ST. LOUIS -- Vladimir Tarasenko watched first-hand the creative way the United States unveiled its roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He saw the names of St. Louis Blues teammates David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk and was more than happy.
But happiness soon turned to angst. Tarasenko waited out the final days for his native Russia to reveal its roster.
Russia was more simplistic.
"I was at breakfast in Edmonton," Tarasenko said. "My agent [Alexei Dementiev] texted me that I made it and to go on the Internet page of the Russian Federation of Hockey and there was the roster.
"I called my girlfriend first, and right after my parents. Everybody was happy. It was pressure. When you know the date, the seventh of January, it was a nervous time."
When he got to the letter T, Tarasenko's name was among some of the other Russian greats, ones he grew up following and admiring. Included are Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk, Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, and from the Kontinental Hockey League, SKA St. Petersburg teammate Ilya Kovalchuk.
"I think Pavel Datsyuk is one of the best players in the world," Tarasenko said. "He's so good. And when I went back to St. Petersburg during the lockout, every day I shake Ilya's hand. I watched his game like two months ago, and right now we are on the same line.
"I still can't believe it. It's a dream of everybody in Russia to make the Olympics. The Olympics is the highest point of hockey. I'm so excited right now. It's put my mind in the right way and I can be more focused on the [NHL] games and try to be ready for the Olympics."
The 22-year-old, in his second season with the Blues, is going to be on a team with great players but said there is only one hockey hero in his life.
"My hockey hero is my father," Tarasenko said of Andrei, a member of the Russian team that played in the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics and a coach with Russia's Sibir Novosibirsk. "He's probably more happier than me. It was our goal. They made a goal for me to make these Olympics. We set this goal like four or five years ago. He told me to work hard and to think about it every day. He always said I could make it. Right now, they are happy I made it."
For Tarasenko, one of two first-round picks for the Blues in the 2010 NHL Draft along with Jaden Schwartz (Schwartz went 14th, Tarasenko 16th), his journey to the NHL has been challenging. After putting up eight goals and 19 points in 38 games his rookie season, Tarasenko has elevated his game. He has 28 points (15 goals, 13 assists) in 45 games this season, which includes a recent 12-point spurt in eight games.
The Blues knew who and what they were getting when they traded defensive prospect David Rundblad to the Ottawa Senators for the 16th pick (Rundblad has since moved on to the Phoenix Coyotes). The Blues had Schwartz but wanted Tarasenko as well despite the risks of European players not coming to the NHL.
"I think we learned a lot from those interviews that we did with him at the draft," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said of Tarasenko. "He was trying to talk through English, always had a smile on his face. I said it at the time and I'll say it again: He's the Russian version of T.J. Oshie with his attitude. He's smiling, happy, loves hockey, wants to be around the rink."
But the grass wasn't always green when Tarasenko first came to North America. The Yaroslavl, Russia native not only had to adapt to a new game after spending four seasons in the KHL, but he had to learn a new culture and new lifestyle with no family or friends to help at his young age.
Tarasenko had to rely on his teammates, and they embraced him with open arms. A number have taken on the role of big brother, including Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart.
"Initially being his roommate on the road was fun because I got to know him and he opened up to me," Shattenkirk said of Tarasenko. "He seemed very quiet at first. He was very self-conscious about his language and English, but in actuality, it was great. He could speak very well and he was just more embarrassed to speak than anything else.
"We just encouraged him to speak. We'd tell him, 'You're fine. You can order in a restaurant perfectly. Don't stress it.' Culturally, just going in the grocery store, having to get a haircut knowing where to go, anything like that, it's tough at first. ... When you go overseas and play like I did last year in Finland (with TPS Turku), you get an appreciation for what these guys have to go through when they come here."
Stewart said, "I think when you get a young European guy over here, the lifestyle is a huge culture shock. Anything you can do to make him more comfortable ... I think it's just the little things. We all start with a, 'Good morning. How you doing? How you feeling?' Stuff like that and you go from there. It took him a little while to adjust to the North American style, but look at him now. He's a guy that's definitely earned the trust of the coach."
Tarasenko went from getting his feet wet in his first season to being a healthy scratch in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but not because of his play. It was so coach Ken Hitchcock could help him visualize what it would take to become an impact player in the NHL.
It's certainly paid off. It also helps the Blues have a player who's willing to listen and learn.
"I think he goes to the net harder," Hitchcock said. "I think he plays more determined in the harder scoring areas. He's just a more competitive player, which is allowing his skill and his hockey sense to take over. He's competing at a higher level. He's more comfortable on the ice competing against people. Things aren't new to him."
Tarasenko has had the luxury of speaking to his father and grandfather on a regular basis after games.
"It's good for me because they help me a lot in my life," Tarasenko said. "I grew up with my grandpa because my father played hockey in Jaroslavl."
Tarasenko has dedicated himself to not only become more of an impact player but to become a stronger player. He sustained a concussion in a game against the Colorado Avalanche last season that really changed his focus.
"I feel pretty good. I know if I continue to work hard, that's best for me," Tarasenko said. "My father [taught] me you can never be happy with your game. You always can improve some skills. I just try to work hard and help the team win. It doesn't matter how many goals I score. We are in a good spot right now, probably one of the best teams in the NHL. It's an unbelievable feeling to win so many games."
Tarasenko has aspirations of winning gold for his country. Then he shifts his focus back to the Blues.
"I have unbelievable teammates and team," Tarasenko said. "The goal for us is to win the Stanley Cup. I just listen to the coaches and hopefully things go our way."
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