QUEBEC CITY – Russia’s rivalry with Canada is the most storied and bitter in international hockey history. But when Alexander Radulov takes to the ice in Quebec City at the 2008 Worlds, he’s a hero.
Currently with the Nashville Predators, Radulov first made his name in North America with the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts. This is like a homecoming for the flashy forward.
“I’m going to see a lot of friends," Radulov told reporters. “The main [thing] for me is to be here and win something. I love to be in Quebec, back here, but hockey's first.”
That attitude has served him well over the years.
As improbable as it might sound for a 21-year-old right winger to have his jersey retired, that’s what the Remparts did with Radulov’s #22 in November 2007. To put it in perspective, the only other two numbers accorded that honour have been Guy Lafleur’s #4 and Simon Gagné’s #12.
The Nizhni Tagil native racked up a team record 61 goals and 91 assists in his second season with the junior club, and then led his teammates to the 2006 Memorial Cup. “Radu” was named the Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year after winning the QMJHL scoring crown and posting a 50-game point streak, the second-longest in QMJHL history after Mario Lemieux’s 60. His swashbuckling style gained him notoriety, as he used to skate in front of the opposing team’s bench after scoring a goal, twirling his stick like D’Artagnan on skates and shoving it into an imaginary scabbard.
Radulov loved playing for coach Patrick Roy, the Hall-of-Fame former NHL netminder noted for his flamboyant personality. “He's a winner, and that’s what he brings to us,” Radulov said once.
Radulov’s five-point performance during the 6-2 Memorial Cup victory over the Ted Nolan-coached Moncton Wildcats was arguably the high point of his career to date. (It wasn’t his biggest single-game offensive outburst, though: that came in a 16-3 win over Rimouski in March 2006, where he tallied 11 points, the second-highest total in Canadian junior history after Remparts forward André Savard’s 12 points in a 1971 game.) The victory came on Moncton ice, adding to Radulov’s well-deserved reputation for doing damage to both Canadian teams and host teams.
At the 2004 IIHF World U18 Championship in Minsk, Belarus, he had three assists in a 5-2 semi-final win over Canada, and then earned a gold medal versus the USA in the final.
Later that year, while playing on a line with Roman Voloshenko and Mikhail Yunkov during the annual Canada/Russia Challenge junior series, Radulov scored in regulation and a shootout on two straight occasions to lead a Russian select team past QMJHL all-stars.
Radulov didn’t fare so well when his U20 teams met Canada in the 2005 and 2006 gold medal games in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Vancouver, British Columbia, respectively. Both times he was forced to settle for silver. But he was one of Russia’s more dangerous forwards in the 2006 finale, memorably rattling a laser off the crossbar behind goalie Justin Pogge in a Russian-dominated first period.
The 186-cm, 92-kg sniper is coming off his second season with Nashville with 26 goals and 32 assists, as he continues to adapt his talent to the NHL game. There’s also a learning curve for him at the IIHF World Championship. He debuted last year in Moscow with two goals in nine games en route to bronze. So far in Quebec City, he’s earned one assist in two appearances while averaging nine minutes a game, the lowest amount of ice time on the team.
“I wouldn’t say I played badly or well,” Radulov said after his first tournament appearance versus the Czechs on Sunday. “I tried to do my best and be conscientious defensively.”
“I’m going to try to give him ice time,” said Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov. “He didn’t play much in the first two periods [on Sunday], but that’s simply because there were too many penalties.”
Radulov’s Quebec City connections came in handy when Russia found itself with just one healthy goalie in Mikhail Biryukov. He contacted former Remparts teammate Kevin Desfosses about filling in between the pipes at practice until the arrival of Evgeni Nabokov from San Jose.
If Radulov’s frustrated about not contributing more, he’ll just have to be careful about getting overly physical. Both foes and teammates have suffered inadvertently from his exuberance.
In the 2007 playoffs, he hit San Jose’s Steve Bernier from behind and was handed a one-game suspension. This year, he leaped on Jason Arnott after the Nashville captain had scored the game-winner in Game Three of their first-round series against Detroit, and Arnott wound up with a concussion. (In fairness, the veteran Canadian centre had also taken a puck off his helmet earlier that night. And when asked what Radulov might do to make it up to him, Arnott quipped: “Next year, he’s going to carry my bags.”)
When Radulov attended the 2007 NHL All-Star Game in Dallas as a participant in the YoungStars Game, he said he wished he could meet Sergei Fedorov there. The highest-scoring Russian in NHL history wasn’t part of those festivities, but Fedorov is now a teammate here in Quebec City. It’s a great chance for one of the world’s most exciting young talents to learn about what it takes to win at the highest level.
If the Canada-Russia “dream final” takes place on May 18 at the Colisée, Radulov just might get to sting the hosts once again.