They say that speed kills. And for whichever team selects London Knights' forward Andreas Athanasiou in June's NHL entry draft, they're going to find themselves with a veritable assassin in their organization.
For a league that puts a premium on speed, the Woodbridge, ON native will be a valuable asset. But while the young forward does put in the time to improve his stride, speed is just a natural component of this — and many other — games.
"It's just natural. It's always been a key part of my game playing hockey. Even when I'm playing basketball, soccer, track — I was on a track-and-field club team outside of school — I've always been pretty fast," Athanasiou explained. "It's always been my go-to — it's always been there, even when I was a little kid. I remember going on the ice with my dad when I was really young, maybe a couple of years old, and having him swing me around so that I could just pick up tons and tons of speed and just fly around. I just loved it."
You can see it in his face that there's not much Athanasiou likes more than flying around the ice. His eyes light up when you ask him to explain what it's like to figuratively fly around the rink — although he does admit that his speed sometimes gets him places faster than even he wants to go.
"Oh yeah. It's one of the best feelings going fast. You can feel it for sure. When you get going, you're like 'Oh my God…,'" he said. "And sometimes you get that feeling like 'Oh My God!'
"You know, those moments when the boards are coming closer and closer or when the goalie's closing in on you. You look down for a second and when you look back up you're saying, 'My God he's right there!' And you have to get out of the way. I'm starting to adjust to it."
Some had Athanasiou pegged as a top-10 selection in the upcoming NHL entry draft. This season, on a deep (and top-ranked) London Knights' team, Athanasiou hasn't performed as some expected and his draft stock has slipped in the eyes (and words) of some pundits. But Athanasiou said he believes the numbers don't tell the whole story.
"I try to stay away from what they say — obviously I see it here and there and there are people who tell me what they say. But if they have that opinion, well then it's fine for them. I think if they come watch a game then their opinion will change," he said. "My play — maybe on stats or on paper, my season's not as good as it looks, but people who watch me play can see the chances I'm creating. My speed is just going to get faster. I'm already decently fast, but I'm just going to get faster — I can imagine myself in a couple of years and how much faster I'll be.
"If they want to say that stuff, then that's their opinion. I can just go out there and play my game and do my best to change it."
Knights' assistant general manager and assistant coach Misha Donskov also takes issue with the idea that Athanasiou hasn't performed up to expectations.
"No I don't see that at all. I think he elevated his game from a strength standpoint. He's gotten stronger, he's more mature — another year in the league. He's more confident. I think he's more effective on the rush," Donskov added. "He's gone through times this year where he hasn't capitalized as much as he'd like, but for the most part he's a dynamic player out there and he really adds a tremendous element to our lineup.
"We're fortunate this year in that we have a lot of elite players on this team and we consider Andreas a part of that elite group. He really adds an entirely new element to our team where he can just create a ton of opportunities for us on the rush. And we count on him for that."
Now we need to get one thing out of the way: the last name. It's obvious that Athanasiou has heard many different permutations of his last name. And it's something he takes good-naturedly — even complementing someone (name withheld to protect the not-so-innocent) for Anglicizing his surname.
"Ath-an-ah-see-ew. A lot of people say Ah-than-eh-shew — that's the Canadian way, so you weren't that bad," he explained, laughing. "You should hear how some people butcher it. Ah-than-eh-shew is the Canadian way, which I don't mind. Ath-an-ah-see-ew is the Greek way and that's the way I say it."
Athanasiou had a breakout season last year. He put up 11 goals and added 11 assists on the Knights and was a key player in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, earning a tournament all-star berth. This year he's scored 19 goals and added 12 assists in 49 games so far.
"I think [my season] has progressed very well. We have a great team here so obviously ice time’s a little bit shorter considering all the players we have,” he said. “That’s fine with me — I get my opportunities and I just have to make the most of it. [The other day] II had three breakaways, so the chances are there.
"I'm a late birthday — August — so there's a lot of time for me to get stronger. A lot of guys are a lot older than me in the draft. I'm just working through it and doing the best I can."
Donskov added that the club has been extremely pleased with Athanasiou's overall development. "He's refined his game a lot. He's become much more tidy in his own zone and I think that's through confidence and having another year in the league," Donskov said. "He's been getting a little bit bigger and stronger and understanding what the game is about at this level. And then being surrounded by some pretty good players as well. I think when you put all of those things together, in our estimation, he's improved."
League watchers have noticed. Athanasiou was a part of the CHL's Top Prospects roster — an event that earned him some unexpected notoriety for a video that featured him showing off some fancy stick-work.
"No I had no idea they were going to do that. They said to me, 'Hey, we want you to do a stick video — like Tomas Jurco.' And I was like, 'Have you seen his stick video? I don't think I can do that! I don't think I can do half of that stuff!'" Athanasiou explained. "They just said take your time and I was like OK — you kind of put me on the spot there. But some of it worked out and it was a good experience.
"My buddies saw it and texted me saying it was pretty cool, and I just said, 'Yeah, I made that up on the spot,'" he added, laughing. "They made it look pretty cool, actually. It's amazing what you can do with a computer."
Many were surprised, though, that Athanasiou wasn't invited to participate in the fastest-skater exhibition. Instead he was a part of the breakaway challenge. Athanasiou admitted he was surprised, but is too humble to say that he would have blown past the competitors who did participate in the event.
"I don't want to say I could beat them… but I think I could have done decent in that and maybe had a run for it," Athanasiou said. "The guy who won it, Francis Beauvillier from Rimouski, is really fast."
In fact, Athanasiou suggests he might not even be the fastest skater on his team. "Yeah… Vladdy's [Tampa Bay prospect Vladislav Namestnikov] fast. [OHL leading goal-scorer Seth] Griffith is fast too — last year he was quick, but this year he's really gotten fast," he said. "You know who is undercover fast? Kevin Rayne and Tommy Hughes. Unbelievably fast. They're just fast."
Regardless of who is fastest in a straight line, Donskov said it's how Athansiou combines his speed and talent that sets him apart.
"I think what really separates Andreas from other elite skaters is not just his ability to skate but his ability to skate with the puck on his stick," Donskov explained. "He moves very, very well, east-west, laterally. He's really dynamic on the rush and he creates a lot of opportunities just by taking the puck to the net.
"You don't see that often. His zero-to-60 speed is incredible. Flat-footed he can go from a dead stop to 60 incredibly fast. He can really pull away from defenders and at this level it means so much."
And while his speed is something Athanasiou appreciates, it's not something he thinks about during the game. It just happens.
"It just happens. I play wing, so it's a little different," he said. "When I play center I can be a little more fluid and you can use your speed more aggressively."
Speed also has some fringe benefits. "I also use my speed to hit people," he said smiling. "You can use your speed to get those big hits!"
This season has been one that Athanasiou has strived to improve his overall game. The key focus? Defense.
"It's something I've been working on — the importance of playing in all three zones and that's where I've been working on my game the most," he said. "I know coach Dale Hunter and [Jacques Beaulieu] last year taught me a lot in the defensive zone. It's definitely improving and I work on being responsible in the defensive zone and I think it's definitely improved my game."
Athanasiou also said he appreciates the benefits of playing under the tutelage of NHL-experienced veterans Mark and Dale Hunter, along with assistant coach Rob Ramage
"They teach you a lot of things. With Rob we do a lot of one-on-one stuff," he said. "When I was out with an aggravated nerve, we'd go on the ice and he taught me a lot of things. He taught me what it was like in the NHL — the ins and outs. Both Hunters too can teach you a lot of ins and outs. They're all really smart."
But this focus on defense doesn't mean he's ignoring his offensive development — in fact, he said he feels he needs to be a little more aggressive in the offensive zone.
"I need to work on my shot. I have to use it more," Athanasiou said. "I have a pretty good shot but I tend to pass a little more than shoot. I get into the offensive zone and there are a lot of talented players around me, but I have to shoot the puck and get some garbage goals like that.
"I like to pass, but I think I have to get that shot going a little more just to help me and the team out a little bit here and there."
Shooting was also one of the aspects that Donskov said Athanasiou needs to work on to improve his draft standing. "He needs to work on his strength. He needs to work on his shot," Donskov said. "We know he's going to get opportunities through his speed and through his effectiveness on the rush, but when he does get those opportunities he needs to capitalize."
Athanasiou said he's thrilled with having been selected by the London Knights' organization and considers himself lucky for having the opportunity to play under Mark and Dale Hunter.
"Being able to make this team under Coach Hunter with the amount of playing time that I've been getting so far is just incredible," he said. "Playing under Coach Dale was incredible — these are the top coaches in the CHL and that's why Dale's in the NHL right now. I've had the opportunity for him and I know he liked me.
"Getting that opportunity to play for the Hunters, I feel like that's a great accomplishment because I know there have been a lot of great players have come through here and having the opportunity to be considered as one of those players is a great accomplishment."
Growing up in Woodbridge, a city just north of Toronto, Athanasiou was exposed to the Leafs from an early age. And while he admits to following the team, he said he was more of a fan of selected players than any one team. No surprise — he loved watching the Russian Rocket in his youth.
"When I was a kid it was Pavel Bure. He had all that speed and talent. He was one of the players I watched — he could create plays and he was so entertaining," Athanasiou said. "And then [Pavel] Datsyuk — he's one of the best in the NHL right now. His ability to create plays out of nothing is absolutely incredible.
"I'm a Leafs fan. Growing up I didn't really have a favorite team — I was more into having favorite players, but I always watched the Leafs' game. They were my hometown, so I grew up watching them."
And he admits that the potential of being drafted by his hometown NHL franchise has run through his mind — partly because it's a scenario that his friends keep bringing up.
"It'd be unbelievable. All my friends are texting me and saying, 'I hope the Leafs take you, I hope the Leafs take you,'" he said. "It would be amazing, living at home and see my friends. But whatever team takes me, it's going to be a dream come true, playing in the NHL and to get drafted."
With highly ranked Olli Maatta also on the Knights' roster, along with other draft-eligible prospects like the Rupert brothers (Matt and Ryan) — not to mention undrafted netminder Michael Houser — Athanasiou knows the stands and boxes will frequently be packed with scouts and NHL player personnel staff. He's aware, but he explained any nerves that come from auditioning for a future job are swept away by the flow of the game.
"I think some games you know [the scouts] are here, but once you get out on the ice — I get in a zone and you don't worry about the fans or the scouts in the stands," he said. "You know they're there but once you start getting into the game you don't notice any more and you just focus on playing your game."
Obviously — and it doesn't matter how you pronounce it, the last name is a dead giveaway — Athanasiou is of Greek decent. Admittedly Greek role models in the NHL are few and far between — a situation that Athanasiou hopes to help personally rectify in the future. He listed former Anaheim Ducks enforcer George Parros and current Calgary Flame (and former London Knight himself) Tom Kostopoulos as NHLers of Greek decent. But while he hopes to join them amongst the ranks of Greek NHLers, he admits to one challenge to living up to Parros' legacy.
"Parros is a fighter — I don't think I'm going to be a fighter," Athanasiou added, laughing. "I think I'll have a little bit of a different game than him, but hopefully I can encourage some kids."