A Laval native, wrestler Sami Zayn successfully climbed up the pro ranks over the years, beginning his career in Laval before reaching the top of the profession with the WWE. When he isn't dominating his opponents in the ring, there's a good chance you'll find him tuning into a Habs game somewhere around the globe. We met up with the high-flying athlete to learn more about his passion for all things CH.
How long have you been a Habs fan?
SAMI ZAYN: I've been a huge Habs fan ever since I was really young. My earliest memory is from the 1989 season when I was four years old. I remember the Stanley Cup Finals between Montreal and Calgary, which we unfortunately lost. I was a die-hard fan until about 1995. Then, my life was all about wrestling. For a good 10 years, I stopped watching hockey, but being in Montreal, you can't escape it completely and you always hear how the Habs are doing. When I grew up and my wrestling career started going really well, I dove back into hockey around 2005 and I've been a die-hard fan since then.
While the majority of kids in Montreal dream about suiting up for the Habs, what made you decide to pursue a career in professional wrestling?
SZ: As a kid growing up in Montreal, I wanted to become either a hockey player or a wrestler. Since my family didn't have a lot of money, my parents never put me in a hockey league because it was so expensive. When I was 17 years old, I was given the opportunity to be trained as a wrestler. At the time, I never really thought about making it a career, I only saw it as a chance to do something that I always wanted to do. It's similar to hockey when a kid who's five years old can't really say if he'll become a professional hockey player. But, if you stay in something long enough and you keep doing something long enough and you enjoy it, one thing led to another and I kept going. I would have loved to make a career as a member of the Habs (laughs), but I think wrestling was more my thing.
What kind of hockey player were you?
SZ: When I was playing street hockey, I really thought that I had some skills! (laughs) I thought my parents were letting those God-given talents go to waste! Those days are gone. I thought I had good hands. A few years ago when I was still living in Montreal, I was playing ball hockey with some friends and some of them were really good. That's when I realized I was more of a third-liner or grinder type of player more than anything. I was very determined and hard on the forecheck, not the skill player that I thought I was.
What's your best Habs memory?
SZ: One of my favorite memories is when they won the Stanley Cup in 1993. Then, they held two parades: one in Montreal and one in Laval. The team went to Laval's City Hall and they set up a stage. Everyone was in front of it and I was at the back of the pack. But, when the bus got there, it was at the other end, which is where I was standing. Patrick Roy was one of the first guys to come off the bus and as soon as he did, there was a mob around him. But, I was at the front. All of a sudden, as a nine-year-old tiny guy, I was pushed face first in his crotch! (laughs) I remember him saying to me: "Whoa, Whoa little guy!" That was my interaction with Patrick Roy.
Who was your favorite player growing up?
SZ: Russ Courtnall was my absolute favorite player. Patrick Roy was there, too, of course. I really liked Kirk Muller during our '93 Stanley Cup run, and Saku Koivu later on.
Over the years, you've wrestled in many different countries and lived in many different places. Has it been hard to keep up with the team?
SZ: When I was travelling, and even now since I've been based in Orlando, I watch games on NHL GameCenter Live. I try to make an effort to watch as much as I can. Sometimes, my road schedule doesn't let, though. I've definitely stayed up until 4 a.m. to watch some games when I was in Saudi Arabia, Japan or different places in Europe. If I had a good Internet connection, I would watch it online.
What do you think has the biggest impact: a crushing hit by Alexei Emelin or your signature move: the Helluva Kick?
SZ: (laughs) I can speak from the results that I've had with the kick, but I've never been on the receiving end of Emelin's hip checks!
You and fellow Montrealer, Kevin Owens, have been involved in a long-time feud that evolved from federation to federation over the years, nowadays in WWE's NXT. Could we compare you guys to the Habs vs. Bruins rivalry?
SZ: That would be a good comparison. (laughs) It's funny because if I'm not mistaken, Kevin's dad is a Habs fan and his mom is a Bruins fan. From the time we started wrestling in Laval at Le Skratch up until today in WWE, every step of the way in our careers it's always been sometimes friends, but the majority of the time enemies. In a lot of ways it's like the Habs and the Bruins. No matter what, we're destined to fight each other until the end of time. Fans seem to really like it.
You were named 2014 NXT's Superstar of the Year. How satisfying was that honor and how much did it motivate you to continue climbing the steps towards the top of the wrestling world?
SZ: NXT changed so much since I got here two years ago. When I first got here, the culture was so different, it was about getting out of here as fast as possible. In my opinion, I noticed early on that it could make people go crazy. When I got there, I wanted to make NXT a better brand and make it grow. And, it did. But at the end of the day, my goal is to evolve and go above and beyond to make RAW or Smackdown! or the Pay-per-views better, or give Wrestlemania one more great match. I'm kind of split on this because NXT is my immediate goal, but my ultimate goal is to make RAW and make it better. Getting recognized with the Slammy Award for Superstar of the Year in NXT or finally winning the championship helped me and our brand. By the time I get on the main roster, I hope to be able to build up a lot of equity that way to show that I'm on the way to the top.