Kostitsyn blends in well in London

By Jason Menard

A fish out of water he may be, but once that water is frozen and he straps on a pair of blades, Montreal Canadiens prospect Sergei Kostitsyn is right in his element.

The 18-year-old forward was taken by the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights in the first round, 57th overall, of the Canadian Hockey League’s Import Draft. And while London is far from his native Belarus, the Habs’ seventh-round selection (2005) has rapidly formed roots in the Forest City.

“No problems,” Kostitsyn said in his halted English. “It’s very good here and I like the city.”

Like Ringo Starr before him, the Knights’ rookie has been able to get by with a little help from his friends.

“He’s been very enjoyable to have around. He’s one of those kids that’s blended very well with his teammates,” said Knights assistant coach Jeff Perry, who has worked extensively with the Belarusian forward. “He looks like he’s blended in well society-wise and a big part of that is making yourself a part of the team.

“He hasn’t isolated himself. Honestly if you just sat back and watched, you’d think that he’s just another North American kid out with his buddies. And full credit to his teammates – they’ve embraced him right off the start.”

One of those teammates, fellow rookie forward Kris Belan, has forged a special relationship with Kostitsyn – developed through everyday drives to and from the rink, despite the language barrier.

“He’s taught me a few things in Russian – nothing that you can print. It’s a cool relationship we have,” Belan said. “I would have never thought at the start of the year that we would have the kind of bond that we have now. It’s kind of funny, in the car you could notice when he started to warm up with me.

“The first couple of times he just sat there, real quiet, and I think the first thing he ever asked me was if I have any Bon Jovi in the car. I said, no, no Bon Jovi. But he’s started to open up – he started to sing. It’s kind of cool how he’s opened up to me.”

But unlike the Fab Four drummer, Kostitsyn has a wealth of talent that is just starting to be mined. Through 16 games in this young OHL season, Kostitsyn has scored 13 goals en route to 32 points, and been named OHL’s rookie of the month for October.

“(It was) a big surprise,” Kostitsyn said. “Now I want Rookie of the Month number two!”

Kostitsyn has been able to overcome his extremely limited English and found success on the power play unit, often manning the point where his on-ice vision and nose for the net can be on full display. It’s not rare to find the Belarusian sneaking in from the point to fire a one-timer from the face-off dot – and, to date, he’s bulged the twine 10 times with the man advantage.

“On our power play he’s really clicked with me, Huntsie (Buffalo Sabres prospect Dylan Hunter) and Boles (Chicago Blackhawks prospect Dave Bolland) and he understands where we go,” explained Edmonton Oilers prospect Rob Schremp. “I mean, we’ve been together for two years, and he’s only been here for two months. He’s a great player, it’s easy for him to adapt.”

He’s rapidly becoming a fan favorite – eliciting cheers around the John Labatt Centre each and every time his name is announced. And he’s starting to get some recognition off the ice as well.

“We went out for a pre-game meal, and as we were walking back there were a couple of women who came up to us and said, ‘You guys were on TV last night! Sergei right?” Belan explained. “The fans are starting to get to know him and he’s starting to get out there. When we walk in the mall, the kids will come up to him.”

His on-ice prowess, pleasant demeanor, and the fact that he’s rarely without a smile helps.

“He’s a high-end player. He sees the ice well and he’s exciting to watch. The fans aren’t much different than us,” Belan said. “When players come over from overseas, we’re not sure what we’re going to be getting, so it’s always a real pleasant surprise when you get one to pan out the way Sergei has.”

On the ice, Kostitsyn has noticed some differences in the game and is working to improve. “Here it’s physical — bigger players, faster game. There are big guys here,” he said. “I would like more goals, more points, and more wins!”

In fact, it’s his transition to the tougher North American game that’s helped to endear him to his teammates.

“Once we saw him play, we saw him take a really big hit in exhibition that a lot of players might not have gotten back up from,” Perry explained. “That was a real surprise when we saw how gritty he was, where he bounced right back and didn’t want to come off the ice. To us, I think we knew we had a pretty good find at the time.”

Schremp agrees with his coach’s assessment. “He’s a big strong kid. He’s had four or five great hits that we were all surprised about. European-wise, we haven’t had too many kids that would throw big bodychecks like that,” he added. “When someone runs him, he’ll go right back at them. We were all surprised the first time that happened – and we were all pretty pumped about it.

“His legs are huge – he’s built like a brick house, so he’s had no problem adjusting to the physical play.”

There have been some bumps on the way to learning a new system. But Belan believes that Kostitsyn’s picking up the game exceptionally well, even if there are a few interesting moments.

“Is he on the same page? Definitely by his play you can see that he’s getting something – maybe something we’re not getting, or that I’m not getting – he should tell me!” he laughed. “Sometimes at practice Dale or Jacques will tell him to go do something and he’ll kind of hesitate and he’ll do the complete opposite, and they’ll just laugh.

“He’s coming around. His teacher has started using some of the words we use around hockey – the equipment, some of the plays down, so she can explain in Russian what it means, so he’s starting to catch on a little bit more.”

Whether in Belarus or Southwestern Ontario, the game of hockey is relatively the same and the transition can be smooth. Off the ice, however, is where the transition gets harder. Getting used to a new language, a new culture, and even new food can overwhelm any person, but Kostitsyn has weathered the storm so far. Part of what’s helped the transition is the fact that his brother, Andrei, is just up the road in Hamilton, playing for the American Hockey League’s Bulldogs franchise.

“I talk to him every day. I go and watch games in Hamilton,” the younger Kostitsyn explained. In fact, he’s also gone down with a bunch of teammates to catch former captain and Oilers prospect Danny Syvret suiting up for the Bulldogs. Andrei has also made the trip to London on occasion to see his little brother suit up for the Knights.

“His brother’s been able to give him a little advice on how to deal with being away from family,” Belan said. “I think it makes him a little more comfortable knowing that family is just an hour away.”

As Kostitsyn’s tried to integrate himself into the team, the team has responded by making sure he’s included in all activities and showing him the ropes.

“I think he’s handling it pretty good. I think he’s having fun,” Belan said. “After the game we’ll go out and shoot some pool or go watch an NHL game. You try to stay around him as much as possible and give him some company – to what we can offer, anyways.”

“We bring him out and take him to a restaurant and watch (former Knight and current Anaheim Mighty Duck) Corey Perry on TV and try to get him to adjust to the food and get him to understand what the atmosphere is like here in London,” Schremp added. “I think he loves it here – he’s always got a big smile on his face. Whereas before some of the other Europeans we’ve had have had a harder time adjusting – the other ones didn’t really make an effort to get along.

“He’s been trying to fit in and try to be team guy and it’s been a lot of fun to have him around.”

Kostitsyn’s taken a liking to sushi, and lights up when he hears the word. “Sushi! Yes, I love sushi,” he enthuses.

And, like any 18-year-old, finding the right girl is high on his list of priorities.

“He wants to try to find a good Russian friend, someone that he can talk Russian with or watch Russian films with,” Belan said. “Other than that it’s mostly the team that he’ll hang out with. Like if we go to the mall, we’ll take him along – and try to pick up girls.

“He keeps saying he wants a Russian girl here. Hopefully the message can get out there!”

Even some of his other teammates have gotten involved in the hunt. “I have a Russian friend that I talk to on the Internet and I gave him her e-mail address to talk to her, so he’s falling in love with her I think,” Schremp joked. “But, no I don’t know too many Russian girls, but I’ll keep my eyes open.”

When asked the ever-important teenage question about who are better, Russian or Canadian girls, Kostitsyn blushes, smiles broadly, and laughs, saying “girls are better in Russia.”

Of course, Kostitsyn states for the record that his favorite team is the Montreal Canadiens, but with a little prompting admits that he grew up rooting for the Detroit Red Wings and counts Sergei Federov as his favorite player.

And what does the future hold? Kostitsyn has his answer ready. “I want to be in the NHL, with my brother.”

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.