Sergei Zinovjev’s saga: is the NHL in the young forward’s future?

By Eugene Belashchenko

Belated North American arrival and premature departure

Two seasons ago, Sergei Zinovjev was one of the hottest prospects playing outside
the NHL. Once touted as the dark horse pick of the 2000 NHL Draft by the Boston
Bruins, the young forward has skyrocketed to become one of the top centers playing
in Russia. What is even more impressive is that he capped off the campaign with
a very impressive performance at the 2003 World Championships in Finland. Seeing
the great potential in Zinovjev, the Bruins signed him to a two-year deal. The
young forward was hailed as Boston’s third line center before he even
set foot on the NHL ice, and deservedly so, when one considers his accomplishments
in Russia and on the international ice.

Unfortunately, the relationship between the NHL club and the talented center
started off on the wrong foot from the start. Zinovjev had visa problems
and missed most of training camp, not arriving in Boston until well into September.
After accepting a temporary assignment to the AHL, the young forward did not
make himself many friends when, in a classic Russian straight forward manner,
he made several dry remarks to the Soviet Sport newspaper correspondent in a
telephone interview (reprinted with permission):

“Could the AHL be compared to the Super League? No. At home they play
a rational, combinational hockey, but in the AHL there may be only five or six
players who are capable of making a good pass.” (Soviet Sport Newspaper
Issue #204, November 1st, 2003)

While his comments can’t be contested as complete lies, it may not have
been the right time or place to voice such criticism, and may have added to
the already potentially volatile situation. Zinovjev also did not help his case
by registering just one point in 10 games, despite spending a lot of time on
the line with Sergei Samsonov. Finally, Boston seemed to lose patience with
the young center’s struggles and re-assigned him to the AHL. Surprisingly,
despite allegedly threatening to return to Russia if he was re-assigned to the
AHL, the reason for Zinovjev’s failure to report to Providence was not
his stubbornness, but a miscommunication because of his lack of knowledge of
English. Whether the official story is true or not, it appears that Zinovjev
was unaware that he was reassigned to the Baby Bruins and was very surprised
when informed of the situation.

The Bruins management appeared to lose patience with the young forward and
allowed Zinovjev to exercise his option to return to Russia without annulling
his two-year contract with the club. While it was Zinovjev’s right to
return to Russia, if the young forward did so against Boston’s wishes,
it would have guaranteed the end of his NHL career. When reassessing what has
transpired in December of 2003, it would be safe to say that both sides called
a “time out”, allowing Boston to retain Zinovjev’s rights,
and allowing the young forward to get back to comfortable surroundings in Kazan
after his first taste of the NHL and better prepare for the next NHL training
camp.

The Return to Russia

Zinovjev returned to Russia to the open arms of Ak Bars fans and management
who, besides opening their arms, also opened their pocketbooks, reportedly shelling
out $500,000 US dollars to regain his services. The young forward did not regain
his 2002-03 season form overnight, and struggled to regain his step for the
first couple of months. He ended up skating in 27 games for Ak Bars in 2003-04,
but managed to only register 13 points (5 goals and 8 assists). Fortunately
for Kazan, most of his points came in the latter quarter of the season, as the
club was pushing hard to move up in the rankings in order to capture a higher
playoff seed. While rarely appearing on the scoring sheet, according to one
of observers close to Ak Bars, Zinovjev was one of club’s top forwards
during the playoffs, showing off his defensive work ethic and aggressiveness.
Unfortunately, despite his efforts, Ak Bars was crushed in the semifinals in
just three games by the eventual league champion runner up, Metallurg Magnitogorsk
(by scores of 3-0, 3-1, and 4-1).

The shocking end of the 2003-04 season

Despite the Super League season being over, Zinovjev had several weeks of hockey
left before going on vacation, as he was invited to represent Russia at the
2004 World Championships. Even with the arrival of several NHL players at the
training camp, the Zelepukin–Zinovjev–Ovechkin line remained
Russia’s top line and proved very effective in several friendly matches.
Unfortunately, just days before the start of the tournament, the young forward
was removed from Russia’s roster, due to traces of marijuana being found
in his blood stream.

The news came as a complete shock to the entire Russian hockey community, who
had high hopes for the young center. However, the news did not come as much
of a surprise to those closely familiar with the Russian hockey world, as rumors
started to surface that Zinovjev’s removal from the squad had little to
do with any drugs, but more to do with the hockey player’s unwillingness
to sign with Avangard Omsk, a Super League club managed by the World Championship
squad’s general manager Anatoli Bardin. While the rumors were not officially
confirmed by any of the involved parties, they did not seem to go away and rang
quite true. In fact, it sticks out noticeably after considering Avangard’s
business track record, which in recent years includes the forceful conscription
of two of its talented young players Stanislav Chistov (Anaheim Mighty
Ducks #5/2001) and Alexander Svitov (Tampa Bay Lightning #3/2001), and the signing
of Artem Chernov (Dallas Stars #162/2000) and Vadim Tarasov, who is one of Russia’s
top goalies, despite the players having active contracts with other Super League
clubs.

Rumors aside, the young forward was unceremoniously sent back to Russia, and
Team Russia quietly finished the tournament outside the medal contention. Zinovjev’s
punishment did not end with his removal from the national squad. The Russian
Hockey Federation handed down a punishment as well, though their ruling was
relatively light. The ruling body disqualified the young forward from participating
in any of the preseason games with Ak Bars, allowing him to officially return
to action only after the start of the regular season. The ruling did not bar
him from practicing with the squad and Zinovjev spent the summer of 2004 with
his Super League club. Curiously, he remained quiet regarding the whole incident
at the World Championships, refusing to comment to the media. Finally, nearly
four months later, Zinovjev finally shared his side of the story with the Soviet
Sport newspaper (reprinted with permission):

“I was simply framed. The one who holds direct responsibility for the
incident is Anatoly Bardin, the general manager of the national team. Apparently
it wasn’t advantageous for him to have a player by the last name of Zinovjev
playing for the national team at the World Championships…
My removal needed to be explained somehow, so they wrote down ‘marijuana.’
But I never used the drugs. I never had a positive drug test with any of the
clubs I played with. Do you really thing that I, knowingly regarding my invitation
to the national team, would compromise my reputation like this?” (Soviet
Sport Newspaper Issue #154, September 3rd, 2004)

Zinovjev’s comments confirmed that there was a
rift between him and the
squad’s GM Anatoly Bardin, but the young forward did not go as far as
to confirm the rumor that he was removed from the national squad because of
his refusal to sign with Avangard. Anatoly Bardin flatly denied the validity
of Zinovjev’s allegations, but interestingly he did not say that there
were no negotiations between the Super League club and the young center:

“I am not a representative of the drug testing agency…Zinovjev underwent
the drug test in Moscow prior to the World Championships. We only found out
regarding the evidence of marijuana in Sergei’s blood in Sweden. This
is a boy, who is just over 20 years of age, who let down not only our team,
but the entire nation. I have a very serious question to ask the Russian Hockey
Federation; why was he forgiven? Zinovjev was disqualified only for summer months.
Now he is saying that he never smoked any marijuana and I framed him. Maybe
he smoked up again? And what does it mean; Bardin framed me? I simply, as the
general manager of the Russian National team, voiced the opinion of RHF and
the coaching staff. We were not prepared to hide information regarding any drug
use. Everyone must answer for their actions. Whether Zinovjev was in negotiations
with Avangard does not have any connection to this scandal. We personally got
to know him only while with the national team,” Bardin explained.

Regardless of this last jab between the hockey player and his former manager,
the ordeal appears to be behind Zinovjev and he has moved on with his life and
his hockey career. He started the 2004-05 season very strong, centering the
club’s loaded top line with Ilya Kovalchuk (Atlanta Thrashers) and Alexei
Morozov (Pittsburgh Penguins). It is likely that the NHL fans have not heard
the last of Sergei Zinovjev, and he would have likely attended Boston’s
training camp this fall if it hadn’t been cancelled. However,
the ensuing lockout has postponed his return to North America, possibly till
the summer of 2005 or later. While the young forward continues to adjust to
playing at the level of his seasoned NHL linemates, skating on the same line
with dynamic NHL forwards like Kovalchuk and Morozov is great for the young
forward’s development. The experience will likely better accustom Zinovjev
to the level of hockey played in the best league in the world, and hopefully
better prepare him for his second coming to North America.

– Eugene Belashchenko (Hockey’s Future; RussianProspects.com)

Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.