WINNIPEG – Nikolai Antropov remains the first and only proud Kazakh skater to make a lasting impact in the NHL to this day.
The 33-year-old hails from Ust-Kamenogorsk, a city with a large ethnic Russian population in the east of the country near the border with Russia and China. The city is known in most circles as a large mining hub for minerals such as Uranium and Zinc, but people there will tell you instead that it is a hockey town and rightfully so.
Ust-Kamenogorsk has produced more than half of the current players on the country’s national team, as well as nine players with NHL experience in Yevgeni Nabokov, Anton Khudobin, Konstantin Pushkaryov, Dimitri Pätzold, Konstantin Shafranov, Vitali Kolesnik, Vitali Yeremeyev, Alexander Perezhogin, and of course Nik Antropov.
Antropov is the only player on that list to have a successful career in the NHL while keeping his Kazakh nationality in the process. Nabokov for example is one of the best goalkeepers in the world to this day but competes for Russia internationally like most other players mentioned on the list.
So how did this city in Kazakhstan produce so many talented hockey players?
Former New Jersey Devils draft pick Max Birbraer, who currently plays with the Cardiff Devils of the British EIHL and was born in Ust-Kamenogorsk but now represents Israel internationally, claims the biggest reason for the city’s success was that “the hockey school in Ust-Kamenogorsk was considered one of the best in the USSR at the time, it was our hockey town in Kazakhstan if you will.”
Birbraer knew from a young age that Antropov was very talented and could go places in the hockey world. In one U18 international game against Iceland, Nik scored 11 goals and 26 points which garnished some attention from NHL scouts for the first time.
Birbraer would go on to talk about his childhood friend saying: “I grew up with him. We were on the same team since we were kids and were in the same class in school throughout childhood until I was 16 when my family immigrated to Israel. Nik was also my captain for as long as I remember when playing hockey together. I ran into Nik a couple times at World Junior tournaments while playing for Israel and him for Kazakhstan. I didn’t get to see him again till later in our lives in Toronto where he was playing for the Maple Leafs and I was living there playing junior hockey full time. I also had the privilege of attending his wedding in Toronto.”
Nikolai was originally slated to be a second or third round pick but after an impressive World Juniors in 1998 where his Kazakh team pulled off one of the biggest upset in tournament history by beating Canada 6-3 and a strong season with his hometown team Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk of the second-tier Russian league he became the highest draft pick ever from Kazakhstan when the Toronto Maple Leafs selected him 10th overall at the 1998 NHL Entry Draft.
After being drafted, the 198 cm (6’6) power forward spent the next year playing among men with powerhouse Dynamo Moscow in Russia. He also represented Kazakhstan at the 1999 World Juniors in Winnipeg, which was a memorable tournament for him scoring eight points in six games which was top for his team.
The next season Antropov made his NHL debut for the Leafs on 13th October 1999 picking up an assist against the Florida Panthers. A few months later on 20th December he would record his first career NHL hat trick also against the Panthers. His rookie season was respectable for the most part scoring 30 points in 66 games.
Antropov struggled with injuries early in his career and didn’t reach his full potential as a top-ten draft pick until the 2003/04 season when Toronto coach Pat Quinn formed a very successful line that was named “Skyline” due to each player’s tall stature with Olexi Ponikarovsky and Joe Nieuwendyk. In 2006/07 when Nieuwendyk left the team, “Antro” and “Poni” were put on a top line with current Hall of Famer Mats Sundin where they wreaked havoc on opposing goaltenders.
In February 2006, Antropov would represent his country of Kazakhstan at the Olympics for the first and only time so far in his career. He was one of two NHLers at the time on the Kazakh roster, the other being goaltender Vitali Kolesnik of the Colorado Avalanche. The Kazakhs would finish ninth out of 12 teams and Antropov scored a goal in their last game against Latvia which was a 5-2 win. The 2006 Olympics were the last time Antropov suited up for his country to this date.
Antropov ended up spending nine seasons in total with the Maple Leafs organization (2000 to 2009) until he was traded at the 2008/09 trade deadline to the New York Rangers where he would play just 18 regular season games and 7 playoff games in a Rangers uniform. In the off-season as an unrestricted free agent he signed a four-year, $16.25 million contract with the then Atlanta Thrashers.
In his first season with the Thrashers (2009/10) he put up his best numbers by far in the NHL to date taking on a star role with the team scoring 24 goals and 67 points in the process. The Thrashers would relocate to Winnipeg for the start of the 2011/12 season and Antropov would score the first goal in the history of the “new” Winnipeg Jets in their opening game against the Montreal Canadiens.
When the NHL was shut down due to the labour conflict in the beginning of the season, Antropov went overseas back to his home country of Kazakhstan to play for the Barys Astana, the KHL squad from the country’s capital city.
It was a bit of a reunion for Antropov playing with many of his fellow Kazakhs he once played in juniors with. He is now back playing in the NHL with his Winnipeg Jets and is looking to make his first post-season appearance since his brief stint with the Rangers in 2009.
Because of his long, extensive career playing in the NHL, Antropov has played a big role in helping out with putting Kazakhstan on the NHL map.
Kazakhstan will be competing at the upcoming 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest, Hungary, and aim for promotion without its NHL star.
IIHF.com’s Ty Dilello caught up with Nik Antropov in the dressing room after a practice with his Winnipeg Jets.
How was life growing up in Ust-Kamenogorsk?
It was great. It’s a hockey town so that’s why I’m here right now playing in the NHL, so it was good.
How did you start playing hockey and at what age?
Age 4 or 5 I believe. My dad and I were at the Sports Palace and they were getting people to play in the hockey group so that’s how I started.
At what age did you think that you could play hockey for a living?
Never thought of that, still thinking. (Laughs)
Who was your childhood idol growing up?
Why has your hometown produced so many good hockey players over the years?
Well it was one of the best hockey schools in the whole USSR. Lots of guys came out of that school playing in every top league in the world. I’m not sure why but I guess it was a good hockey school, they had good coaching back then and I guess that is the result of it.
Why do you think that so many Kazakhstani hockey players have switched nationalities and played for Russia internationally?
Well it was a difficult time in the mid-90s. The school wasn’t doing well at the moment and lots of top players were going to Russia. I guess they were seeing bigger opportunities there and coaches were leaving too. Money was the main issue. There was not much money in Kazakhstan back then when it became an independent country. Some coaches took their top 7-10 guys like Perezhogin and Khudobin to Russia to play. So that was the only reason why.
Do you remember playing in Winnipeg at the 1999 World Juniors? (8 points in 6 games)
It was a good tournament; I remember it like it was yesterday! It was a great atmosphere and was fun to be part of the World Juniors.
Is the weather and climate here in Winnipeg similar to what you grew up with in Ust-Kamenogorsk?
Yeah absolutely, identical!
What are some of the best moments so far in your career?
Well first off scoring my first pro goal in my hometown for my hometown team, and then beating Canada at the 1998 World Juniors in Hämeenlinna, Finland, and obviously my first goal in the NHL.
Kazakhstan was very close to qualifying for the Sochi Olympics. Would you have represented them if they made it and would you play for them again if the opportunity arose?
Oh yeah absolutely! I was cheering for them here but they fell to Latvia in a tight game. One of my priorities during the lockout was to play for Kazakhstan during the Olympic Qualification. Unfortunately for me and the team I was looking forward to playing but the season started here in the NHL and I couldn’t make it but I was cheering for the boys here. I’ve had a couple bad lucks with injuries over the years that prevented me from playing with the national team. Last year’s World Championship I wasn’t able to go because I had an MCL strain and in past years I’ve been in the play-offs so always something has come up and I couldn’t go. If the opportunity comes up and I’m healthy then obviously I will go!
Who are you friends with on the national team?
All the guys I played with in Astana during the lockout and of course players from the same hometown as me.
How was it like going back to Kazakhstan and playing for the KHL’s Barys Astana at the beginning of the season?
It was good. It was a good experience obviously to play instead of sitting around during the lockout. They (Barys Astana) made me an offer and I jumped on it. It was a good atmosphere, good team, great fans. They’re also building a new arena right now so it’s going to be good for them.
How often do you go back home and visit Kazakhstan in the off-season? Or do you stay here in Canada?
No, not anymore at least. My parents passed away so all of my family is here now. It’s tough for the kids too, they speak a little Russian but not as good so they wouldn’t be able to communicate as well with their friends.
Where do you see the future of Kazakhstani hockey? Is it on the rise or falling?
I think it’s on the rise right now. They got the right people at the Kazakh Ice Hockey Federation running it. Askar Mamin is running Barys Astana and the Ice Hockey Federation so it’s in the right people’s hands. Now you can see the players who get called up they all want to play. In the past they would say something like “Oh I’m injured” or something but now they all want to come and represent their country so it’s good and definitely on the rise.