By Andrei Loktionov | Special to LAKings.com
When I was four years old my father brought me to the local ice arena and I remember the coach didn’t think I could do anything because I was only four years old. I went onto the ice and made a couple of circles, which impressed the coach because he put me on the second line. Growing up I also played some tennis, ping pong, and soccer, but I really loved hockey right away.
Hockey was – and remains -- very popular in my hometown of Voskresensk, Russia, which is located about 50 miles away from Moscow and about a 10-12 hour bus ride from St. Petersburg. It is a very small town with maybe 110,000 people, and we had just one ice rink. Right now the rink is better because they improved it recently, but when I was there it was so old. I think every kid tried to play hockey at first and then if you weren’t good enough you would do something else.
I grew up wanting to play in the National Hockey League and the Olympics and my favorite player was Igor Larionov, who is now my agent. I first met him when my dad introduced us in Voskresensk while I was practicing with other young kids. There were a lot of good players in my league growing up. A couple of them are playing in the Kontinental Hockey League and Dmitri Kulikov is playing for the Florida Panthers now. We would always travel by bus and usually play in Moscow or a nearby city against teams like UHC Dynamo and Spartak Moscow. When I was 13 years old, I was selected to play for Spartak and we played a game in Sweden which was my first time leaving Russia.
When I was 17 years old I never really thought that I would get to play for a big team like that but I always worked as hard as I could. I always gave 100 percent, did my best and did what my trainer told me without really thinking about the future. I graduated from high school and I am one semester away from graduating from a University near Moscow with a Sports Education degree. Through it all, I never thought about what I would do if hockey didn’t work out.
When I was playing for Spartak they went bankrupt and I needed to find a team to play for. The scouts from Yaroslavl kept asking me to play for them when I was younger but I kept saying, ‘No thanks.’ After Spartak went bankrupt I signed a contract with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and played on their second team, which is similar to the American Hockey League here.
I played on the second team for a year and then started practicing with the first team. I didn’t play much, playing maybe a couple of shifts per game. The next year I started out practicing with the first team and I was playing about five-to-seven shifts a game while sitting on the bench most of the time. Even though I wasn’t playing much the coach wanted me to be around to watch the team and train with them so that I could keep getting better.
In the summer of 2008 I didn’t want to play for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl anymore and I had the opportunity to renew my contract with the team. Everyone from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was really friendly and pushed me to renew, but I didn’t want to play for them anymore. I wanted to go for something better. I eventually signed a new contract with them, but a month later I left for Los Angeles after a call from my agent.
I was in Moscow when I was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings. The first call I got was from a Vancouver Canucks scout who said they were going to take me if I was still available, but then my agent called and said the Los Angeles Kings picked me, which made me very happy.
I told him then that I didn’t want to play for Lokomotiv anymore, and he said pack your bags as we are leaving. No one else knew what we were doing. I told Kulikov good luck and left. I pretty much ran away from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
Of course a lot has happened with that club since then. I was in Russia, getting my passport, when I heard the news of the plane crash a few months ago. A good friend of mine called me and told me. At first I just couldn’t believe it. I think I knew 95 percent of those on the plane and probably 20 of the players. It was and remains very sad and very tragic.
When I came to North America I was really excited when I started to play for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League. I think I did a good job with them during that first season. While I played well for them I needed help off the ice learning English because my English was awful. I lived with my billet mom and she was always helping me out by saying, ‘This is a fork, this is a plate, and so on.’
Then I went to the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League. Manchester is a small town in New Hampshire with not a lot to do besides playing hockey and maybe going to a movie. While in Manchester I kept practicing my English by hanging out with Oscar Moller, Trevor Lewis
and Marc-Andre Cliche
among others. The hockey was better in the American Hockey League compared to the Ontario Hockey League.
I didn’t know much about the city of Los Angeles or the Kings, just that Alexander Frolov was here and that Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille had played in Los Angeles. It was nice that Slava Voynov
was drafted the same year as me too since we have played together since we were 14 years old.
The 2009-10 season was the first time I got called up to play in the NHL. I was so happy when I got the call from the LA Kings to come join them for their game in Edmonton against the Oilers. It was my dream as a kid to play in the NHL and playing in that game really was a dream come true. I was so nervous before the game but everyone on the Kings was very supportive and happy for me.
The locker room atmosphere was very different than in Russia, because the players really engaged me and helped me calm down by letting me know they thought I belonged there. Unfortunately I separated my shoulder during that game in Edmonton so I only got to play that one game. The injury was really devastating for me because it was my only opportunity and it was a huge disappointment.
Playing in that one game in Edmonton, though, really pushed me to work even harder last summer to continue my dream of playing in the NHL. Looking back at the injury makes me say, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,’ and now it is about looking ahead.