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Grabovski Lets Goals Do The Talking

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

RELATED: Number Crunching The NHL's Top Lines | Grabo's Line Too Much
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Here are two things I bet you didn’t know.

The centre of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first line has a tattoo on his left shoulder that depicts a hockey player skating under the watchful eye of an angel.

The tattoo belongs to Mikhail Grabovski. The angel is his mother Olga.

If you ask Grabovski about the tattoo he will explain but he is not an expansive man in English. Even in hockey-mad Toronto, not all that much is known about the linchpin of the number one attacking unit.

Although his vocabulary has improved, Grabovski struggles to find words. His accent is thick and at first encounter seems more Parisian than Russian. He is a little shorter than you might think, probably an honest five-foot-10 and there is a shy vibe about him. The bright pink lines imbedded in his chin and cheeks point to a player unafraid of high-traffic areas.

The divide between athletes imported into North America and their new constituents is chronically under-reported. Hampered by the rawness of their language skills and an unfamiliarity with the ground rules of how people, media and otherwise, relate to them, players from away, be they Spanish speaking baseball players or Russian-speaking hockey players, are rarely media darlings.

There isn’t a lot to gain for a player worried about being misinterpreted or fearful of his own candour. Former LA Dodgers star Pedro Guerrero once declared he would no longer speak to the media. “You keep on writing what I say instead of what I mean,” he explained.

Alexander Mogilny was a man with a great intelligence and unfathomable personality. He was serious when everyone thought he was kidding and joking when the media considered him sincere. Mogilny once lectured a group of sports reporters about how hockey was not a battle, not a life or death struggle, but a game, a job he loved but a job that once completed would fold neatly into memory. He was right but that rare perspective made him an outsider, not a savant. The two canon books in Leafs history are Conn Smythe’s ‘If you can’t beat them in the Alley’ and Punch Imlach’s autobiography ‘Hockey is a Battle.’ That, friends, is a cultural-historical disconnect.

Deploying something less than the talent allotted is not a phenomenon exclusive to the Russian player. The word enigma is. If Alexei Kovalev’s legendary indifference defines the Russian character, why doesn’t Alexander Ovechkin’s pathological drive to score carry the same impact? I’ll see your Alexei Yashin and raise you an Alexandre Daigle.

The late Igor Korolev brokered few public words but rode herd over the wild-hearted defence pair of Dmitry Yushkevich and Danny Markov, two Russian-born tobacco spitting cowboys.

Nikolai Kulemin’s gargantuan work ethic and the incredible soundness of his game should make him the first name on the lips of every fan. The Leafs’ leading goalscorer was by far his team’s most versatile player but he is never quoted. He is stone-faced, impenetrable to the public but not the teammates he constantly, playfully stymies in the Leafs’ shorthanded drills.

Small wonder the line of Phil Kessel, Tim Connolly and Joffrey Lupul is consistently referred by myself and everyone else as the team’s number one unit. If Kessel can goose his goal total into the 40s, the Leafs will return a substantially different team. Among the forwards, Kessel, Connolly and Lupul stand first, second and third at the pay window. According to, the unit will earn $13.4 million this year to $8.5 paid the Grabovski line.

But here’s the kicker. What the accompanying charts show is that if the Connolly line dramatically boosts the production of its three members, it would do well to catch up to the contribution actually delivered in 2010-2011 by the Grabovski line.

“I want two number one lines,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said the other day.

“Why wouldn’t I consider it (the Grabovski unit) the number one when line when everybody who played on that line scored over 20 goals?”
Grabovski is 27 and in the final year of a three-year-contract. Acquired for a prospect and a second rounder in July of 2008, Grabovski was the last player to jump on the bus before Brian Burke rode in to succeed Cliff Fletcher.

There isn’t all that much more to tell. He feuded with country mates Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn. He was unhappy as a Montreal Canadien and at one point left the team. There is a story about a scuffle at the Vancouver Olympics but all that amounts to not much.

Grabovski provided one of the Leafs highlights last season when he was pilloried into the end boards by the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara, wobbled to the bench and then came back to deliver the goal that beat the eventual Stanley Cup champs. He is a fierce worker whose preparation to play is the team’s gold standard.

What you get in bits and pieces is that he didn’t come from a family of great means. A couple of years ago, Grabovski allowed how he used his first hockey stick, a Christmas gift, for five years, and continually taped it back into service. He still keeps the battered stick at home in Belarus. The rest, Olga, his family, the journey to get here, that stuff belongs to him.

He says he has never seen himself as a first line player. He usually played up an age group or two as a kid so when he did play on the first line, it was usually late in the game.

“I think everyone is the first line,” he said.

“You can’t think like that, that you are the first line. If you do, it makes you suck. If you want success you need three great lines.

In a real way, first line status is often determined by the opposing coach. The unit he tries hardest to thwart, not the highest paid or the most well known, is your first line.

Put it this way: “It doesn’t matter what colour sweater you wear in practice,” said Mikael Grabovski. “It matters where you are at the end of the game.”

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