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Alexander Radulov up for challenge in newest proving ground with Stars

The winger's journey to Dallas hasn't been without learning experiences, yet if anything, they drive him for more

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

His father played the game, too. Not with the big boys of Russian hockey, Red Army or Moscow Dynamo, but with the club team in his hometown.

But the slivers of memory of watching Valery Radulov play have stuck with his son Alexander all these years, just as someday his young son, not quite two, might remember his own father's hockey life, and more than remember the game -- learn it, as Alexander Radulov learned at his father's knee.

The younger Radulov, one of two boys, started skating when he was but 3 years old. He wore skates with plastic molded boots like many kids, but dreamed of nicer skates. One day, Valery returned from a road trip with a pair of Botas. The skates were so special, the blade had to be attached separately to the boot by trainers with his father's team.

"I was dreaming about them and he brought them," Radulov smiling at the memory almost three decades old. "I was kind of walking at home with them. I spend the night falling asleep. I was wearing them."

"That's kind of a funny story," he added. "I never told that to anyone. No one asked me, actually."

A year ago, he was big news having returned from a four-year stint in the Kontinental Hockey League, inking a one-year deal with Montreal.

After wowing fans and teammates alike with a 54-point season in Montreal that was good for second on the team, and having signed a five-year deal with Dallas worth $31.25 million as a free agent this summer, there is security to be sure. But there is something that follows Radulov to Texas, although exactly what that is remains harder to pinpoint.

Mystery? Skepticism? Uncertainty?

And maybe the better question isn't what follows him, but why?

Literally days into his new life as a Dallas Star, and already, Radulov has impressed coaches and management not to mention his new teammates with his vibrant attitude and work ethic. He is regularly the hardest-skating player during workouts in training camp. Often, he is the last player to leave the ice, staying on after most of his colleagues have gone to work on his shot or tip drills.

Video: Radulov, Methot and Bishop on the first day of camp

When we called recently-retired forward Vern Fiddler about Radulov, there are two things that come up instantly and without prompting: Do we know who set Radulov up for his first NHL goal? (Yes, in fact Radulov mentions that it was Fiddler). And Fiddler wants to know if Radulov is the last guy on the ice.

"I used to just love watching him in practice," Fiddler said. "He just loves hockey."

Barry Trotz, who coached both Fiddler and Radulov in Nashville and who figures largely in Radulov's story as an NHL player, said Radulov might know more about the NHL than any other player he's ever coaches -- stats, players, teams, he knows it all.

Radulov shrugs.

He's a hockey guy.

From his early years, right through his teenage years when he first began to play competitive hockey, Radulov recalls waiting expectantly for the weekly NHL highlight show that used to air in Russia.

"It would be all in Russian, and they would show on Saturday morning. I remember the exact time, 11:25 was the time, I remember it," Radulov recalled.

If he was playing somewhere, at that time, his dad would tape the show. And it wasn't his father pushing him to watch Russian stars who'd gone overseas to North America.

"I want to see. I always was dreaming about that," Radulov said. "And even those four years I was back home I still thinking that I want to come back and play. And when the time comes closer and closer I decide to myself I'm going to go and I'm going to try and come back and do everything it takes."

He grew up idolizing Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny. In 2010, he realized a dream by playing on the same line with Fedorov at the Vancouver Olympics.

We spend about 30 minutes chatting with Radulov at the team's hotel in Austin during the initial stages of training camp.

Much of that time is spent talking about the life-changing event that the birth of son, Makar, represented.

He jokes about how, after years of disregarding the devices, he was insistent that he and his wife wear their seatbelts.

Sometimes last season during commercial breaks, he'd look up in the stands at the Bell Center in Montreal to try and catch a glimpse of his son on the nights he was in attendance.

His son is currently in Moscow with his mother. Radulov's parents are helping to look after him. Radulov regularly has video chats although it pains him when he senses his son is missing him.

"I can feel that he's missing me too," Radulov said. "That really gets to me."

He is painfully aware -- more so than at any point in his life -- of the passage of time, and that every moment he doesn't share with his son is a moment that can't be recaptured.

"It's not easy. I can tell you that," he added. "Eventually he's going to make it. He's going to come here so it's just a matter of time."

The other major topic of conversation is the skepticism that greeted his return to the NHL, and the genesis of that skepticism, busting curfew during the 2012 playoffs that led to a much-publicized benching by Nashville head coach Barry Trotz, and ultimately, to his return to Russia.

The two, fatherhood and his mindset on returning to the NHL, are not mutually-exclusive topics. They are intricately intertwined. Maybe that's why Radulov is surprisingly candid about the incident even though one has to wonder whether Radulov would be under such scrutiny for a relatively minor act that took place more than five years ago if he was North American, or not, to put too fine a point on it, if he wasn't Russian.

Still, he insists, it doesn't perturb him to have to re-address what transpired more than five years ago.

"Not at all. I mean it's my life," Radulov said. "It's my life and whatever I did there I've got to live with it. You have to move on. We all do mistakes. It's. I was young. I was stupid. And I did what I did at the time, you cannot put it back."

Here's the thing, though.

When he returned to the NHL last year, and the Canadiens played in Washington where Trotz now coaches, the first thing Radulov did was seek out his old coach in his office to catch up.

Trotz laughs at the perception that he and Radulov didn't get along.

"Me and Rads had a pretty good relationship when we were there. Everybody thinks that we didn't," Trotz said.

Trotz said he felt he had to do the right thing, benching Radulov after the curfew incident. But it didn't destroy what the two had built, and it hasn't impacted Radulov's gratitude for Trotz's tutelage after he came into the NHL as the 15th-overall pick in 2004.

"I just think he's grown up," Trotz said. "He's a tremendously-skilled guy. He's very competitive."

Fiddler, who has known Radulov for years, had no compunction about helping to make the marriage between the big winger and the Stars happen.

He's more mature now, and as a father, "he sees his life a little bit differently," Fiddler said. "That's how you learn. You make mistakes and you learn from them."

The Washington head coach is good pals with Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock, and the two have spoken at length about Radulov.

"He's an instinctive player," Trotz said. "For me he's got to play with guys that kind of read off of him."

He suggests a parallel to a pure goal-scorer like Mike Modano and the structured Jere Lehtinen, who were cornerstone pieces of the Stars' dynastic teams in the late 1990s.

"He's strong as hell," Trotz said of Radulov. "And he passes on the backhand as well as anybody I've ever seen."

Radulov looks to start the season playing with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, although Hitchcock has been very candid that he believes Radulov's work ethic and compete level are infectious, he can have a positive impact in many ways on this lineup regardless of who he plays alongside.

Several NHL observers we've spoken to have wondered if Radulov will show the same snarl he showed last season, now that he's sown up a long-term deal. Again, we ask if those questions would be raised even quietly if Radulov was a North American player coming off the season he had in Montreal. We're guessing not.

Still, Radulov is self-aware.

Some teams were skeptical in spite of the fact that during his four-year absence, he was the KHL's most dominant player.

He gets it.

"For myself, when I decide to come back, and I really want to come back, thanks Montreal Canadiens to give me that chance, but there was a lot of people talking doubts," he said.

"It wasn't like I wasn't trying to not read it," he added. "It kind of pushed me even more. Who do I want to prove things to? I want to prove to myself first of all. Because I'm going to live with that. That's the more important thing for me."

Video: Stars defeat Blues 5-3 in preseason tilt

And so while he proved to everyone -- himself included -- he belonged back in the NHL. A new set of challenges lie ahead.

"It's different than I was feeling in Montreal. Still, people believe in me," Radulov said. "People give me a contract so now they waiting so I have to show up and I have to play hard and I have to be there every day even when sometimes the things not going well we have to regroup and go and work hard and just be on it and play hard."

Funny how things work. But if there are those who remain skeptical about Radulov, he is focused on the other end of the spectrum -- as in what might be possible for he and his new teammates.

He lives in the same building in Moscow as Pittsburgh's star center Evgeni Malkin and works out with the three-time Stanley Cup champion. He texted Malkin when the Penguins completed an almost unheard of back-to-back Cup run in June.

No, he hasn't been to any of Malkin's Cup parties, and in fact, remains more than a little superstitious about the trophy, just as many players who have not won. But he can imagine it, oh, yes, he can.

"One day, hockey career is going to be ended," Radulov said. "It's great to play hockey. It's great to be a hockey player. I don't want anything to stop me. I want to play until …"

He pauses, thinking for the right words.

Like Jaromir Jagr?

Radulov smiles.

"I don't want to look too far ahead," he said. "I just want to work hard and play as long as I can."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottBand listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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