Coming to America

Posted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel

It’s a long way from Novokuznetsk to Washington, D.C. And it’s arguably an even longer way from playing for a KHL farm team in Russia to playing in the National Hockey League. But the pursuit of a dream knows no boundaries, and in the last several weeks, goaltender Sergey Kostenko has taken some big steps in the pursuit of his own dream. Quite simply, Kostenko’s dream is to play in the NHL. The odds are long. He’s almost 20 years old, and was bypassed in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft before the Caps took a seventh-round (203rd overall) flyer on him in the 2012 Draft. He’s small for a goaltender, just 5-foot-11 and 187 pounds. He hasn’t played at a high level for his age yet, so he’s got a lot of work and a lot of climbing to do. What he does possess is his athletic ability, a high threshold for pain, the willingness to exit his comfort zone in pursuit of his dream, and a sunny disposition. After signing a one-year deal with AHL Hershey last week, Kostenko is on his way. But there are still many hurdles; he is also recovering from shoulder surgery. “I don’t see myself progressing in Russia,” says Kostenko, via the translation of Caps senior director of media relations Sergey Kocharov. “For me to achieve my goal, it’s important for me to play in North America.” “You always need to move forward in life. I wanted to change my direction in leaving my club in Russia before [the draft]. I also wanted to play in America and try to improve myself and see how far I can go and I think this is the right step for me.” As is the case with most of the world’s top players Kostenko’s age and much younger, the Caps were familiar with his body of work and his abilities as a player. Kostenko has been playing for Kuznetskie Medvedi of the MHL (Minor Hockey League) – a KHL farm league – for the last three seasons. He was also a member of the Russian national U18 team at the 2010 World Junior Championship and the Russian national U20 team at the 2012 WJC, though he did not play in the latter tournament. [/caption] Kostenko really opened the eyes of Caps’ goaltending coach Dave Prior last November at the Subway Super Series, a tournament that featured top Canadian junior players – one team from each of the three leagues in the CHL – and a Russian team. In a Nov. 7, 2011 game against a team of QMJHL All-Stars, Kostenko made 42 saves en route to a shutout win. Although that was his only win in three games in tournament play, Kostenko posted the best save pct. and GAA of all the goalies who logged at least 60 minutes between the pipes during the tournament. Prior had been familiar with Kostenko since before he was even draft-eligible, but he tucked that game into his memory bank. As the Caps’ hockey operations staff was preparing for the 2012 Draft in Pittsburgh last month, Prior remembered the goaltender’s performance and began to wonder whether Kostenko – if the Caps were to draft him – would be interested in coming over to the States at some point and giving North American hockey a shot. This is where Kostenko’s odyssey really gets interesting. Upon learning that Kostenko was a friend of Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov, Prior asked Orlov to check with his pal and see what his future plans with hockey might entail. Unfortunately, Orlov forgot to follow through before heading home for the summer. Two weeks before the draft, Prior again tried to reach out to Kostenko. But the player did not have any North American representation, and no one could find a telephone number at which he could be reached. Kocharov phoned Orlov and got Kostenko’s number. On Fri. June 22, the Caps chose forwards Filip Forsberg and Tom Wilson with their two choices in the first round of the NHL Draft. The Caps still had eight more picks to make in rounds two through seven, which were conducted on Saturday. Washington’s staff got back to the hotel late Friday night, and Prior asked Kocharov if he would give Kostenko a call and serve as a translator. The phone call lasted for an hour. Prior wanted to know about Kostenko’s background, his family, his dreams. He also wanted to know if the young goaltender had any interest in pursuing a career in North America and if he was available to attend Washington’s summer development camp from July 9-14. Prior heard what he wanted to hear. “My dream is to play in the NHL,” said Kostenko. “What if a Russian team offers more money?” Prior queried. “I don’t play hockey for money,” was Kostenko’s response. Prior made it clear that this was simply a fact-finding mission, and there were no promises. Maybe the Caps would draft Kostenko, and maybe they wouldn’t. Saturday morning brought another hurdle. Kostenko wasn’t in the NHL’s central registry system. The Caps did their homework to make sure that Kostenko was indeed eligible to be drafted, but they waited until late in the draft to have the league list him with central registry lest any other team happen to see his name in there and select him before the Caps could do so. All went according to plan, and the Caps used the third of their three seventh-round picks – the 203rd of 211 picks overall in the draft – to take Kostenko. Kocharov called Kostenko to deliver the news. “Yes,” said Kostenko. “I am already aware. I am sitting here with [Orlov] watching the draft on my phone. Orlov said he was more nervous today than he was during his own draft!” Orlov was the 57th player – and just the second Russian – chosen overall in his draft year of 2009. When Kostenko phoned his parents to tell them the news, they didn’t believe him. They told him it was quite likely that Orlov was playing a rather large joke on him. The next hurdle was getting Kostenko to camp. Several issues arose here, the most significant of which was the need for a visa. Normally, it takes 24 business days to procure a visa for a Russian to visit the States. Katy Headman, the Caps’ ever-resourceful director of team operations, was able to pull it off in a matter of just a few days. Even so, the soonest Kostenko could get to Washington was on Tue. July 10, two days after most of his fellow development campers reported to Arlington. Kostenko flew from Novokuvnetsk to Moscow for his visa interview, then flew directly from Moscow to Dulles. Sometime in the late afternoon of July 10, Kocharov and Ian Anderson – the Caps’ manager of team services – arrived at Dulles to collect Kostenko. Kostenko had a cell phone on him, but it doesn’t work on this side of the pond. Kocharov sent Kostenko an e-mail to let him know they were waiting for him. And then Kocharov and Anderson went to baggage claim. They waited and they watched. They waited and they watched some more. Finally, Kocharov’s phone rang. It was security at Dulles. Kostenko had wandered off to the wrong terminal, and had somehow gone to the connecting flights terminal rather than to the baggage claim area. Kocharov spoke with Kostenko and told him to meet them at baggage claim. After another wait, they finally saw a waif-like kid carrying a small bag. “I think we’ve found our player,” said Anderson. The two approached Kostenko and introduced themselves. They asked if he had more luggage beyond his small duffel. “No, that’s all I brought,” was the reply. That’s all he brought in the way of personal effects. Kostenko did have a large beat up bag with wheels for transporting his goalie equipment – sans chest protector and pants – and one used Sergei Bobrovsky-model goalie stick. The three men packed up Kostenko’s belongings and headed back to Arlington. It was 6 p.m. Kostenko was then dropped at the team hotel in Arlington, and united with his roommate, Russian forward Stanislav Galiev. On Wednesday morning, Kocharov took Kostenko to his mandatory physical examination. Kostenko had told the Caps previously that he had a right shoulder ailment that was bothering him, and the Wednesday exam determined that surgery would be the best course of action. Kostenko had played through some pain with the injury all season. Once the exam was completed – the first group of development camp attendees were already on the ice while the exam was being conducted – Kostenko went to the dressing room and hurriedly dressed for his first on-ice experience as a member of the Caps’ organization. Despite having traveled for the better part of the previous two days and suffering from jet lag, Kostenko was excited to be on the ice. “I was prepared mentally before that,” says Kostenko via Kocharov’s translation. “I always believed that professional hockey players are able to play well after a long train ride or a long bus ride. I was mentally prepared to have a good showing.” As he took the crease, Kostenko met Prior and Caps associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig. Galiev – the only other Russian player in camp – had been on the ice in the first group. Kocharov stationed himself on the bench to be available for translating purposes. (The Caps put Kostenko in Galiev’s group starting on Thursday.) Norwegian netminder Steffen Soberg had suffered a groin ailment, so Kostenko was able to step right in and have a baptism under fire in practice. For a guy who had spent a good deal of the previous couple of days on an airplane, he looked pretty solid. “I think it was sort of consistent with what I had seen in him before,” says Prior of Kostenko’s work at development camp. “He is very athletic, agile and has good body control. He has quick reactions to situations. His competitiveness – which is always a quality I am looking for in guys; that ‘battle’ – looked like it’s legitimate. I had seen it in games played, but when you’re playing for a national team it’s easy to be motivated. But seeing him in practice for a number of days, I liked the way he battled in every situation. “And I would say he is coachable. Based on what Sergey [Kocharov] and I were relaying to him, he was able to make adjustments. That’s how I define coachability to these guys. It’s not just the willingness to do it right. It’s a matter of being able to take what we are suggesting and actually translate it into action and do it. He was able to do that, so that was encouraging as well.” Wednesday was the only day of development camp week in which there were no scrimmages scheduled. Kostenko was able to get his bearings a bit, and to get himself ready for his first scrimmage on Thursday. Kostenko made several brilliant stops early in Thursday’s scrimmage, some of them in short succession. He also thwarted Forsberg’s penalty shot bid, snaring it with the glove. Kostenko allowed one goal in his 30 minutes of work, facing somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 shots and several strong scoring chances. Kostenko acquitted himself well again in the Friday morning scrimmage. While the rest of the campers went on scheduled bowling outing that afternoon, Kostenko huddled with Prior in Kocharov’s office. There was talk about some of the finer points of goaltending, and Prior was also checking in to see how his young student was holding up. Kostenko reiterated his desire to play in North America, as soon as possible. Further discussions in hockey operations led to a decision to offer Kostenko a one-year AHL deal, but only if the goaltender could get out of the final season of his pact in Russia. Kostenko’s agent Mark Gandler was able to make a similar arrangement for Orlov at one point. Gandler was able to effect a mutual arrangement between Kostenko and his Russian team to forego the final year of the contract, and the goalie and the Bears agreed in principal on a one-year deal. First up, shoulder surgery. His Russian team did not want Kostenko to have surgery, and the young goaltender was thinking of trying to solicit donations for the surgery from aunts and uncles before he was drafted. Kostenko comes from a humble background; his father is a factory worker back home. “It was very difficult the whole season,” says Kostenko. “During games, it would sometimes pop out. During the season I kind of got used to the pain. But looking back, yes, it was pretty difficult.” Kostenko went under the knife last week. He now faces a rehab time of about 12-16 weeks that will likely result in him missing training camp this fall. In addition to getting a place to live, a phone, a Social Security card, a car and the other necessities of day-to-day life in the States, Kostenko must also undergo vigorous rehab on his shoulder under the watchful eyes of head athletic trainer Greg Smith and strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish. “I think what he’s done is he’s made adjustments to how he has played,” says Prior, of Kostenko’s work on the ice before surgery, “and that has made him a bit vulnerable in that area with reacting with his arm on shots high to the stick side. We saw it a number of times; he was in considerable pain. It was something that was only going to get worse according to our medical staff. He was concerned he wasn’t as good as he can be. It was essential that he get it addressed. He was in there [this week] working out. His arm is in a sling, but there are still things he can do.” Second, English lessons. Kostenko will start taking English lessons in the area soon. Galiev is back in the States preparing for training camp, giving Kostneko someone he can live with, lean on and learn from. “We had talked about getting someone to help him, “ says Prior, “and we had talked about the [teacher] that Orlov had. I am supportive of that. This is something we want him to do. He is living with Galiev now, and that will help him, too. He seems to enjoy it here, and I feel like he appreciates the fact that we appreciate him. He seems like a great kid, and that’s what you want out of these shot-in-the-dark picks.” For Kostenko, the last month or so has been a whirlwind. “It was very unexpected,” he says. “It has been a month, but it seems like the last two weeks when everything got finalized. It’s been very rewarding and great to be able to get this done and to join the team.” Kostenko posted some pictures of himself pre- and post-surgery on his Twitter account, and he seems to be adjusting well for a teenager who just underwent major surgery in a foreign country. “It was definitely strange and scary,” he admits. “It was a surgery and family is not here and I don’t really know the language. “You’ve always got to try new things in life. Of course I miss my parents. It’s a strange feeling right now. Everything is new: new time zone, new city and I don’t really know anybody. I keep in touch with my parents on Skype every evening. But if you want to go forward in life, you have to find new experiences and try to make the best of them.” Kostenko enjoyed the few days in which he was able to work with Prior and Kolzig, and looks forward to more coaching once his rehab is complete. “I am very anxious to get back on the ice,” he says. “That’s the one thing I want to do right now is go out there and work and practice. Before the surgery, I wasn’t 100 percent and was battling the injury. I can’t wait to get this rehab over with and get on the ice and see what I can do when I am 100 percent. I am very excited about that.” Although his situation is daunting, the young goaltender is happy about his decision and he still has that seemingly permanent smile etched on his face. Throughout rookie camp, and even after surgery he glows like a six-year-old on Christmas morning. “Everything,” he says, when asked what he is enjoying the most about the States so far. “The fact that I am here, the fact that I was able to get on the ice and play for an NHL team at their development camp, the fact that I had the surgery and I can be 100 percent soon and I have a chance to play in this league and I am going to do everything I can to get there.” Kostenko was passed over in his first year of draft eligibility, and taken eight slots from the end of the proceedings his second time around. He is under-sized by the standards of modern NHL goaltenders. He was chosen in the seventh round of the NHL draft, months before his 20th birthday, a birthday (Sept. 17) that he shares with Alex Ovechkin. The odds are long, for sure, but he has made some significant strides already. “He is a legitimate representative of the Russian hockey national program,” says Prior. “He has been discriminated against because of his size more than anything. And he may turn out not to be big and strong enough to do it. But there are enough qualities there that you want to see what he can do and how high up he can play to. He has some real good tools, a good personality and good coachability.” Before he left for development camp, Kostenko’s father had some final words for his son. “I don’t want to see you back here for a year.” We’ll see what Kostenko can do with that year, on and off the ice. If his dreams have anything to say about it, it will be more than a year.

next up:

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