PIESTANY, Slovakia – For those who may fondly remember the dependable two-way play of long-time pro and former Russian national team player and NHLer Andrei Nikolishin, it should come as no surprise that his son Ivan Nikolishin is the player Russian U18 national team coach Pavel Baulin has been turning to whenever anything of great importance has needed to be taken care of in the first three games of the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
With two assists and a +1 rating in the three preliminary-round games, Nikolishin has been instrumental in helping Russia earn its way to its semi-final match against Canada on the strength of a 2-1 victory over Slovakia and a convincing 7-3 victory over Finland.
Still, that stat line doesn’t come close to fairly representing his overall contributions to the team. Just about every time Russia has been on the power play, Nikolishin has been on the ice making life miserable for opposing defences.
When Russia has been shorthanded, Nikolishin has been on the ice disarming opponent power plays. If the team has found itself in any number of altercations, he has likely been in the middle of them. You talk about key face-offs? You’ve likely seen him in the face-off circle.
You notice some tempers flaring and players trash-talking? You’ve likely seen Nikolishin hanging around in the scrum. In fact, in Russia’s victory over Finland, he practically found himself tangled up with a player right on Finland’s bench during a line change only to then take a shot a few seconds later that went into and then out of the opposition net so quickly that neither the goal judge nor the on-ice officials had noticed it went in.
Yep, that’s just a shift like any other for Nikolishin.
Now surely, representing Russia at any international ice hockey event is no small feat for anyone. This achievement seems even more daunting when you take the size of the country and its love for the sport into account, but the national jersey is all that more difficult to find your way into when you’re born in another country, much less the United States of America.
This is nonetheless exactly where the young forward was born, namely right in the State of Connecticut on 12th April 1996, an event that transpired due to his father Andrei having played professionally for the Hartford Whalers at that time. Ivan Nikolishin would end up spending the bulk of his first seven years of life in the USA, including a stint in the greater Washington DC metropolitan area before moving to Russia at the age of seven after having completed the first grade.
Ever since then, Nikolishin has been living and playing in Russia. He spent this past season playing for Krasnaya Armia Moscow, the junior team of CSKA Moscow in the MHL, a league in which he played against young men up to five years his senior. There he managed to accumulate 11 goals and 23 points in 53 games.
“It was a tough year. The coach didn’t let us play very much considering how young I and the guys in my line were. He didn’t or couldn’t invest his trust in us. We did finally get to play some more towards the end of the season and this afforded me some important experience,” the 17-year-old said.
That experience has proven vital in moving up the ranks to the point of now representing his country at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
Through the years though, the ties to North America have never dissipated.
“I’m still in the States almost every year and I will be there again soon. In fact, I would very much like to play in the CHL and will be attending training camp with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips this fall,” he said.
This might lead one to wonder if Nikolishin actually had any special feelings or emotions about lacing up his skates against Team USA and the group of players they’re featuring here in Piestany.
“To be honest, there are no particular emotions about playing against the USA worth mentioning. It’s a team – a good team – but a team like every other and I want to beat them like everyone else. I want to beat every team we play. I might have seen some of their players along the way somewhere, but I don’t know anybody by name, much less personally. It’s a team full of opponents that we have to beat if we want the gold in this tournament.”
Like many players whose fathers enjoyed pro careers, a lot of his father’s game can be seen in his own. Nikolishin is a responsible two-way forward who can deke out opponents in a telephone booth just as well as he can back-check relentlessly. He plays very well all over the ice, especially along the boards, and displays strong puck protection skills. He is able to stand up against physical pressure and find his teammates on the ice with pinpoint accurate passes.
Much of his game is very complete, even if unspectacular, but his playing style isn’t the only thing being influenced by his father.
“He’s like my agent. He has a big influence. When it comes to me and my immediate future, he feels my best route would be to take a shot at playing in the WHL. He feels that if I don’t do it now, then I may never do it and then I may one day look back and wonder what could have been,” he said.
“Now I can go over there and give it my all. If things don’t work out as hoped, I can always come back and continue my development in the MHL. The decision makers have let me know that I’d be welcome back with open arms.”
As any good agent would, the elder Nikolishin is watching his youngest son and client right here in Piestany, keeping a watchful eye on his boy’s progress. He’s headed down for the back leg of the tournament and he’s not alone either.
“I’d like to give a ‘Happy Birthday’ shout out to my younger sister, who herself plays tennis, as well as my older brother back home who is also in the MHL. My father, mother and sister are actually here at the tournament, so I’ll be seeing them shortly. I’m sure they’ll have a few comments in tow about what they saw on the ice in our last game.”
Nikolishin is one of eight players on this Russian entry to the Ivan Hlinka Tournament who have options to head over to North America to play in the CHL this upcoming season. Many of them, like Nikolishin, have confirmed that they’re planning on making use of that option and they’d not be the first. A number of extremely talented Russian-born players have been making use of this option in recent years including no less than recent highly ranked NHL draft picks Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko.
For many, this trend is somewhat confusing in light of the growth of the KHL game in Russia and the continual expansion of the league into the heart of Europe. This curiosity is compounded by a name as big as Ilya Kovalchuk leaving North America and a huge contract right in his prime in order to head home and play in the KHL.
The young Nikolishin has seen life on both sides of the Atlantic, knowing very well what’s required of pros at the top level in North America and in Russia. It’s a perspective few players of his age can possibly have in such an intimate capacity. But this isn’t much of a concern for him in the here and now.
“For real, I don’t really think about the current international climate and the challenges that the NHL and KHL present to each other, much less where is better to play. I have to think about what’s best for my development as a complete player in the future and right now, at this moment, I’m thinking solely about how I can help my team win here at this tournament. That’s all I’m really giving any thought to at the moment.”
With that of focus, and a game that is eerily similar to the one that once led his father to a career as a Russian national team player and NHLer, it’s little wonder his coach has been leaning on him to deliver and lead the way for Russia in any and all situations throughout this tournament.
Spectators shouldn’t expect any less when Russia faces off against Canada in the semi-finals in Piestany on Friday.
Group A in Breclav (CZE): Czech Republic, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland
Group B in Piestany (SVK): Slovakia, Finland, Russia, USA
Schedule & Scores:
Monday, 5 August 2013
In Piestany (14:00): Finland vs. USA 3-2 OT
In Breclav (15:30): Switzerland vs. Sweden 3-2
In Piestany (17:30): Slovakia vs. Russia 1-2
In Breclav (19:00): Czech Republic vs. Canada 0-4
Tuesday, 6 August 2013
In Piestany (14:00): USA vs. Russia 4-2
In Breclav (15:30): Sweden vs. Canada 4-3
In Piestany (17:30): Slovakia vs. Finland 1-5
In Breclav (19:00): Czech Republic vs. Switzerland 4-3 SO
Wednesday, 7 August 2013
In Piestany (14:00): Russia vs. Finland 7-3
In Breclav (15:30): Canada vs. Switzerland 4-3 SO
In Piestany (17:30): Slovakia vs. USA 2-5
In Breclav (19:00): Czech Republic vs. Sweden 5-2
Friday, 9 August 2013
7th-place game in Piestany (14:00): Sweden vs. Slovakia
5th-place game in Breclav (15:30): Finland vs. Switzerland
Semi-final in Piestany (17:30): Canada vs. Russia
Semi-final in Breclav (19:00): USA vs. Czech Republic
Saturday, 10 August 2013
Bronze medal game
Gold medal game