“What’s up, guys?” he said in excellent English. Only moments earlier on Wednesday, before a much larger gathering, the Russian rocket put to use brief remarks he had practiced for maybe five minutes, from the heart, without an interpreter. It was an acceptance speech by the winner of the Calder Trophy, by the best rookie of them all in the National Hockey League last season.
“It worked out, didn’t it?” Panarin mused. Indeed, the Blackhawks had scouted him for a couple years, but he was watching them too, closely yet from afar. They really liked his substance, and he admired their style, and yes, it worked out just fine. Other teams chased Panarin, and he could have made more money by staying home. But this wasn’t about the principal. It was about the interest.
“First game in Chicago, I scored,” he recalled. “First shot, I think. After about five games, the confidence came. I felt I could play in the NHL. Belonged. But this award now. Exciting. I am overwhelmed.
Panarin, 24, finished ninth overall in NHL scoring with 30 goals and 47 assists, by far the heftiest production of any freshman. During an interview with chicagoblackhawks.com last season, Panarin said because of his relatively advanced age, he did not consider himself a rookie. But as he said here, if he has to travel another 23 hours to go back to Russia, might as well bring along some new hardware.
“I don’t make the rules,” said Panarin, aware that some experts agree with what he volunteered last winter: considerable experience in the Kontinental Hockey League is the grist of debate about whether he is, in the purest sense, a rookie.
Patrick Kane, Panarin’s linemate for most of the season, raised his hand to offer an opinion. No first year player even sniffed the kind of crazy numbers put up by the “Bread Man.” Moreover, continued Kane, Panarin almost instantly provided a bookend even though they could not speak the same language or anything approximating it. Panarin and Kane grok without all the pleasantries.
“Still, we had that feeling of knowing what each other was going to do and where each other was going to be,” said Kane. “To have that chemistry and to know what to expect every night is something I never felt before.”
Panarin expressed delight when he heard that – even if, as he joked, Kane was making it all up to pass the time before a media horde. But Wednesday oozed mutual admiration, as it had all winter. Panarin said he probably wouldn’t have earned the Calder Trophy without Kane, who suggested his Hart Trophy had Panarin’s fingerprints all over it.
“We do a lot of improvising,” said Panarin. “Artem Anisimov, our center, is very important. He told me to just play my hockey. Patrick, who has done so much, the game goes through him. But together, we all work well and we think outside the box.”
Although the “Bread Man” is leaning less than ever on assistance in communicating, he arrived in Las Vegas not only with his trusty interpreter, Stan Stiopkin, but a friend from Chicago, Andrew Aksyonov. In a Tribune feature last November, Chris Hine detailed how Aksyonov and wife Yulia took Panarin under their wing from the moment he landed at O’Hare in the summer. Although Panarin, a mature young man of faith, volunteers that he cherishes his solitude, he leaves no doubt that Andrew and Yulia eased his transition to America.
Support from teammates and Chicago fans also helped significantly, Panarin stressed. The ballot box provided validation too. He was the first choice on 88 of 150 voters compared with runner-up Shayne Gostisbehere (33) of the Philadelphia Flyers and Connor McDavid (25) of the Edmonton Oilers. Shortly after Panarin signed with the Blackhawks in May of 2015, Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman was asked about unknowns in the system worth knowing. He immediately cited this really gifted kid in the KHL.
Previous Blackhawks to earn the Calder Trophy are: Mike Karakas (1936), Carl Dahlstrom (1938), Ed Litzenberger (1955), William “Red” Hay (1960), Tony Esposito (1970), Steve Larmer (1983), Ed Belfour (1991) and Kane in 2008, when Jonathan Toews was also a finalist. Hay (as a Builder), Esposito and Belfour are in the Hall of Fame. Larmer should be. Kane and Toews are pointed there.
Wednesday’s adulation, however, did not sway Panarin from comments he offered months ago. The “Bread Man” is in line for some serious dough, but he’s as humble as he is hilarious.
“I said then that I am not a star, that I don’t feel like I am a star,” he repeated. Even now, I will never think of myself as a star. But I am very happy for this and what it means after the journey I have made.”
Panarin meant big picture, not connections from Russia to Frankfurt to Chicago to Las Vegas. His parents separated when he was young, he basically left home at age 10 to pursue hockey, and developed a strong sense of independence. For a mentor and guiding light, Panarin relied on his grandfather, Vladimir Iliych Levin.
“Did you think about bringing him to Las Vegas?” Panarin was asked.
“I don’t think so,” he replied. “It’s only a few days. I remember coming here with the Blackhawks for some rest during the season. Rookie dinner. Cost me $5,000. No, it would be better to bring him to Chicago to stay for a longer time.”
It was 2:15 Thursday morning in St. Petersburg, Russia, when this bright young man with the Blackhawks had his name called as Calder Trophy recipient. What would grandpa think when he woke up to hear the good news?
“He knows now,” assured Bread Man. “He stays up to watch my games. He knows.”