Viktor Tikhonov happens to be the 20-year-old grandson of the legendary Russian hockey coach of the same name, and admitted the feeling was indescribable.
"It's pretty hard to put it into words because it was a dream come true to step out onto that ice in a regular-season NHL game for the first time," Tikhonov told NHL.com. "It's just great to be playing in the best League in the world and having Wayne Gretzky as your coach.
"The best advice he gave me was before our season opener on Saturday (a 3-1 victory against Columbus)," Tikhonov said. "He pulled all the young guys together and told us not to think too hard, to just relax and get a good night's sleep. That's great advice because, as a rookie, you sometimes think about what you need to do too hard and become easily distracted. I just went out there and had some fun.''
Tikhonov wasn't the only Coyotes player making his NHL debut. Fellow rookies Kyle Turris, Kevin Porter and Mikkel Boedker were also in the lineup. The youth movement is certainly working for the Hall-of-Fame coach, too, as his team is 2-0.
"There are many first-year players in the lineup and it's great because everyone treats each other equally," Tikhonov said. "There is no 'Rookie you do this or go pick up the pucks.' Everyone just has a job to do and goes out and gets it done. There's so much support coming from the whole team, it's really been a great atmosphere.''
In his first NHL game on Saturday, Tikhonov logged 16:09 of ice time, including considerable minutes on the penalty-killing unit, while taking 23 shifts. He didn't register any points, but was credited with two blocked shots and two shots on goal.
"I was told that I would see plenty of time on the penalty-kill, but that's something I really enjoy," Tikhonov said. "It's great being relied upon in key situations, especially being a young guy, so I take that job very seriously and with a lot of pride."
In Sunday's 4-2 win against the Anaheim Ducks, the 6-foot-2, 187-pound right wing was given 25 shifts in a little more than 14 minutes of ice time. He finished a minus-1, but did generate two shots and had one steal.
"I've been playing in Russia the last five years, so I guess much of my game comes from that European experience," Tikhonov said. "I think my puck control and patience are the two biggest qualities I've carried over to the North American game. But I really enjoy the fast-paced hitting, the dirty work in the corners and getting in front of the net. I like the battling that is that American style."
That shouldn't come as much a surprise to those having followed the career of Tikhonov, whose father, Vasily, was an assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks from 1993-94 to 1995-96. It was during that time, the younger Viktor began playing organized hockey with the Santa Clara Blackhawks while growing up in Los Gatos, California.
"My dad went over so much with me, especially after games about all the things I would do right and wrong and should be doing better," Tikhonov said. "He's been my personal coach my whole life."
Tikhonov also credits his mom, Tatjana, for her love and support.
"Being a hockey mom is a lot of work and, growing up in California, she would always drive me to practice and then drive me to the Shark Tank so that I could practice with my dad after the Sharks were off the ice," Tikhonov said. "She's dedicated a lot of time on my behalf and I guess I wouldn't be in this position if not for her."
Interestingly enough, Tikhonov, who speaks flawless English, possessed a United States passport before acquiring a Russian one.
After minor-league coaching stops in Kansas City and Kentucky, Vasily's coaching career took him and his family to Europe, where Viktor spent two years in Finland and a year in Sweden before finally returning to Russia. There, Vasily took a job with CSKA -- formerly the Central Red Army squad -- where the elder Viktor Tikhonov had coached and now serves as club president. The younger Viktor played in Russian junior leagues, and for the last two seasons, he's played with Cherepovets in the then-Russian Super League.
Despite being draft eligible in 2007, Tikhonov was passed over, but refused to get discouraged. It
was a sign, perhaps, that he was not only maturing, but paying close attention to a few knowledgeable people who cared about his well being.
"I was ranked (in 2007) and had hoped that somewhere in the later rounds, I might be picked up, but it didn't happen," Tikhonov said. "I just continued to work hard. I remember playing in one of my first games in Russia (in 2005-06) and having one of the worst performances of my life. I was mad and began throwing sticks around. My grandpa saw this, pulled me over to the side and said, 'One of the most important things in hockey is knowing how to take your losses and to just get it out of your system by looking back, seeing what you did wrong, fix it and forget about it.' So after every setback, whether on or off the ice, I keep my head up and do the right thing to make it better next time."
Last season, he had 7 goals, 12 points and 43 penalty minutes in 43 games with Cherepovets. In the 2008 World Junior Championships, he was named the tournament's top forward after posting 5 goals and 7 points in seven games to help lead Russia to bronze medal.
He was drafted in the first round (No. 28) by Phoenix last June and, through perseverance, made a huge impression in training camp and has stuck with the team to open the season. He has played on a line with center Martin Hanzal and left wing Daniel Winnik throughout camp and the regular season and is enjoying life.
"Marty is really skilled and great on faceoffs and Daniel is one of the hardest-working players in the NHL," Tikhonov said. "It's easy to play on line with those guys."
Gretzky has enjoyed working with all the young players this season.
"These kids are pretty unique and they are pretty good," Gretzky said. "I think although they're kids, they're pretty mature. They really have their eyes wide-open and are having a lot of fun."
Contact Mike Morreale at firstname.lastname@example.org.