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Veteran Sens blueliner Gonchar a steadying influence

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators defenceman Sergei Gonchar is more than willing to use his wealth of NHL experience to help guide some of the younger players now patrolling the blue line in Ottawa (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images).

Sergei Gonchar has seen pretty much all the highs and lows the game of hockey can offer a player.

He hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 and owns a pair of medals from the Olympic Winter Games — silver in 1998, bronze in 2002, both earned while representing his homeland of Russia.

And he’s also experienced the frustration of injuries and a playoff run cut short before its time. In short, the 37-year-old native of Chelyabinsk, Russia, is just the kind of guy that the young players now making their way onto the Ottawa Senators blue line need to lean on for advice.

Gonchar, who’s now toiling in his 16th National Hockey League season, is always more than happy to oblige when younger Senators blueliners such as Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen and David Rundblad come his way.

“I think when you’re an older guy, it’s kind of natural,” said Gonchar, who's currently sidelined with an upper body injury, but could return Friday when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200). “You’ve been around, you have some experience and you’ve played with different partners (over the years). As a younger player coming in, you don’t have that experience, you don’t have that chance to play with as many guys.

“So when you’ve been through it yourself and you see those (younger) guys going through that, you try to help them in any way you can. It kind of comes with being near the end of your career. You have that experience and you’re sharing it with the younger players.”

Make no mistake about it — Gonchar hasn’t forgotten where he came from. Way back in 1994-95, he was a shy young rookie himself in a foreign land, someone who admits he didn’t really know the English language that was prevalent in the Washington Capitals dressing room.

But thanks to veterans such as Peter Bondra, Dmitri Khristich and Calle Johansson, a youthful Gonchar soon found his way and grew into a major component of the blue-line corps in Washington and later on in Pittsburgh, where he enjoyed his greatest team successes.

“Those guys were a little bit older, they had families,” said Gonchar of the veteran help he received in Washington. “I didn’t have as many younger teammates at the time and I had to learn the language, so it was a little tougher for me. So that’s why when I see younger guys coming in now, I try to help them as much as I can. I remember how tough it was for me.”

The biggest lesson Gonchar offers now is a simple one — good things come to those who wait.

“When you’re young, you want to have everything right away,” said Gonchar, a first-round pick (14th overall) by the Capitals in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft. “During the game, you want to do things right away. Sometimes, when you’re a defenceman, you’re trying for the big hit or you’re trying to jump (up in the play) and your timing is not always good. So when you’re patient and you’re waiting for that moment to come, you’ll have that chance.

“But being patient when you’re young is probably the toughest thing to do.”

Just ask Gonchar, who’s feeling much more comfortable in his second season with a young Senators team that is competitive almost every night.

“If you look at me personally, my success is going (along) with the success of the team,” said Gonchar. “And we’ve been playing well as a team. Based on that, it’s easier for me to pick my moments and feel my partners.… I play well when everybody else is doing well.”

Gonchar's hockey resume includes four appearances in the NHL all-star game (2001, 2002, 2003 and 2008), and he's one of five Senators on the fan ballot for the 2012 mid-season affair, set for Jan. 29 at Scotiabank Place. To vote for Gonchar and his Ottawa teammates, log on to on your computer or mobile device, or text the last name of a player to 81812. Voting closes on Jan. 4.

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