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Ponikarovsky a Leaf surrounded by the Maple Leaf

by Dan Rosen

Alexei Ponikarovsky had to leap hurdles just like anyone else eager to gain citizenship, and that includes living in Canada for five years before applying.
As long as it took Alexei Ponikarovsky to gain full citizenship in the National Hockey League, it was nothing compared to how long he waited to reach his latest personal milestone.

“It took 5½ years,” he said.

While it’s not as difficult as making it to the League, becoming a Canadian citizen takes a lot of patience and perseverance, too. Ponikarovsky, a born and trained Ukrainian, won the day on June 7, 2007, when he was sworn in as one of Canada’s newest citizens during a ceremony in Etobicoke, Ont.

Ponikarovsky’s wife, Inna, and their two children, Jessica and Alex, already were Canadian citizens. Jessica and Alex were born in Canada, and Inna has duel-citizenship in Canada and the Ukraine.

“It was a matter of time for me to get it because it’s a good country and I’m probably going to stay here when I’m done with hockey,” Ponikarovsky told “I was looking forward to getting it.”

Being a Toronto Maple Leaf has its perks in Canada, but not when it comes to the government. Ponikarovsky had to leap hurdles just like anyone else eager to gain citizenship, and that includes living in Canada for five years before applying.

“It’s no different than anyone else,” Ponikarovsky said. “It’s not like because I’m a hockey player I can get it faster.”

It is, though, because of hockey that Ponikarovsky had a chance to get it.

The Leafs’ fourth-round pick in the 1998 Entry Draft came to Toronto two years later from Russia. He bounced between the NHL and the AHL for his first three seasons before sticking with the big club in the big city for 73 games in 2003-04.

It’s what Ponikarovsky has done in the post-lockout NHL that has Leaf Nation buzzing. After scoring just nine goals in 2003-04, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound power forward is coming off back-to-back 21-goal seasons. He also had a career-high 24 assists for 45 points last season in 10 fewer games than he played in 2005-06.

This season, while spending most of the time on the Leafs’ top line with fellow veterans Mats Sundin and Jason Blake, Ponikarovsky has seven goals and four assists. He’s playing roughly 17-18 minutes per game.

“Over the last couple of years Alex has really developed, and he’s bringing it on a more consistent basis, not only with his scoring but his chances,” Sundin said after Ponikarovsky scored both goals in a 3-2 shootout loss to the New York Rangers Nov. 10 at Air Canada Centre.”

“Some guys really pick it up right away, but in the National Hockey League the secret is consistency,” Sundin added. “The great players keep on doing it more nights than not. You see Nik Antropov now, he’s really been delivering for us on a consistent basis, and I think Alex is doing that, too. Those two guys have really improved the last couple of years. I think they understand it now.”

Actually, what Ponikarovsky understands is he needs to deliver more in the goals and points department for the Leafs to be a playoff contender. He thinks he should be a 30-goal scorer, and it’ll be hard to find an argument, especially when you consider who he’s playing with.

“Anybody that plays with Mats feels a certain responsibility because they want to score, they want to help generate that offense,” Toronto coach Paul Maurice said. “Confidence with those guys is big.”

Confidence is the icing when you consider Ponikarovsky’s physical ingredients.

He’s big, so he can be frightening when he drives the net. He’s strong on his skates, which makes him difficult to contain. He’s fast, which means if he’s coming at you with a full head of steam you better watch out. And he possesses a strong shot.

Toronto head coach Paul Maurice has shown confidence in Ponikarovsky by placing him on the top line.

Put it all together and you have the prototypical NHL power forward.

“When he plays the way he did tonight, driving the net and shooting the puck like that, he’s really tough to stop,” Sundin said after the loss to the Rangers. “When you have a big winger like that it really helps.”

Ponikarovsky, though, said he’s always tried to play that way, it’s just that in the past two-plus seasons his work is resulting in points.

“My role has never changed in all the years I’ve been here,” he said. “I have to go hard on the forecheck, win the pucks and the battles on the boards, get the puck around, maybe find somebody in the high slot for one-timers, and than just skate and hit people.”

Maurice has shown confidence in Ponikarovsky by placing him on the top line.

Ponikarovsky said he’s comfortable with Sundin, whom he has played with for most of his career in blue and white.

Now he’s also comfortable in his role as a scoring threat.

“The coach puts me out there in certain situations and I feel that he’s relying on me and I have to do things that can tie the game or win the game,” Ponikarovsky said. “I’m pushing for everything. I can create chances for the other guys. I can create chances for myself. I’m trying to be a two-way guy.”

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