|"I am very excited," says Volchenkov. "This will be the first time in the Olympics for me. I played before in the world championships and the World Cup, but the Olympics is much bigger."|
by Karl Samuelson | NHL.com correspondent
Feb. 11, 2006
National symbols are intended to unite a nation by creating a visual representation of the people, their values and their history. America has its bald eagle, Canada the maple leaf, the Czech Republic its lion, and Germany a black eagle. These symbols are rallied around during patriotic celebrations and are often used in sports commentaries to reflect perceived national characteristics.
Considering that the national symbol of Russia is the bear, it is not surprising that the metaphorical term "Russian Bear" is affectionately credited to Anton Volchenkov, the sturdy defenseman of the Ottawa Senators who will soon be pulling on the jersey of Team Russia.
"We call him the 'Bear' because when he hits, he hurts people," says Ottawa winger Chris Neil. "If you are coming in with your head down, he will put you on your backside in a hurry. He anticipates the play, reads it well, blocks a lot of shots and is one of the guys that really hits hard. He does everything and it's always team first for Anton Volchenkov."
That's good news for Team Russia, who will look to the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Moscow native to help form the backbone of their defense.
"I am very excited," says Volchenkov. "This will be the first time in the Olympics for me. I played before in the World Championships and the World Cup, but the Olympics is much bigger. Our team will have good defense with Darius Kasparaitis, Alexei Zhitnik and Danny Markov, and we have very good forwards and solid goaltending. I feel good about the team. I will bring strong defense and try to help the forwards."
Volchenkov joins a bumper crop of young defensemen around the NHL who see the ice well, move the puck effectively and have good size. But young defensemen have to respond to various tests. They are tested by the strength and skill of their opponents, and by the situations on the ice. While most teams avoid putting undue pressure on their young defenders to make a sudden impact, some players have earned a heavy workload by virtue of their ability to consistently pass those tests.
"They've been given the opportunity to play and they've responded positively," explains Tom Thompson, chief amateur scout with the Minnesota Wild. "In today's game, the ability of the defenseman to join the offense is becoming more important than ever. There is still a huge role for your classic, stay-at-home, hard-hitting blueliner because every team has to have that type of defenseman too."
Volchenkov is a young defender who possesses both attributes -- the ability to contribute offensively while playing a relentlessly aggressive game.
"He's done a great job," says teammate Chris Kelly. "Anton always seems to find the open ice hit that keeps teams on their toes. But he is not just an open-ice hitter. He can contribute both defensively and offensively. He makes great first passes and handles the puck extremely well. Anton has good hands and played on the power play last year down in Binghamton (AHL) and was one of our guys in the shootouts. He's definitely got some offensive upside."
The Senators' first pick (21st overall) of the 2000 Entry Draft is a mainstay on the blue line not because of a shortage of good defensemen on the team -- Ottawa has depth on defense equal to any NHL rival. Volchenkov has earned his spot and carries a presence on the ice that belies the fact that he is only 23 years of age.
Volchenkov provides steady defense and gives the Russians a young presence on the blue line.
"He is a real steady guy," says head coach Bryan Murray. "I think he is a real good defensive defenseman, a hard-hitter and a decent skater. He hasn't had the opportunity to play on our power play and get points but he has played well and is among the top four defensemen on a pretty good defensive corps. The big thing that Anton now has to do to get to the next step is work on his puck skills. That means getting quicker passing the puck out of our end, maybe be a little quicker sliding on the offensive blue line and doing things to allow him to get the puck through more often."
The rise of the Senators as a premier hockey team is closely correlated with the development of their talented prospects. Consistent with team philosophy, no young player is rushed along in the Ottawa system.
"When you look around this dressing room, you can see the talent that the scouting staff recognized earlier," says veteran center Bryan Smolinski. "Anton is a big kid, he hits hard, he is young and he's one of the guys that came out of their draft. He is a pure raw talent and is real steady out there. Marty Havlat showed the same poise early in his career, as did Jason Spezza and the list goes on. These young players are fortunate to have such a great core of (established) players around them. Only four or five other teams offer the same thing. They certainly have it here in Ottawa and it's great to be part of it."
Volchenkov is driven to excel and has the pedigree to back up his ambition. Anton is the son of hockey standout Alexei Volchenkov, who played for the legendary Red Army team that participated in the 1975 Super Series. So dominant were the Russians, only one NHL team -- the Philadelphia Flyers -- proved superior to the visiting club. Like his father, Anton is a powerful physical force with an incredible desire to compete in the international arena.
"The one thing that they (Team Russia) will get from Anton is he is a really competitive guy," says Murray. "Anton plays well every night, he plays when he's hurt and he doesn't make mistakes by getting caught up ice or allowing odd-man rushes."
The Russian goalies will love having Volchenkov in front of them. Just take it from Senators stopper Ray Emery. "Anton is a physical defenseman who steps up and makes huge hits," concludes the Senators stopper. "He makes great passes and can see the ice very well. He is such a good defensive defenseman, but he provides offense in certain situations as well. I've watched him play in the World Junior Championships and I know he is outstanding in international play. Anton will be great on the Russian team."