CHICAGO -- Their charter boat left before sunrise, cutting through a thick, early-morning fog that hung low over Lake Michigan.
It was September, but the air still held a tinge of humidity when Chicago Blackhawks rookie left wing Artemi Panarin and Arizona Coyotes forward Viktor Tikhonov embarked on a fishing excursion.
The good friends, who were Blackhawks teammates at the time, got the idea for the trip from a Chicago-based Russian couple who volunteered to help Panarin adjust to life in the United States.
"We went probably a couple weeks before [training] camp started," said Tikhonov, who was Panarin's teammate the past two-plus seasons with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League. "We had a day off, so we decided to have a little bit of fun. We caught some big ones."
One caught more "big ones" than the other.
"I think they were lake trout," Tikhonov said, shaking his head. "They were really big. Panarin caught the biggest ones. He got the biggest fish."
The Blackhawks know the feeling.
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Prior to winning the Stanley Cup in 2015, their front office devised a plan to counteract some anticipated player departures stemming from the NHL salary cap. Despite heavy competition, the Blackhawks eventually landed Panarin. They're glad they did.
Heading into the Wednesday Night Rivarly game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN), Panarin leads NHL rookies in goals (19), assists (35) and points (54).
"Just about everyone was interested," said Tom Lynn, the agent for Panarin and Tikhonov, who was traded to Arizona in December. "There were just a few teams that weren't. Because [Panarin] would be on a two-year entry-level contract, it was easy for any team to say, 'We'll take him.' More than 20 teams said they'd sign him and more than 10 actively recruited him."
The Blackhawks weren't the first to show serious interest, but general manager Stan Bowman and Barry Smith, their director of player development, were able to sign him when they offered an incentive-laden contract full of potential bonus earnings, a top-six forward role and the possibility of playing with right wing Patrick Kane.
Lynn and Bowman have a good relationship, tied to when each was an assistant GM (Lynn with the Minnesota Wild), but Smith also played a key role. He spent three seasons with SKA St. Petersburg as coach and director of player personnel, and knew his way around when recruiting Panarin.
"He had more of an understanding of Artemi's situation than anybody else," Lynn said. "Those two relationships were important."
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Panarin has become pretty important himself.
Considering how much talent the Blackhawks parted with last summer, adding a player of Panarin's skill level for a reasonable cap charge of $812,500 per season through 2016-17, according to war-on-ice.com, was almost a necessity. Chicago not only traded Brandon Saad, a 23-year old two-way forward, to the Columbus Blue Jackets in June, they also lost veterans Patrick Sharp, Antoine Vermette, Kris Versteeg, Johnny Oduya and Brad Richards to free agency.
Panarin has become a fixture at left wing on Chicago's top offensive line, which also has Russian center Artem Anisimov and Kane, the NHL's leading scorer. After a fast start, their production remains high and they're still one of the NHL's most potent lines.
Anisimov, acquired from the Blue Jackets in the Saad trade, provides a combination of size (6-foot-4, 198 pounds), speed and skill. Panarin and Kane surround him with similar skill and playmaking abilities.
They've meshed so well, especially Kane and Panarin, that coach Joel Quenneville keeps them together at 5-on-5 and on the power play.
"There's just instinct between them, like two great artists might have," Lynn said. "They see things different than everybody else. They know where the other guy is going to go, because that's what they would do. They're just in sync as two great players."
They've practically become mirror images on the ice, one with a left-handed shot (Kane) and the other a righty (Panarin).
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"We're the same kind of player," Panarin said through translator Stan Stiopkin. "We play the same kind of game and our hockey sense is the same ... the same understanding of the game. That's what has helped us play together. I knew about Patrick Kane before coming here to play. When I was in Russia, I was watching his game and definitely I understood how to play with him."
Panarin has had less success learning to speak English, but he understands more phrases now. He used to have Tikhonov translate for him during interviews, and now uses Stiopkin, a long-time Russian youth coach who moved to Chicago in the 1980s and coaches here now.
The language barrier has made it difficult for reporters to connect with Panarin, but his personality gets revealed occasionally.
After missing two games recently because of illness, Panarin said much of his down time was spent playing a FIFA soccer video game on his PlayStation 4 between doses of hot tea and raspberry jam (a Russian remedy for treating colds).
Prior to wrapping up a press conference upon his return to the lineup, Panarin was asked about playing FIFA. He said something in Russian to Stiopkin, who began to chuckle.
"His team made first division," Stiopkin said.
Initially, Panarin needed help adjusting to life in the U.S. Now that he's more self-sufficient, Panarin is discovering new things about Chicago. He's been to the top of Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), Chicago's tallest skyscraper. He has strolled through the streets, virtually unrecognized, and he clears his mind before games by strolling through Millennium Park.
It's been five months since that fishing trip with Tikhonov.
"Time is going so fast," Panarin said. "I was talking to Anisimov recently, and said, 'There's not so many games left in the regular season.' Time is going so fast."