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Gratchev personifies dedication, determination, grit

by Lindsay Kramer
The story of every game is marked on the body of Elmira Jackal rookie forward Maxime Gratchev. If he's red, nicked and sore, he knows he put forth an effort worthy of a paycheck that night.

"If I'm not bruised after every game, I know I didn't play well," said Gratchev, 21. "If I'm not in front of the net, I'm not scoring."

The story of Gratchev's life, meanwhile, is etched on his arms and torso. That area is covered with several tattoos, all symbols of his beliefs and his remarkable journey from Siberia to Boston to pro hockey.

"I'm usually a quiet guy," he said. "Usually (the tattoos) represent my personality and the things I've been through in my life. I don't get any that don't mean anything."

The story of Gratchev's season is marked on the ECHL's leaders list. One of the most relentless players in the league, he is tied for third among rookies in assists (20) and is second in points (34).

"When I think of Max, he's a guy who can go. He's a straight-forward goal guy," Jackals coach Steve Martinson said. "You pretty much know every game what you are going to get out of Max. He's pretty much at his (top) talent level every game."

Anything less would be an affront to the example set by Maxime's father, Igor.

Igor is a former hockey player who runs instructional schools in the Boston area; but the lessons of the sport are the least of what dad passed along to son.
Maxime's mother, Helen, died during his birth. Igor was out of town with his team that day. Suddenly, and tragically, Igor was left to raise Maxime by himself.

When Maxime was about 1, Igor left him in the care of his wife's family while he traveled to the United States to lay the groundwork for his teaching business. After Igor scrapped together enough to start his dream, he returned home to find that his family had left and taken Maxime with them.

"My whole family had disappeared - gone!" Igor told the Boston Globe. "They were thinking, 'You are a young guy, you won't take care of him.' He was gone. And they let me know, 'You won't find him.'"

But a persistent Igor eventually tracked his son down, right in the same city where he left him. Reunited, the two took off for their new home in a Boston suburb when Maxime was 5.

"I was young when it happened. But growing up from the beginning, I had to learn how to be on my own, be independent," Maxime said. "Looking back, I'm the person I am today because of everything I've been through. With everything my dad's done for me all my life, I'm so appreciative."

Maxime trailed his father to his job whenever he could, taking the concept of a rink rat to another level.

"I was on the ice every single day, six hours, eight hours," Maxime recalled. "I loved it. If I got tired of it, I wouldn't have been out there doing it. He's big into the skating part of the game, big on the skill part of the game."

Maxime left home at age 15 to give the QMJHL a try, and by then the blend of his culture and his father's lessons was already emerging.

"He always taught me a tenacious style of the game," Maxime said. "I try to put the North American style of play with the European style of play. He told me if you want to make it in North America, you have to combine the styles of play. Now, it's become pretty natural to me."

The Islanders liked Gratchev's raw underpinnings enough to take him in the fourth round of the 2007 Entry Draft, and although his ensuing year in juniors was derailed by injuries, he finished his junior career with a flourish by going 30-31 in 64 games for Lewiston last season.

"The road has been a little harder for me than some other guys. I think I have a very good perspective on everything. I've always had a sense of what it's going to take. I think in the end, it's all going to work out fine for me."
-- Elmira forward Maxime Gratchev

Gratchev got one game with Bridgeport of the AHL last season, but never signed with the Islanders. After a short look in Binghamton's camp this season, he's running with the Jackals like he's been doing that his whole life.

"My expectations have been nothing less than (what) I've done," said Gratchev, who earned another trial with Binghamton last week. "I expect myself to get to the AHL and then the NHL. I put high expectations on myself."

Gratchev believes in taking on a lot like that and displaying his past proudly. He wears the flashy number 93 because 1993 was the year he and Igor ventured to North America. He sports a tattoo of a cross with his mom's initials on his left shoulder.
"I think about her every single day," he said.

Two cherubs, representing angels watching over him, decorate his right forearm.

His eighth and latest piece of artwork, the word "Faith," was added on his left wrist last summer. He wants to complete a half sleeve on his right arm this off-season.

"Of course I want more," he said. "But it's hard to do it during hockey season."

No big deal.

Gratchev's story is an evolving one; one that's just in its opening chapters. He should have plenty of opportunities to mark the rest of them in bruises, artwork and statistics.

"The road has been a little harder for me than some other guys. I think I have a very good perspective on everything," he said. "I've always had a sense of what it's going to take. I think in the end, it's all going to work out fine for me."
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