, what really made them stand out this season was their transformation since February and their hardnosed push to the playoffs. Wild West hockey combined with a bit of heart.

Early in February former Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs Coach Scott Muscutt accepted the position as coach of the Sundogs for the remainder of their season. The two-time President’s Cup championship coach had stepped away from coaching following the Mudbugs 2011 CHL Championship season.  “I didn’t think I wanted to get back into hockey or coaching but after speaking with the ownership I felt like this would be a perfect fit for me,” said Muscutt. “The organization seems very sound and they are prepared to move forward. The guys on the team are a great bunch of guys and have come together and are looking to establish good things.”

Around the same time a number of new players joined the Arizona team. The team added Kirill Tulupov in mid-February, and forwards Sebastien Geoffrion and Kevin Baker were signed on March 5th. OKC Barons fans will remember their fan favorite Kirill Tulupov, the big Russian defenseman who body flipped Nick Layton when the Texas Stars came to town. The Sundogs announced Tulupov’s signing on February 14th and stated that he would join the line-up “pending immigration approval” which happened in a rather unexpected fashion.

Tulupov said his immigration approval “caught me by surprise because I ended up playing the night [Feb. 15th in Tulsa] after a severe get-back-in-shape practice that morning where after regular pre-game practice you remain alone with the coach for another 25 minutes just bag skating and line drills where you end up just wanting to be in the shower, followed by a one-week nap.”  He thought the coaches were joking when they shared the news on the bus ride into the arena late that afternoon. He laughed, “I thought oh, it’s a funny group of guys! They couldn’t be serious because I have no legs to play hockey!”

But play he did, and the Sundogs were shutout by the Tulsa Oilers that night 0-2. Not an auspicious start. The team went on to Quad Cities that weekend where they would lose once again, but the Sundogs started to build chemistry and add more players under the dynamic new coach Muscutt. Upon their return trip to Tulsa in early March, the Sundogs beat the Oilers 7-2, followed the next night by a shutout 5-0.

Arizona finished their season with a three-game sweep over the 3rd ranked Fort Worth Brahmas with David Brown in net, winning all three games allowing just two goals, and finishing the three game series with two back-to-back shutouts. After Tulupov’s first goal with the Sundogs on Feb. 23rd he followed up with back-to-back goals in the March 20th Fort Worth game in this series, and was given 2nd Star of the game. He would end his short Sundogs regular season of 15 games with 3 goals, 1 assist and a plus-4. In the AHL we talk about player development all of the time and it is wonderfully gratifying to see this in action. It is very obvious that Tulupov has worked hard this season to improve many aspects, and there is a new confidence and maturity in his game. He still has that incredibly hard slap shot from the point, but along with that he has greatly improved his positioning, puck handling, and offensive play.

The Sundogs would end their regular season 7-1-2 in their last 10 games, however the playoffs were a slightly different story. They faced the Wichita Thunder, coached by Kevin McClelland, and if you are an Edmonton Oilers’ fan, you might remember him as part of the 1980’s Oilers’ Stanley Cup dynasty. And if you are an OKC Barons’ fan, you are familiar with Andrew Martens and Erick Lizon, who have both spent time on the Barons’ roster; Lizon’s chicken-wing on the way to the penalty box will forever be etched in my memory.

Sadly, the Sundogs were swept by the Wichita Thunder in just four playoff games, and despite this fact, the games were actually very close with games 1, 3 and 4 going into overtime. Referee calls can and often do fluctuate, with some calls in your favor and some against, but they generally even out in the end. However the last two games of this series were absolutely heartbreaking. One crucial Sundogs goal was called off, and many questioned the call on the ice. It is truly disheartening that the CHL has not yet implemented goal reviews. At the conclusion of the game, Coach Muscutt grabbed a player’s stick and proceeded to tap his way across the ice with closed eyes, as a blind man would, making it very clear what he thought of the refereeing in the final two games. And yes, Muscutt was handed a penalty – abuse of officials. Ice hockey and the Wild West in action.

As for the future, the Arizona Sundogs are refocusing this off season upon signings and hiring a new coach. There is debate whether they will be able to entice Scott Muscutt to remain – he was incredibly popular and everyone associated with the Sundogs would like to see him return to coaching full time. There is even a question whether the Sundogs would join a new league next season – will they stay in the CHL, or  join the ECHL? And for Kirill Tulupov, his options will open up greatly this summer during free agency and we look forward to learning where he will sign for next season. Good luck to the Sundogs and Kirill Tulupov!