"I'm a different player. I'm not as powerful as he is and I don't shoot the puck as much as he does. I'm more of a dangler. I can play physical. I don't think I can run guys over like he does, but I can hold my own. I definitely don't want to be cheap, but there are no friends on the ice." -- Nikita Kashirsky on boyhood friend Alex Ovechkin
South Carolina Stingrays rookie forward Nikita Kashirsky
had all the ingredients of a good hockey player in the making from an early age.
A dash of creativity in the bloodlines? Check. Kashirsky's mother, Marina, is an artist and a fashion designer.
Game sense, both detailed and big-picture? Got it. His father, Sergei, is a former goalie and now works as a hockey agent.
Superstar-to-be childhood friend who sets a standard to pursue every day of your career? Covered there, too. Kashirsky has been best buddies with fellow Moscow native Alexander Ovechkin since they both were barely old enough to hold a stick.
The motivation to follow his role model into the NHL? What do you think?
"If my friend makes it, it definitely puts it in perspective. If he can make it, so can I," said Kashirsky, 24. "It's pretty exciting to have him as a friend. He's out there in the NHL right now. It's inspiring that I can do the same thing."
Kashirsky may be a ways off from that level, but he's quickly outgrowing the ECHL. He paces league rookies in goals (17) is tied for first in game-winning goals (5) and is tied for second in points (30) for a Stingrays lineup that recently ripped off a 13-game winning streak.
Equally important is how Kashirsky puts the backbone in a team trying to repeat as Kelly Cup champs. Although not in Ovechkin's ballpark skill-wise, Kashirsky has noted his former youth hockey teammate's perpetual bad mood on the ice and tries to bring that same sandpaper to his game.
"I think what I learned is just to be ready to play every day. Definitely you want to come out every day and sacrifice for the team," Kashirsky said.
"One thing they have in common is they are both pretty intense players," said Stingrays coach Cail MacLean
. "He (Kashirsky) will take bodies, battle hard, backcheck hard. That's a quality in Nikita he needs to cultivate and continue. It's tough to make the NHL purely on skill."
While Kashirsky likes to carry the play to others on the ice, in his free time he prefers to sit back and check things out as an avid tourist. One afternoon last week he was preparing a sightseeing swing for himself and his girlfriend through Charleston.
Wherever he goes, Kashirsky tries to gain an appreciation of the local culture. When he first came to the United States several years ago, for instance, he visited with his brother in Philadelphia. That required a sampling of cheese steaks and a trip to the Rocky statue.
"I'm very curious," Kashirsky said. "It was nice to see stuff you see in the movies when you were a little kid."
That same urge to skate past boundaries led Kashirsky to North America in the first place. He said in Moscow, young hockey players are often fast-tracked in their sport at the expense of being well rounded. Kashirsky wanted to play and learn at the same time, so he explored the United States college scene and found a spot at Norwich.
"I didn't want to just play hockey," he said. "I wanted to do both (play and study) at the same time. I didn't want to be one-sided. You can get an education (in Moscow), but it's not the same as here."
Kashirsky made an immediate dent at Norwich, going 19-23 as a freshman. Was it the skills or was it the tools? Kashirsky used to wow his teammates when Ovechkin hooked him up with sticks that had the exact same curve design he used.
"It was pretty exciting. A lot of guys were like, that's insane you're friends with him," Kashirsky said.
Getting some lumber from Ovechkin and then using it like he does are two entirely separate matters. In temperament and talent, Kashirsky has always tried to watch what his friend does and then mold whatever he can to his own game.
"It's definitely something to learn from. But I'm a different player. I'm not as powerful as he is," Kashirsky said. "And I don't shoot the puck as much as he does. I'm more of a dangler. I can play physical. I don't think I can run guys over like he does, but I can hold my own. I definitely don't want to be cheap, but there are no friends on the ice."
Sudden impact takes many different forms. Kashirsky showed he could quickly help change the look of a team when he joined the Stingrays last season. He came in for the last 13 games of the regular season, contributing 3 goals and 4 assists. He then shook off the pressure of a title run with 6 goals and 12 assists in 21 playoff contests.
"My first game (when he got there), right off the bat, I was nervous. But I adjusted pretty quick to that," Kashirsky said. "The playoffs came, everyone started putting up points. That took the pressure off."
When MacLean came aboard this year, he made it clear to Kashirsky that he'd need to play far more than a complementary role. Kashirsky didn't have to be told twice.
"He sees the ice well. He has a good shot, and he gets it off a fair amount," MacLean said. "He doesn't throw pucks on net from bad areas of the ice, which is good. He's pretty good at moving into space and creating opportunities for himself."
When those opportunities pay off, Kashirsky said he's been known to channel Ovechkin in another area as well: celebratory fireworks.
"Sometimes I get like that, if it's a big game," he said. "If I haven't had a goal in awhile, I'll get some emotion into it."