Fedor Tyutin's hockey career took a critical turn at the age of nine. To that point, he had always played the game in Russian model plastic skates.
"They were terrible," says Tyutin.
But things changed that Christmas. His parents got him a genuine pair of Bauer skates that the young Tyutin immediately became attached to.
"I was pretty juiced up," the Jackets' D-man says of his best ever hockey present. "I even slept with them the first night."
Tyutin's arrival in Columbus this off-season has proven to be somewhat of a gift itself to the Blue Jackets' franchise. The 25-year-old native of Izhevsk, Russia, drafted 40th overall by the New York Rangers in 2001, has been one of the standouts in a maddeningly inconsistent season for Columbus.
Tyutin's head coach calls him the best defenseman on the team so far.
"He's played great," says Ken Hitchcock. "He's had a heck of a year. We've really elevated his responsibilities and he's more than answered the bell."
When GM Scott Howson pulled the trigger on a trade that brought Tyutin and fellow defenseman Christian Backman to Columbus in exchange for Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche last July, some critics wondered if the Jackets' brass might ultimately regret letting go of one of the NHL's most natural talents in Zherdev. But for Columbus to progress, they needed help on the blue-line.
And the man they call "Toots" has been an excellent addition to a revamped corps.
"We had to give up something to get something," says Hitchcock. "Without him, we would have a tough time competing because you need good players in the back end."
At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Tyutin has the size to handle business in the Jackets' zone. But he has also displayed a well-rounded game and as Hitchcock says, has a good disposition on the ice. Tyutin's been logging a ton of minutes for the Jackets and is well on his way to establishing career highs in points with three goals and 13 assists through 34 games (his current high is six goals and 19 assists in 77 games in the 2005-06 season).
He's had added opportunity and responsibility – and he's made the most of it.
"It's always nice to have trust from the coaches," says Tyutin.
The Jackets have also liked the calm presence that Tyutin has brought to the defense. Marc Methot, who's partnered with Tyutin recently, says his demeanor rubs off on the guys he's playing with.
"The way he handles the puck so calmly, people don't really notice but he can kind of slow the game down a little bit if he wants to," says Methot. "Having a relaxed quarterback like that helps. It keeps us a little more confident and we're able to transfer that in the offensive zone.
"He's a pretty cool cat."
Before he became a regular with the Rangers, Tyutin spent a few seasons improving his game at various levels. He had one successful year in the Ontario Hockey League playing for the Guelph Storm in 2001-02 (19 goals, 40 assists and a +17 in 53 games, before adding two goals and eight assists in nine playoff games), which was also critical because that's where he learned English for the first time. That season was followed by stints in the Russian League and the American Hockey League. He's also represented Russia at the Olympics and World Championships.
But the 2007-08 NHL season was ultimately a breakthrough campaign for Tyutin. He played all 82 games for the Rangers last year, scoring five times and adding 15 assists. And for the second consecutive year, New York made it through the first round of the NHL playoffs, an experience that Tyutin considers crucial to his development as a pro.
"Of course, it's a big plus for you as a player, for your growth," he says. "It was pretty good times and some excited moments. You learn some lessons from it.
"It's so crazy how the game changes in the playoffs. It feels like you're playing a completely different game. It's more intense from the fans and you don't even feel like you're tired. It's like you're just starting the season because you have so much energy and adrenalin.
"It's an unbelievable feeling."
Tyutin wants that experience in Columbus, a place he says already feels like home now. And with the midway point of the season approaching, the battle-tested gift the Jackets' acquired last July is willing to help lead the way.
"I think we should be way more up the standings than we are now," Tyutin says. "There were some games that we should have won.
"We're still a young team and learning but we have to get better and do the things good teams do."