It's the ultimate all-American story.
A Soviet hockey coach comes to the United States immediately after the end of the Cold War with little more than a guest visa and $150. After working in demolition, he eventually finds a coaching job on Long Island, ultimately turning the area into a fertile ground for hockey talent. With one of his pupils, Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi, now a Stanley Cup champion for the second time, the classic American tale continues for Aleksey Nikiforov.
"It makes me feel great. It proved to me that I know something," said Nikiforov, who has spent the past few years coaching the Suffolk P.A.L. Junior B team, which won a national championship in 2009. "When Darius Kasparaitis was young and was playing hockey, I told his mother and father that, 'One day, you'll see your son [playing] on big, big ice.' And that happened. It was a feeling."
For the Long Island hockey guru who also groomed NHL players Chris Higgins, Mike Komisarek, and Matt Gilroy, it all started with Kasparaitis. One of Nikiforov's first players in Lithuania, the defenseman would win a Soviet league championship before playing more than 800 NHL games and earning Olympic and world championship gold in 1992.
For a dominant Soviet national team with a roster scouted mostly from Moscow and St. Petersburg, Nikiforov was hailed for finding talent off the radar. The Soviet government even rewarded the coach with a three-bedroom apartment for helping them find world-class players in a region not known as a hockey hotbed.
After establishing a keen eye for talent on Long Island, Nikiforov began working with Boston College sophomore Scuderi.
"I did a couple of hockey camps with him. I was doing some hockey camps when I would come home from B.C.," Scuderi said. "Besides doing the camps and helping him out, we would work on some stuff in between sessions. Just do some drills."
With the Kings' Stanley Cup win over the New Jersey Devils giving Scuderi his second championship ring in three years, those drills have come in handy. And for the coach who has groomed NHL talent on two continents, there aren't enough superlatives to describe the stay-at-home defenseman.
"Rob Scuderi, I think, is one of the smartest defensive players in the NHL. He covers so much ice without any excessive moves. He never slows down his game. He's like a computer, so smart," Nikiforov told NHL.com. "My English was not perfect. But he was a tremendous, respectful guy and a very intelligent guy."
From almost the moment he started working with Scuderi, Nikiforov saw a number of similarities with his first star pupil, Kasparaitis: their toughness in the corners, their responsibility in the defensive zone, their instinctive ability to intimidate the opposition. But there were differences he still notices.
"Scuderi may be more intelligent. Kasparaitis, when he was young, if he lost a one-on-one battle in the corner, he would bite you. That's how competitive he was," Nikiforov said. "Scuderi is much calmer."
The Russian is quick to laud Scuderi, but it wasn't always easy rooting for his former pupil during the Final. The Devils roster featured another Nikiforov pupil, forward Dainius Zubrus.
"He was my very first coach, from Lithuania. That's the guy I started with," Zubrus said. "My first steps on the ice were with him. I was 6 years old. I've known him for years. He was my coach until I was about 12 years old."
Though Scuderi hasn't kept in constant contact with Nikiforov, a number of players make a point to return to his rink and train. When Vladimir Malakhov won the Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2000, he invited his former coach and his young players to a celebration at the defenseman's home.
Scuderi may not offer the same invitation, but he certainly has fond memories.
"He was good with [teaching] little things in your stride and how you hold your stick. I thought he had little tidbits of information that are valuable to any hockey player," Scuderi said. "Certainly if I bumped into him I wouldn't be shy to have a conversation."
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