I want to tell you story. But I will get something off my chest first.
I get upset when I can’t score. I want to score … I am supposed to score. This, for me, is my job. In playoffs, I didn’t score enough. I am sorry to St. Louis. I feel like I didn’t do as much as I should. I know we had World Cup in September, new coach, players injured — but are there excuses?
No. Excuses … it’s for loser. And I am not loser. I am winner.
I want us to win more than ever. I will get back to this. But now, story.
It’s about my first game of hockey. Not with St. Louis Blues — my first game of hockey ever.
In the story, it’s 1999. I am seven. We have this tournament, back home in Russia, during school breaks — fall, winter and spring. First one I play in is fall. I am ready.
But, O.K., not good. We score two goals. The other team has 34. It’s bad. The second game is one day later. Now we score no goals. The other team … 19 goals. O.K., defense a little better. Must work on our shooting.
So, yeah. Couple tough ones. But, my grandpa, Vladimir, is there for me after game. Every one of my games when I am young, he is there. Every practice, too. Always there. My dad, Andrei, he plays in the RHL when I am this age. Many times he is away. This means I live with my grandparents in apartment. We are on third floor.
Every night after school, me, my grandpa … we go out to rink. We don’t have car, so we take bus. O.K., not bad. But then from the bus stop we walk to rink, maybe 15 minutes. We skate for hours. No exaggeration here. All night, we just skate. I remember looking one time at little thermometer on bench: –30°C. Very usual Siberian night. (In U.S. I see news show with story, like, “Blizzard is coming!” Hahaha. I am like, Oh, you think that is blizzard? Man, you don’t know blizzard.)
So I play in bad weather, good weather, all weather. As long as I am playing, for me, it’s good. My grandpa is beside me all day, all night. At first, you know, he is teaching me.
“Skate like this, shoot like this,” he will say. “You get it?”
O.K., yes, I get it.
“Now you beat me,” he will say, “or we keep going.”
So I try to beat him. But … I am bad loser. When I lose, I start crying. I am yelling at him, I am telling him he is cheating and not being fair to me. But he is teaching me lesson, of course. You have to be tough. Must be very, very tough. Sometimes, look, this is just hockey, you are going to lose. But in these moments, you have to show how strong, mentally, you are.
Mentally strong. I remember this always.
My grandpa told me my dad is strong like this. I didn’t see him much at this time. On TV, a little, and in person, sometimes. But then, when I get highlights of his games, I watch close. My first memory of this is from Olympic Games in 1994. He comes home, from Lillehammer, after the tournament, with a video. This tape has all of my dad’s games from the two weeks, plus the full closing ceremony. So, you know, I watch this. Rewind. Watch again. Rewind. Watch again. I can’t believe how hard he shoots. But what I remember most is the passing. I’m telling you, it’s insane. On tape of teammate every time. Pass, bang, on tape. Every time.
So I go out with my grandpa a few weeks later. Pass, bang, on tape. Every time.
No, I’m just kidding. Only sometime.
O.K., we work on this.
We have lots of time to work on hockey back then. Soon it is my favorite thing to do. Eventually, I get better. I start traveling with teams to tournaments all around. I remember, when I am 12, we have a weekend tournament in Kazakhstan. You know how long, to get to Kazakhstan? Thirty-hours bus ride. Yes, no joke, 30 hours. I sit with my grandpa the whole time. We talk about all things. Hockey, life, my dad. I remember him telling me, “No matter what, Vladimir, be the best at what you do.” It’s nice advice. He doesn’t care if I choose hockey for the future, he just wants me to try as hard as I can.
But back then, to tell you the truth, I don’t think I know what this means exactly, best. Do I play in KHL? Do I try to play in even NHL? I didn’t know much about NHL. Almost nothing. Well, until my dad bought me PlayStation. The gray one. You remember? Big circle in the middle for the disk. I start playing NHL 99. Eric Lindros, number 88, on front. I play with my friends after our team practice. Always Red Wings. They were in the Cup finals in 1998, so they have high rating. I want to win, I pick best team, duh. Haha. Also they have Fedorov, Larionov and Kozlov. Easy choice.
Now, the more I learn about the NHL, the more I want to go. When I start playing at high level as teenager, this becomes my goal. And this becomes the goal of my family, too.
Stanislav Zbynek/CTK/ AP Images
The closer my draft year gets, the better I keep playing. My dad is finished with career in RHL now, so he helps me more. Always, still, I try to play like him. Remember what I said, about his passing? Still I want to pass like that. But he tells me, look, this comes with time. For now, I should work on my shot.
O.K., Dad. Shoot, shoot, shoot. All the time. Before practice, after practice. Post. Crossbar. Post. Put up target. Knock down target. All the time.
This hard work. Then, it helps. I score more.
A few years later, St. Louis drafts me. This is 2010 now. I stay in Russia that year, which is usual. Then in 2011, I talk to my dad about going to NHL. We talk for … it’s a while. I want to go. He says to stay, it’s better for me, believe him. So I stay. To me, this is a hard decision at first, but makes sense now. To stay, I think it caused me to develop. I put on more weight, I train harder. I want to be ready for my first NHL camp.
St. Louis, that first summer, they help me a lot. They do a really nice job. Don’t rush me over, just let me come in August and settle in. I stay with Sergei Andronov and Evgeny Grachev during that time, great guys.
People ask me always, “What was your first impression of St. Louis?”
It’s the same thing every time.
“It was so beautiful,” I say.
All of the green. It’s like, I couldn’t believe it. In Russia, you don’t hear as much about all of the beauty in America. But now, being here, I understand. Parks everywhere, people out enjoying the day. I’m very happy.
Everyone tells me to try “B.B.Q.” Vladimir, try the B.B.Q. Hmm. I stick with my Russian food for a while, thanks.
I do remember going out for food, during camp, with a few Blues guys. I see soup … as appetizer. I’ve gotta tell you guys, soup is not appetizer. This is not right. It is full meal. You know, borscht? Yes — that is full meal. You eat it, it’s good, you don’t need anything else. Maybe I am still learning to love American food.
Lots of things were new to me here. The ice? Well, same ice, but smaller rink. Much smaller. I had played on it before in tournaments, but not against NHL players like this. I remember, it’s the first day of camp, and I’m walking out onto the ice and being worried about it. Thinking, like, O.K., less space here, Vladimir. Think fast. Pass fast. Shoot fast. But as I walk out, I hear so many Blues fans, I couldn’t believe it. Hundreds of people, just for camp. Crazy. And so I am not as nervous, after that, with them cheering for me.
As rookie, maybe I am still not fully adjusted to the small ice yet. I learn fast how you have to be much quicker on smaller surface. Then I get a concussion in February, and miss 10 games. Recovery, wow, it’s not easy. It is hard to be in the stands as hockey player, but especially as rookie. As rookie, you just want to play.
I have so many of guys to thank for helping me during this time, as I recover. Steen, Reaves, Stewart, Elliott, Shattenkirk. Maybe most of all, is Barret Jackman. What I respect about Jacks is that he was so patient. Patience — this is big deal for foreign players. When you are learning new language, people will get upset at you. Not with Blues, but media, other people sometimes too. It’s like, Just spit it out, Vladimir. They don’t have the patience. But Barret, he helped me so much. Every day when I am trying to get back in the lineup, stopping by, talking with me, letting me work on English, letting me know that, even with injury, I am still part of this. I will never meet anyone who says a bad word about Barret. He loves hockey, and is such a warrior. When I get back on the team, I watch him before and after games. How does he prepare? What does he eat? Drink? How does he talk to other players? I try to learn from him. I try to learn from everyone.
My grandpa even would try to teach me still all the way from Russia. He has NHL package and will watch every single game, just like when I was boy. It was very special this year, my grandpa was able to come to Toronto and watch me play for Russia in the World Cup. He sees me play at Sochi Olympics, but it doesn’t go too well. So he sees me score in World Cup, and this is first time he sees me score in person for Russia. I have to say, this was very special for us. I saw him after game. We didn’t speak much, but I could see without speaking this means a lot to him. Long way from rink in Yaroslavl, you know. He was proud.
But as much as I learn these last few years, from Barret and other teammates, from my grandpa and dad — I think no lesson means as much to me as one I learn from a fan. One more story, O.K.?
It’s 2015, and our team does an event for kids battling sickness. I am matched up with young girl from St. Louis whose name is Arianna. I remember first time I see her, it’s like, you have no idea. She comes with a biggest smile, grabs my hand very tight. O.K., I’m thinking, when we meet. This is what it is to be a strong person. And we have great time.
Then a few months ago, me and my wife, Yana, we’re at auction for charity and see opportunity. There is a prize at auction, it’s “Travel With the Blues.” You win this prize, you go with Blues for road trip — travel with team for some games, spend time with team between games, basically you are one of us, part of team. So we have this great idea. Outbid everyone at auction (sorry, guys). And then we give prize to Arianna, for her 11th birthday.
I’m glad we did this. During trip, team spends some time with Arianna. She is so strong and happy. After bad game, after good game, it doesn’t matter — I see her, she has smile. It’s a good lesson, I think.
I am very thankful to meet Arianna. She is part of the Blues now, like me. We are one big family here and we watch out for each other.
And, of course, I also have my family at home. I’m blessed with Yana and our two kids. They are my biggest power. Give me so much confidence in things. Whenever on ice, I think of all of them: my wife, the boys, my grandparents and parents, my whole family. Even more than hockey, they are what I am most thankful for. And I know they are my great blessing, win or lose.
But still, when we lose, it hurts.
A few times, now, we come close to our goal and then fall short. It’s frustrating, believe me. I don’t like talking about same thing every year. It’s like, we are always close, but never there. Our team feels this. It’s tough.
But even in these losses, I have to say, there is good. How we play against Minnesota — this shows me who we can be. Nobody thought we could beat the Wild. Before series starts, even, everyone says, “O.K., the Blues are out.” But then the games start, and it’s like, nobody knows anything. Game 1, Jake Allen takes over. Fifty-one saves. Fifty-one! This is the best goalie performance I have ever seen in my life. It’s true, we are upset that we allow so many shots … but Jake, he saved us. So we learn, we have a goalie who can win games, just by himself.
Against Predators — listen, they are a great team. We didn’t play our best, and we lost. After Game 6, in the locker room … it’s sad. I sit with my head down. I don’t want to stop playing. Nobody on this team is ready for the Blues’ season to be over. But also I look around at our group, and it’s like … Man, we are hungry to win. That’s a good thing. We take the loss hard because we are young team, but this is also why we will be O.K. We get better and more experience as season went on.
And next season even I think we get better than that.
Before I finish, I also want to say it is great honor for me to be nominated for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. I remember hearing about this trophy when Pavel Datsyuk, one of the great Russian players, wins. To be able to follow him like this, it is very special for me. I am proud to represent the Blues in this way. Because this city gives me so much.
To come to America, like I came, and try to fit in … it’s hard. But the people of this city make me and my family feel so special. If I’m ever out with Yana, people come up to us and say how they are big Blues fans, and how they want the best for us. Total strangers. Stuff like that, even though it maybe seems small, makes the difference. I talk to other guys around the league, and the way our fans are — it is not always the case. The kindness, the love, and all of the patience … it means the world to me.
And, who knows, hopefully one day our fans will not have to be so patient. Maybe we will go from coming close to our goal, to all the way to our goal.
But for right now, I just want to repay everyone who has helped me as best I can.
I came to St. Louis five years ago. I was a little scared. But here, I have found home.