-- A weighty issue might have prevented Alexander Burmistrov
from being selected higher than No. 8 by the Atlanta Thrashers
at last month's NHL Entry Draft.
Some scouts questioned whether the Russian center, listed at 5-feet-11, 157 pounds at the time, was worthy of such a high pick -- or perhaps an even higher one -- based on his size. Burmistrov might have fallen to that skimpy playing weight because of the unfortunate combination of a language barrier and the player's politeness as much as his physical build might have had anything to do with it.
Already, he has gained 17 pounds and Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley is delighted. He thinks Burmistrov, who patterns his game after Detroit Red Wings
center Pavel Datsyuk
, has a chance to make the team entering this season as an 18-year-old.
"I think he will compete," Dudley said. "When [new coach] Craig Ramsay
watches this kid in training camp, he's going to be excited. [Burmistrov] understands what he needs to do immediately. He reads the play so well with the puck. He's a pretty complete player."
Burmistrov played last season with Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League and he arrived with extremely limited English skills. The problem required a conference call between the Colts' then coach Marty Williamson, Burmistrov and his Russian-speaking agent Mark Gandler to clarify.
"He wanted to eat more meat," said Williamson, now the coach of the OHL's Niagara franchise. "He's a polite kid, he wouldn't say anything to offend his billets."
Rob Ferguson, who has been billeting OHL players for 22 years, said he began noticing that some of the pasta he served as part of the pregame meal was finding its way into the trash.
"Once we got the English better, it was a lot easier," Ferguson said. "He didn't want the typical meal. Most guys grab a sub [after the game]. He likes a full meal. Once we got that worked out, it was OK."
But until it got worked out, Burmistrov's weight dwindled. As most players will tell you, they have a hard time keeping up their weight once the season starts.
After the problem was rectified, Burmistrov began getting stronger. Nonetheless, Williamson said he thinks the issue kept Burmistrov's weight down all season.
"He had a long, long season, too," Williamson said. "The Russian training schedule was through the roof. You should see what they put these kids through. He’d been through a lot of stress. The second half of the season when he got done with the World Junior [tournament] and all of the extracurricular stuff, you could see he really settled in. His second half he was getting stronger while others were getting weaker.
"It was really hectic from May to December. It was unbelievable what he went through. He lost a lot of weight. And he's very driven. He never let it stop him. Pound for pound, he's very tough. He gave it out."
Burmistrov, whose English is still limited, did not make an issue out of his meals.
"I don't know," he said. "I really have a good meal in my billet house. All the time good to eat. Sometimes we eat at the house. Sometimes we go somewhere else. In playoff, lots of times. I don't know."
While English was a struggle at times with Burmistrov, Williamson said that hockey was never lost in translation.
"His hockey IQ is through the roof," he said. "Anything to do with hockey he understood right away.
"He's a very special guy. I have a lot of appreciation for Alex and what he went through, how he adapted and how well he played."
Ferguson, who billeted future NHLers Raffi Torres
(while Ferguson lived in Brampton), and Rostislav Klesla
, also said Burmistrov is unique.
He recalled the player insisting on helping to use a snow blower to clean off Ferguson's driveway in a snowstorm.
"I wish I would've got a picture because it was the funniest thing in the world," Ferguson said. "He's snow-blowing and it's minus-20 and he's in his dress shoes doing the driveway."
In addition to playing practical jokes on Ferguson's teenage daughter Megan, Burmistrov showed himself a student of the game and his favorite player.
"He loved Detroit," Ferguson said. "No matter what game was on [the NHL Center Ice package], he wanted to watch Detroit. He loved watching Datsyuk."
"The second half of the season when he got done with the World Junior [tournament] and all of the extracurricular stuff, you could see he really settled in. His second half he was getting stronger while others were getting weaker It was really hectic from May to December. It was unbelievable what he went through. He lost a lot of weight. And he's very driven. He never let it stop him. Pound for pound, he's very tough. He gave it out."
-- Barrie Colts coach Marty Williamson
In his first few seasons in the NHL, Datsyuk similarly was challenged by language. But no one would ever challenge his game.
Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr said Burmistrov always wants to win -- no matter what the drill or competition might be.
"I think when I go to Russia after Atlanta camp, they give me some paper -- what I need to eat, drink and workouts and train," Burmistrov said. "More weight and stronger."
He'll need that extra weight and strength in the NHL, but Williamson, his junior coach, said his toughness showed through in any event. During the OHL playoffs, Burmistrov was on the receiving end of a cross check from Sudbury’s 6-4, 210-pound Jared Staal
, the younger brother of NHLers Eric, Jordan and Marc, that earned Staal a five-game suspension.
"Nothing bothered Burmie," Williamson said of the cross-check. "It was not like he went out and played shy."
He totaled 8 goals and 8 assists in 17 games in the OHL playoffs, leading Barrie to the finals where they succumbed to eventual champion and two-time Memorial Cup winner Windsor. With a little more weight, it will be interesting to see what Burmistrov can do, Williamson said.
One thing is sure. Whatever difficulty he has communicating, Burmistrov's sense of humor shines through. Fielding questions from reporters at the Thrashers' practice facility, he was asked to clarify if he intended to return to Russia after the prospect camp ended or if he had already gone back following the OHL season.
"I'm just kidding," he said, "I do not go back in KHL."