Svitov Coming to America

By Megan Sexton

Like a bad movie with a confusing plot and an ending that couldn’t come too soon, the Alexander Svitov story seems to have come to a close. At least the bad part is over, so Tampa Bay fans can finally uncover their eyes. Alex Svitov officially signed his rookie contract today at the Ice Palace, ensuring he will be in North America for the start of the 2002-03 NHL season.

After being selected third overall by the Lightning at the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, the 6’3” 200 pound Svitov returned to Russia in hopes of soon signing a contract and getting a free plane ticket to Tampa for his first training camp. He got the contract and the plane ticket, but they came nearly a year too late. The initial contract was done before the July 15th deadline last summer, only to be overridden with an obligation for Svitov to serve his military duty. That’s when the soap opera began with an unprecedented feud between the Lightning, agent Jay Grossman, the NHL, the IIHF; and the head of Svitov’s former team, Avangard Omsk, Anatoli Bardin. Svitov was pulled from the team and shoved in the military, where he missed virtually an entire season of game action. He practiced daily with the Central Red Army club, and managed to participate in the World Junior Championship, where he helped Russia to the gold medal, and the Big Prize tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he scored five goals.

Svitov made a name for himself at the WJCs by playing an aggressive, physical game, as well as a questionable one. He was suspended for two games after pummeling Switzerland’s Beat Forster, who was barely able to defend himself. Svitov claimed he was sticking up for a teammate. He also had a confrontation with Canada’s Brian Sutherby. Sutherby said Svitov spat in his face after a skirmish in the Canadian end. Cameras confirmed Sutherby’s claim. Sutherby skated away then, but the two will be meeting again when the Washington Caps and Lightning face off against each other.

Svitov was released from his military obligation after fulfilling his duty. According to Tampa GM Jay Feaster and Svitov’s agent, Jay Grossman, it was important for Svitov to end the turmoil cleanly and without disrespecting his country. He maintained his priorities, prompting a shower of compliments on his character by Feaster, who cited Svitov’s “dignity, courage and courage of convictions.” Those compliments echoed the sentiments of then-Lightning GM Rick Dudley, who said during the WJCs this past Christmas:

“This kid is known far and wide for his character. At 17 and 18 years old he was regaled by his elite league team for leadership and commitment.”

Saying the past is behind him, Svitov will train in North America this summer and will enter camp this fall with, according to Jay Feaster, “a roster spot for him to win.”

Touted then as the most NHL-ready prospect to come out of the 2001 Draft, Svitov was penciled-in on Tampa’s depth chart before the soap opera hit its first scene. Now, with the Bolts’ best prospect a free man, he is free to wreak havoc against NHL clubs. Twice in the press conference Jay Feaster mentioned the cross-state rival Panthers as suggested subjects Svitov could take out his frustrations of the past year on.

It would be fantastic for the Lightning – and for their fans – if Svitov could wreak that havoc as a solid 3rd line center next season. The Lightning are set at first and second-line center with young phenoms Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier, but they lack a physical presence in the middle. Free and under contract, Svitov, compared to the Devil’s rugged center Bobby Holik, makes the Lightning’s future look very bright down the middle. If Svitov is able to land the 3rd line center spot, that could move wing-turned-center Dave Andreychuk down to the fourth line or back to wing, where he can better pace his Dick Clark-like aging body. The resurgent Vaclav Prospal, a natural center, may be used at wing almost exclusively –- a position in which he excelled last season. This is, of course, pending any wheeling and dealing Feaster may do at this weekends NHL draft. Speaking of Feaster and the draft, he candidly had this to say in regards to this unprecedented situation, “as long as I’m general manager of the Lightning, I will not draft a player from Omsk. Not even if it’s Bobby Orr reincarnated.”

In today’s press conference, Svitov said he could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and today was the first day he felt he “could just play.” Mental anguish behind him, he looks to propel some physical anguish on all those in opposing sweaters in front of him. A notoriously soft team, it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Lightning.

In the words of an ecstatic Jay Feaster, “It’s like waking up on Christmas morning.”