Russian hockey players a fascination for me

If you happened to have seen me around town over the last month, you might have noticed I had grown some horrendous-looking facial hair.
I’m now clean-shaven once again, which is something my family back in Sault Ste. Marie is quite pleased to hear. But the reason why I was growing a “hobo beard” is quite an interesting tale.
Back in June, the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds pulled off a bit of a surprise in the CHL’s annual import draft by selecting highly-skilled Russian forward Sergei Tolchinsky, who helped his country capture the gold medal at last winter’s World under-17 Hockey Challenge in Windsor.
While it’s usually the bigger-name teams like London or Windsor that seem to get the top names in the import draft, the fact the Greyhounds were able to pick him seemed like a risk, especially when it sounded like Tolchinsky would not report.
So with that in mind, and mainly because I’m a bit crazy to begin with, I decided to not shave until either Tolchinsky joined the Greyhounds or his rights were traded to another team.
Granted, I wasn’t confident he was going to arrive in this country. But after a few weeks, it seemed the chances of Tolchinsky playing in the OHL were quite likely.
And when the 16-year-old announced via Twitter last week that he would be joining the Greyhounds, I might have been the most excited person to shave off a beard in quite some time.
But why would someone like me have this much interest in a player who has never played in the OHL, let alone one that not many people have heard of?
It’s simple, really. It’s because he’s Russian.
While there are a number of Canadian players I’m a big fan of, along with a few American talents I like to keep my eye on, the minute I hear about a young prospect who is from Russia, my interest immediately begins to skyrocket.
I think a lot of the reason for that dates back to when I was a kid and I saw Pavel Bure basically destroy defences with a quickness in his skating and stick-handling that I haven’t seen since.
Because of that, I’ve had a soft spot for a number of Russian players over the years, with last year’s Hart Memorial Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, St. Louis Blues’ prospect Vladimir Tarasenko, and recent first overall pick Nail Yakupov among my favourites.
To me, the Russians play the game with a type of flare (some would say “arrogance”) that make them very hard to ignore.
In a sense, it reminds me of the way that many view the Brazilian men’s soccer team heading into any big international tournament. They are seen as a club that has a ton of offensive flair and are aesthetically pleasing on the eye.
Now, I’m sure there any many readers of this column who are ready to label me as a “card-carrying Communist” for supporting any Russian player. But in my opinion, that time where everyone hated the Russians has started to change a little bit, at least among my age group.
For my generation, I think it’s safe to say that the one country we want to Canada to beat time and time again among all others is the United States, which is seen first-hand every holiday season at the world junior hockey championships.
While it’s safe to say that the Russians are still a team that many want to see lose (there’s a reason why the entire crowd in Calgary was cheering for Sweden in last year’s world junior final), I think the pure hatred that was rampant during the Cold War isn’t much of a factor these days.
In reality, with the world increasing becoming more of a global village, who sports fans support no longer is confined to just a local team.
Whether it be because that team is successful, or because of a certain player on that team, there is more of a choice of what we, as fans, can like more than ever.
That’s why I feel more at ease in saying that I would prefer watching a Russian player nine times out of 10 in this current climate, as opposed to before when I probably would be run out of town.