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Burnsie's Bites: Nashville hot chicken

During the Prospects Showcase earlier this month, Bryan Burns took Oleg Sosunov and Alexey Lipanov to try authentic Nashville hot chicken

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

Burnsie's Bites | Hot Chicken

Burnsie's Bites | Hot Chicken

Lightning prospects,Oleg Sosunov and Alexey Lipanov, joined Bryan Burns at Prince's Hot Chicken

  • 06:00 •

During the summer offseason -- it was a long one, remember -- the brain trust behind the content produced for TampaBayLightning.com kicked around different ideas to improve the pieces we publish.

One of the main takeaways from those sessions? We need to do a better job telling the story of our players away from the rink.

Fans want to see how the guys live (heck, I'm curious too).

But this is easier said than done. Not every player's comfortable letting the outside world in. And free time is a valuable commodity spent mainly with friends and family.

Training camp provides an opportunity, however. The grind of the season is still on the horizon. The days aren't as long and time consuming. Rookie camp, which opens a week before the veterans report, is even more advantageous, since the majority of those players are young and don't have wives or children, at least close by.

Rookie camp provides a proving ground of sorts too, a chance to see if players are receptive and if we can execute in a way to produce compelling content. 

In early September, we'd be accompanying the rookies to Nashville for the Prospects Showcase, a three-game, four-day round robin tournament between similar groups from the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and host Predators.

Nashville's a fun city. Everybody on the NHL circuit enjoys the Nashville road trip.

Maybe there's an opportunity to expose a couple players to the best of what Nashville has to offer.

What's the city known for?

Country music, bachelorette parties and hot chicken.

Country music isn't my thing. Out.

Not touching the bachelorette option.

But hot chicken?

I've stood in line for an hour to eat Hattie B's famous hot chicken.

Twice.

What if we got a couple of the prospects to try some, see if they like it as much as everybody else seems to? While we're there, maybe we can chat about hockey, hobbies, family, life over some delicious grub. We could film it. Write about it. A two-for-one content deal.

Perfect.

However, our players probably aren't going to want to stand in line for an hour after playing to eat food they're not even sure they're going to like (and isn't exactly healthy), all with a camera in their face and a pesky writer asking inane questions to drive conversation.

We'd need to do it somewhere we can get in and out, somewhere without a huge crowd and a place willing to accommodate us.

I've heard of another hot chicken joint called Prince's, revered by locals claiming it as good or better than Hattie B's but maybe not as well-known. I check the map. Prince's Hot Chicken is only a 5-10 minute drive from the Ford Ice Center where the team will be playing.

I scout the place out when we arrive in Nashville. My Uber drive confirms its hidden gem status. The place is packed on a Saturday afternoon but doable. Management is cool with us filming. 

Let's do this.

Now we just need a couple players.

****************

Our initial thought is to ask two European players. The American and Canadian prospects have probably already tried hot chicken or at least something similar. The surprise element would be lost. Plus, part of the fun is to see how someone experiences a culture they're not used to.

I zero in on Maxim Cajkovic, the Bolts' third-round pick in the 2019 draft from Bratislava, Slovakia. He could be a good candidate. Next to him in the locker room though is Oleg Sosunov, the affable defenseman from Ryazan, Russia who I remember from our Development Camp Mic'd Up pieces to have an outgoing personality and great sense of humor.

I pull a last-minute audible.

After one of the training camp practice sessions, I approach Oleg as he stands by his locker room stall taking off his gear.

At 6-foot-8 and wearing skates, he towers over me, and I'm fairly tall myself. I start to realize how ridiculous it might seem to ask this guy I've talked to a handful of times if he wants to go eat hot chicken with me in Nashville.

Video: Mic'd Up | Oleg Sosunov

But I soldier on, tell him my idea, gauge his interest.

He pauses for a moment.

"So is this like KFC?" Oleg asks.

Not exactly.

"It's better than KFC," I say. "And it's hot [I can be quite descriptive when put on the spot]. People come from all over to eat this. It's world famous."

"Okay," he nods. "Sounds good."

I'm taken aback by Oleg's eagerness. I expected resistance followed by me making some sort of plea followed by resigned acceptance.

"Um, great. Is there anybody you'd want to do it with?" I ask.

About this time, I notice Maxim is listening to our conversation.

"What is this place you're talking about?" he says. "Is it good?"
"Yeah, it's really good. Do you want to come with us? We need a second player," I say, not really believing it can be this easy.
"No, no, I don't, but can you write it down on a piece of paper for me? And maybe that other place you were talking about too, the one with the long line?"
I scribble the names on my notepad, tear the sheet out and hand it to Maxim.

"Alexey," Oleg says. "He'll come with me."

Directly across from Oleg's stall on the other side of the locker room sits Alexey Lipanov, a 2017 third-round selection from Moscow.
I walk over to Alexey, who has no idea his friend and teammate has just signed him up to try the hottest thing he's ever eaten in his life.

I give him my spiel, tell him Oleg had agreed to do it and offered him up as his wingman.

Alexey smiles.

"Yeah, sure. Let's do it."

*********

I wait for Oleg and Alexey outside the visitors locker room at the Ford Ice Center. It's Monday. The team of Lightning prospects have played games Saturday versus Nashville and Sunday against Carolina, losing both. Monday is a practice day before their third game in four days Tuesday against Washington to close out the showcase. The session is intense. There's a minor dust-up toward the end of practice. The coaches clearly want to see a more sustained effort in the finale. And the players are eager to prove they have more in them than what they've shown in the first two games.

The door to the locker room opens, and the Russian pair emerges. I hit 'confirm' on the Uber XL and we go outside to wait for our SUV. Riding with us to help document the day is Kinsey Janke, the Bolts' social media manager. Gabe Marte, our digital video manager, has gone to Prince's ahead of us with his camera to shoot B-roll and find the best spot to set up.

Our car arrives.

Oleg, naturally sits up front. There's no debate about this. Kinsey, Alexey and I squeeze in the back. Even with the seat all the way back, Oleg's knees still jam up against the dashboard. We talk about our summers. Our vacations. Oleg laughs when I mention vacation.

"There's no time to vacation," he says. "My vacation is when I come to the U.S. for Development Camp (in late June/early July)."

Alexey's Development Camp experience was less pleasant.

"I was sick."

"He got sick on the second day," Oleg says.

"It was my throat, my tonsils. I come back to Russia and was sick about three more weeks and had surgery on my tonsils. It wasn't fun."

I ask them how they learned to speak English so well. They mention a mix of the English they're taught in school, billet families, playing in North America the last three seasons. American English is different from European English, they say, a little more difficult to pick up.

I ask them if they like spicy food. Prince's serves seven levels of heat, from plain (boring) to XXX Hot. I figure we'll get the guys some traditional hot chicken, something with a kick but nothing that's going to singe the taste buds. Then we'll add a XX or XXX Hot and see if anyone wants to try.

Oleg nods affirmatively.

Then Alexey drops this bomb.

"I don't really like spicy food."

We turn into the parking lot of a non-descript strip mall. Anchoring the plaza and taking up nearly the entire north side is Prince's. I spot Gabe outside getting some footage of the sign in front. He hands Oleg and Alexey a microphone to clip on their shirt. I open the door and inside we go.

************

Prince's isn't a sit-down-and-be-waited-on restaurant. You order at the counter off a menu above the counter. The guys want tenders. They get them medium, which is third from the bottom on the heat level scale. I want the quarter dark meat platter, spice level hot (fourth from the bottom). We add another basket of tenders, two of them XX Hot and two XXX Hot. They don't want any mac 'n' cheese or fries, but I get fries. I had them a couple days earlier when I scouted the place, and Prince's puts an Old Bay-like seasoning on them, which I dig. Alexey seems fixated on pickles, so we order him a side of pickles even though all the chicken baskets already come with them.

With fountain drinks and tip, our order comes to $50.01.

We sit down at the table Gabe has set up for us. Prince's agrees to lower the music on the restaurant speakers so they don't drown out our microphones. It's hard to be natural when there's a camera staring back at you, someone taking pictures for social, microphones on your shirt and regular restaurant customers looking over wondering what is going on.

But with some time to kill before our meal arrives, the ice starts to break.

I ask them if they like coming to America.

"For me I think it is a pretty good experience. Everything that happens in your life is an experience," Oleg says with a perspective I wish I had when I was a young 21 year old like him. "You can travel the world. You can know different languages. You can meet a lot of people, so this is really good."

I ask about their plans after hockey.

"No idea. I just want to play hockey," Alexey says.

"Zamboni driver?" Oleg jokes.

"Maybe, maybe not," Alexey replies. "I hope not."

I ask if they're nervous about trying the XXX Hot chicken.
Oleg: "The hottest thing I've ever tried is the spicy KFC chicken."

Alexey: "I don't want to try it. It's too hot for me. It's too much."

Oleg: "Also, I would like to have a milkshake or something, ice cream, just in case."

I regretfully inform Oleg there is no milkshake or ice cream on the menu.

As I say this, the manager comes out of the kitchen with our food. He places a normal hot chicken basket in front of each of us. He sets the really spicy stuff off to the side. Alexey opens a small Styrofoam container.

"Ah, pickles!"

He's happy.

We dig in.

My chicken's just as good as it was Saturday when I did my test run. I'd say Prince's is equivalent to Hattie B's. Hard to really tell much difference. I'd recommend both to anybody traveling to Nashville.

I ask the fellas what they think. Is it better than KFC?

"Yeah," Oleg says.

"It's actually pretty spicy," says Alexey. "And it's just medium."

With that, Oleg reaches in front and cuts off a bite-size chunk of the XXX Hot tender. He doesn't hesitate and pops the whole thing into his mouth.

"Is it hot?" I ask.

"Not yet."

"I feel like it's one of those things that's going to hit you in 30 seconds," I say.

"Feels like it."

Alexey, maybe feeling emboldened his buddy isn't doubled over in pain, eats a chunk of the XX Hot tender. It's not too long before he reaches for his cup of water.

"Yeah, it's like fire in my mouth. I can't really talk. I need more drink."

Alexey gets up to refill his water. I ask Oleg why he just went for it with the super hot piece and didn't test the waters first, maybe a nibble here, a small bite there.

"I like the spicy stuff."

"Is that the spiciest thing you've ever eaten?"

"Yeah, probably."

"Do you regret eating it."

"No, it's good."

I ask the guys if they would get hot chicken again.

"Triple is too hot. The mild is pretty good," says Oleg.

"Medium was pretty good, just a little bit spicy. But extra, extra hot actually is terrible for me," says Alexey. "I don't like spicy foods. My mouth is still on fire. I'm like a dragon."

************

After we'd wiped the last smattering of hot sauce from around our lips, I thanked Oleg and Alexey for indulging us.

It can be difficult for a young player to step outside their comfort zone, especially in training camp, where they're just trying to impress enough coaches and management to one day achieve their dream of being a NHL player.

If something doesn't explicitly help them reach that goal, they're understandably reluctant.

Video: Burnsie's Bites | Hot Chicken

I explain to the pair how our fans really enjoy when we can show our players in everyday settings and shed some light on what they're like as people. Selfishly, it helps us too because it drives more eyeballs to our website.

"It's important to show too that you guys aren't just hockey players, that you're real humans with interests and personalities," Kinsey adds.

They nod.

And understand.

"It's important because we are Russians," Alexey says.

"Right now, our relationship with our countries are pretty bad," Oleg explains. "But we're the same people."

"We eat the same food," Alexey chimes in.

"It sucks that it's like that," I eloquently conclude. 

With that, we shake hands and part ways. Oleg and Alexey are off to do that most American of things: grab an Uber and head to the mall.

As they head out the door, I think to myself: Maybe hot chicken is the key to world peace.

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