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|18 октября 2009
No hard feelings for Afinogenov // Buffalo News
Maxim Afinogenov stopped by the Buffalo Sabres' morning skate to say hello to old friends. When he left the visiting bench Saturday, a star-struck teenage girl in a No. 61 jersey nervously called to him for an autograph. Afinogenov obliged and smiled when the girl said she missed him.
As the Russian retreated to the dressing room, he left a trembling young woman in his wake. Tears of joy poured down her face.
One way or the other, Afinogenov has a way of inspiring passionate feelings.
The mercurial right winger made a happy return to HSBC Arena, scoring the insurance goal for the Atlanta Thrashers in a 4-2 win over Buffalo, where Afinogenov spent the first nine seasons of his career.
"It's definitely a good feeling coming back here," Afinogenov said. "For 10 years, I was here, and it was home. But things change right now, and I'm on a different team. It's weird. Definitely weird."
Afinogenov said the fans are what made his time in Western New York special. His jersey was a perennial top seller. The folks in the arena took an audible and collective deep breath whenever the speedster would collect the puck in open ice.
"When I was here I tried to play for the fans," he said. "I appreciate them. They come to the games, and I try to put my best into the game. Hopefully, they still like me, and I love them, too."
Afinogenov came to town as a freewheeling 20-year-old who was just as apt to create a goal as a turnover. He left as a freewheeling 29-year-old who was just as apt to create a turnover as a goal. His failure to modify his style to a changing game and altered team concept infuriated many.
His final two seasons in Buffalo, marked by benchings and groin injuries, were a bust. He had 16 goals and 48 points in 104 games. He had averaged more than a point per game in the previous two seasons. He finished his Sabres career with 134 goals, 200 assists and 334 points in 569 games.
"I would've liked to finish different, but that's life," Afinogenov said. "There's nothing you can do. Right now it's a different chapter in my book."
For a while this summer, it looked like the book had no chapters left. He was still unsigned as teams opened training camp, and the Thrashers finally invited him for a tryout. They signed the former $3 million player to a one-year deal worth $800,000.
The Moscow native said he never considered playing in his homeland, even though the Kontinental Hockey League is drawing more players with big contracts.
"It's a tough situation, but I want to be here, I want to be in the NHL," Afinogenov said. "This was my first priority. I got a lot of offers back there, but I was still looking for something here."
The Thrashers are based around another freewheeling Russian, Ilya Kovalchuk, an Afinogenov pal. Afinogenov also entered the Atlanta dressing room knowing Vyacheslav Kozlov, Eric Boulton and Chris Thorburn as former Buffalo teammates. Plus, Thrashers assistant coach Randy Cunneyworth was his first professional linemate when Afinogenov arrived in Rochester in 1999.
Although he's not as thrilled as that young girl with the autograph, Afinogenov is happy with his choice.
"I think Atlanta is a pretty good match," he said. "It's the style that I like, and it's good here."