CHEREPOVETS, Russia - He wasn't the typical Russian player in the NHL. Dmitri Yushkevich did not dazzle opponents with blazing speed and tricky moves. Instead, he was a strong, rugged defenceman and expert shot-blocker.
At the age of 36, Yushkevich was forced to say goodbye to the game after the tragic death of his first wife in California. With three children to take care of there was no room left for hockey. The 5-4 loss with Severstal Cherepovets at Amur Khabarovsk on January 8 will remain his last hockey game.
"I should pay more attention to my children and I couldn't combine my career with family troubles," said Yushkevich to Russian newspaper Sport-Express. "I thought about this problem for a long time and decided that I need to stick to one job because I need to bring up my children. I didn't want to come up the ice with all my thoughts concentrated on my children so the only way out was to finish my career when the season is in full swing."
The Cherepovets-born defenceman went through a lot during his career, which lasted 20 years over three decades.
His talent was discovered at a young age. He participated in three World Junior Championships for the Soviet Union from 1989-1991, grabbing a gold medal in his debut year followed by a pair of silvers.
In 1991, he was drafted in the sixth round of the NHL Entry Draft by Philadelphia. It was somewhat ironic he, along with Andrei Lomakin, was drafted by the team after owner Ed Snider had vowed never to have a Russian player play for the Flyers (unless defecting) to protest against the Soviet human rights situation.
The year he entered the NHL he also captured a gold medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics. Yushkevich didn't need much time to adapt, and instantly became a vital part of the Flyers' defence where he was nicknamed "The Russian Tank".
After three seasons, he was traded to Toronto, where he became a fan favourite. Yet, it was something he never anticipated at the time of the trade. "I was crying on the way home," Yushkevich recalled. "I was so sad to get traded from my first team. I really cared about this team. It was the first team that opened the door for me."
Valued for his competitiveness and dedicated physical approach, Yushkevich played seven consecutive seasons in one of the NHL's hotbeds. Under the guidance of coach Pat Quinn, Yushkevich initially blossomed. Quinn praised his defensive skills and leadership and trusted him to defend Jaromir Jagr during the 1999 playoff series against Pittsburgh. Never failing in commitment, Yushkevich finished the job with flying colours as the Maple Leafs eliminated the Penguins in six games.
A year later, Yushkevich was given nationwide respect resulting in an invitation to the NHL All-Star Game. He played two more seasons for the Leafs before he was traded to the Florida Panthers. It was again a move that Yushkevich had a hard time accepting. He admitted later by questioning the integrity of the Leafs management stating: "The most honest person in the (Leafs) organisation is Carlton the Bear (the organisation's mascot) because he never says anything."
His spell in Florida didn't last long as the defenceman soon found himself skating in Los Angeles. Later he returned to Philadelphia, his third team that season. "I was in Toronto for six years and now I'm on two teams in two months. It has been very strange. I don't like that, that's not me. I like stability. This doesn't seem like a normal life," said Yushkevich at the time.
At the end of that season he returned home to play in Russia where he re-joined his former team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Blessed with over a decade of NHL experience, the return to his homeland was anything but smooth.
"The transition was much harder here than 11 years ago when I went to Philadelphia because there, the only problem I had was I didn't speak English at all," Yushkevich said. "When I got here, I was hoping a lot had changed, but in fact nothing has changed."
Yushkevich was faced with the 'old regime' still in charge of the coaching positions. He called it 'totalitarianism'. Still being treated like a teenager, he was told how to practice and live. Well in his thirties, Yushkevich felt he would know himself, what was good for him. He publicly hyped the new generation coaches like Vyacheslav Bykov and Fedor Kanareykin, stating they could "modernise Russian hockey".
Yushkevich cheering in the Maple Leafs jersey. Photo: HHoF/Dave Sandford
After that disappointing season, Yushkevich left for his hometown team Severstal before joining Metallurg Magnitogorsk. There, he set a Russian record by becoming the first defenceman to score a hat trick in the playoffs. On top of that, he recorded 36 points for the season, an all-time team high for a defenceman.
This season, Yushkevich returned to Severstal Cherepovets. He planned to finish his career where it all started. Although stopping hockey would be a tough decision for him. He had never been a quitter.
A famous story is that Yushkevich once drove the Maple Leafs doctors and coaching staff to madness when he was not allowed to play due to a life-threatening blood clot in his leg. The clot could move up to his head causing "a blood explosion". But Yushkevich wanted to take the risk in order to make it back on the team in time for the playoffs.
"I said 'Yes, I'm going to play. I accept the risk.' There's risk every time you step on the ice. I just love hockey so much." It will remain a question of what would have happened, but Yushkevich was not cleared and as a result of the injury also missed the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. A fact which he described as the "biggest disappointment" of his career.
At that time, his wife showed her unhappiness with Dmitri's willingness to take the risk as she claimed he ignored paternal responsibility for their triplets. Now, at the age of 37, Yushkevich takes that responsibility and can live with the fact that he'll miss a hockey game.
- Yushkevich is an 11-year NHL veteran with over 1200 games played at professional level.
- On the international stage, he participated in two Olympic Games (1992 and 1998, silver medal). Furthermore he was active in five World Championships (1992, 1993, 1994, 1998 and 2004) and he was a member of the 1996 World Cup team.
- In 1989, Yushkevich made the Soviet Union junior team that would play in Anchorage, Alaska. Being the youngest member on the team along with Pavel Bure, he made an instant appearance on the first line that included Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny, and captured gold.
- The gold proved his only one at the junior stage as the next two years, last-minute goals saw the Soviets lose to Sweden and Finland in 1990 and 1991.
- He was named to the 1991 World Junior Championship Tournament All-Star team and was honoured as best defenceman of the 1993 World Championship.
- This season, Yushkevich posted two assists in 29 games for Severstal Cherepovets, which is ranked 11th in the 20-team Russian Superliga.