The conversation was getting a little playful after about 15 minutes. It was at this point that Alexander Radulov
heard a comment that he was just beginning to become a winner with the Nashville Predators
The 21-year-old Nizhny Tagil, Russia, native's eyes opened as wide as bowling balls and a huge smile crossed his face.
"Beginning to become a winner?" he asked.
"Well, yes," I responded.
Radulov wasn't caught in the midst of a “something-is-lost-in-the-translation” scenario that might have been the case when he arrived in North America to play for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. There, for at least a couple months, he had trouble understanding conversations his teammates were having, had difficulty ordering food, and didn't have a clue about the inside jokes at parties.
"I win all the time as Predator," he said.
Confused? I know I was. At least before Alexander let me in on the joke.
Shortly after he was picked 15th overall in the first round of the 2004 Entry Draft, Radulov was living with Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy and his family while playing for Roy's Quebec team. Alexander had a great relationship with Patrick's sons, Jonathan and Fredrick. Sometimes, however, the competitive nature of their games went over the edge.
"Jonathan was a goalie and we had a good friendship, but Frederick was a forward like me and he thought he was better in a lot of things we did together," Radulov laughed. "Especially when we played PlayStation hockey. I would always win and he'd get really rattled, because I was the Predators or the Soviet national team and it didn't matter which team he chose to be."
We have watched and marveled at the skills of Russian stars like Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk show us every night. Well, Alexander Radulov is on a quick path on that same star-studded road.
Think about it for a moment. He had 11 points in one game playing for the Remparts, scored at least one point in 50-consecutive games and had five points in the deciding game of the Memorial Cup championship in 2006 after being named the Most Valuable Player of the QMJHL with 61 goals and 91 assists in just 62 games. Then, he had an impressive 18 goals as a rookie last season in just 64 games with playing an average of just 11:38 per game with the Predators.
On Feb. 12, Radulov scored his 22nd and 23rd goals to lead the Predators to a 4-2 victory against the powerful Detroit Red Wings, putting him on pace for 30-40 goals this season.
"He's got that passion (Alexander) Ovechkin has," Predators GM David Poile told me. "You see that as soon as he's on the ice, whether it's in warm-up or in practice. He wants the puck ... there's guys who play shifts where the puck is never around them, but not Radulov. He's always around it and he loves to score."
"He's a little hyper at times, but he's a young, excited kid happy to be here," captain Jason Arnott said. "He's always around the rink with a smile on his face. He's a fun guy to be around."
It's a far cry from the stereotypical dour Russians commonly seen in the NHL in years past.
"That's how my parents taught me. I'm just excited," Radulov said. "Life is all about being happy and enjoying the time you live. You play hockey. I don't understand when you can be mad or not excited to come to the rink all the time.
"I'm excited about everything with hockey. I've always been like this, since I was a little kid."
Playful. Passionate. Productive. Yet there have been hard lessons this season for the ultra-positive, 6-foot-1, 185-pound forward who sometimes dazzles you with his speed and skills and other times with his power-forward mentality.
It hasn't hurt that Radulov has been part of the one of the most productive lines in the game this season -- with Arnott at center and J.P. Dumont on left wing. But their incredible success since the beginning of December didn't work the first time coach Barry Trotz tried to put them together back in training camp.
|Radulov is first on his team in goals, having notched 23 so far this season.
"Rads was holding onto the puck too much, trying to make that great one-on-one play that he obviously was successful with in junior hockey," Dumont said. "You need good advice on trying to find your roll in the game and in a team concept."
That roll became clearer when Arnott showed him the importance of give-and-go plays and learning his defensive responsibilities at the pro level -- on the ice and on tape.
"I told him we were there to help make him a better player within the framework of the team," Arnott recalled. "I told him to give the puck to J.P. or myself and then keep his head up and drive to the net and if he was the open man, he'd get the puck back. Once he saw that work, he started showing us that he could really pass in the same give-and-go way of thinking with us driving to the net.
"He's a quick learner. Now, he comes to the bench and looks to talk about how we might work another play off something that we might have just done. You can see his creativity."
Oh, yes, there was a little learning curve for Radulov in the getting-himself-in-better-shape department coming to training camp as well. Arnott and Dumont were helpful there, but Trotz was more than crystal clear that he was not happy with his young phenom.
"A lot has changed since I came to North America. Some was clear. Some was not," Radulov admitted. "Hockey is pretty much the same, except for the smaller ice surface. I liked that. Smaller was good for me. But you can't feel as comfortable on the ice as you'd like if you are confused, trying to figure out what people are saying to you or about you. It can be hard.
"The first year I had one Russian on the team in Quebec City and he translated for me. Then he left. I was standing in the corner, staring at the walls, thinking; 'Now what?' I went to school for two months. Funny, but I figured out 'chien chaud' or hot dog wasn't the only solid food I could order at a restaurant or fast food joint."
Two months of schooling, learning a little English and a little French and that competition with Roy's boys made things a lot more comfortable.
Now, you see the playful side.
"Am I like them?" Radulov said when asked about comparisons to Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Malkin and Datsyuk. "No, I just want to be myself. Ovechkin, Malkin are great players, but you can't be the second Ovechkin, second Malkin, or second Wayne Gretzky. Right? You just try to be you."
Alexander Radulov was schooled in hockey the right way, playing for his dad, Valery, and against his brother, Igor, back home.
"My dad taught me you can never rest, never stop working," Radulov said.
He said he watched and admired the way Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny played and followed their progress closely after they left Russia for the NHL. Meanwhile, he's becoming more and more North Americanized by the day as he watches movies and TV shows to learn more and more about himself and everything going on around him.
When asked what are his favorite movies of late, Radulov quickly blurted out, American Gangster.
Hmmmm. A power-play meeting was called by Trotz, so I wasn't able to find out if there was any relevance to that choice.
Then again, that playful smile followed the announcement of that Denzel Washington movie. So, maybe Alexander Radulov was pulling my leg again. Or he was telling me how he planned to shoot up the rest of the NHL.