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Russia's New Generation

by Paul Hendrick / Toronto Maple Leafs

Russian hockey has had a minor impact on the Toronto Maple Leafs historically but that is about to change.

Nikolai Kulemin was the last, Alex Mogilny was easily the best, Dmitry Yushkevich the toughest and Nik Borschevsky provided a Russian's most memorable moment as a Leaf.

Now the need to stock its cupboards with talent has seen Toronto go back to the land of Czars for future stars.

Forward Nikita Soshnikov was signed this past spring out of the KHL and he's just 21.

Last June, 19-year-old defenceman Rinat Valiev was selected in the third round from the Kootenay Ice.

Valiev grew up in Nizhnekamsk, Russia, an industrial community 1000 kilometres east of Moscow.

A young hockey pioneer, Valiev left home at 17 to come to North America to learn English and take that first step toward an eventual career in the NHL.

But last fall there were few steps taken as torn meniscus in his knee sustained in training denied him a first training camp with the Leafs following September surgery.

"I was certainly disappointed at that time," said Valiev. "I needed surgery on my left knee and I didn't get a chance to skate with the team. But now I'm so happy to be here getting experience with the Marlies."

Valiev is coming off a successful season in junior where he responded from knee surgery to record 46 points in 52 games leading the Kootenay Ice with a plus-22 rating as well.

Valiev was plus-49 in his two seasons at Kootenay and was a mainstay on the Russian blueline at last January's World Junior Championships in Toronto.

"That was always my goal to make to make the Russian team and to do that my focus has always been to work my hardest in every practice and every game."

Valiev added, "The gold medal game was so unreal, and it's too bad we lost that game. But the experience was so fun playing in Toronto even if it meant losing to Sam (Reinhart) and Fred (Gauthier)."

Valiev's favorite player is Ottawa Senator Erik Karlsson. Both are rushing style defencemen although Valiev is a much larger presence at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds.

He'll head home after the Marlie season ends for some rest and resume training in Russia before returning to Calgary for more workouts prior to training camp.

Valiev has come a long way in a short time but the eventual objective is to someday become a contributing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"That's my goal right now, that's my dream."

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