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января 2003 года.
Afinogenov's head trip nearing end - Buffalo News
By TIM GRAHAM
The Sabres' Maxim Afinogenov is expected to be cleared for full contact in the next few days.
PHOENIX - Maxim Afinogenov was flat on his back when he woke up, lying on the ice and bathed in blood.
Through the grogginess and the crimson, he could barely see his friends standing over him.
But Afinogenov is a hockey player, and he quickly deciphered what occurred. He remembered skating in front of the crease, looking for a pass. But he obviously didn't see the puck as it careened off his forehead.
As he tried to gather himself, he wasn't upset. He had been killing time with friends in a rink outside Moscow. It was the night before he was to return to the U.S. It couldn't be that serious, right?
"It was an accident. Really," Afinogenov told The Buffalo News in his first in-depth interview about an incident that has generated much gossip since it took place.
Afinogenov and his pals had been enjoying their final night together. It was pretty much the same crew that helped the quicksilver Olympian celebrate the two-year, $2.4 million contract he agreed to sign with the Buffalo Sabres the day before - Sept. 4, his 23rd birthday.
Since it was a pickup game, he didn't think twice when he borrowed a friend's skates and visorless helmet. Afinogenov always wears a visor. Always. This was the first time in years he didn't.
"I just went for fun," he said. "When you relax, it's usually when (an injury) happens."
Instead of seeing Afinogenov off to the airport, his buddies were scurrying him off the ice. He pressed a towel against the gushing wound as they drove to an emergency room around 11 p.m.
Still, Afinogenov didn't panic. It was merely a flesh wound. A few stitches and everything would be OK.
"That's hockey," Afinogenov said.
The doctors didn't seem concerned, either. He was patched up and immediately sent home. No overnight stay. No observation.
But Afinogenov was a sight with a sore eye when got out of bed the next morning to fly to Buffalo, where he was to sign his contract and begin training camp a few days later. What Afinogenov saw was a gruesome lump that would have made John Merrick wince.
"I don't want to go back to Buffalo looking like this," Afinogenov recalled thinking. "It was, like, "Wow!' "
So he donned a baseball cap and sunglasses to help avoid questions and stares on the long journey back to Buffalo.
And that, he figured, would be that.
Twenty-three weeks later, Afinogenov is still inconspicuous to Sabres fans. He developed severe headaches during the flight, and once he arrived he reported his troubles to his agent and the Sabres' front office.
"I feel real headaches," he said. "They just wouldn't go away."
Afinogenov was diagnosed with a concussion that threatened his career and has left him unpaid until he is cleared to play.
His hardship, however, seems almost over. He started practicing with the Sabres on Wednesday and is expected to be cleared for full contact in the next few days. If doctors think he can take an NHL hit, he could play his first game Friday against the Toronto Maple Leafs in HSBC Arena.
"It's pretty tough," Afinogenov said, the pink scar tissue still prominent over his right eye. "It's the first time I've had an injury like that. It was a long time getting into good shape."
In addition to the pain and evaporating money, feelings of remorse consumed Afinogenov, especially when he walked into HSBC Arena and saw Sabres coach Lindy Ruff.
"That's the most frustrating thing," said Afinogenov's agent, Mark Gandler, "because you begin to feel guilty that you're disappointing everybody around you."
What happened Sept. 5? No one truly knows except Afinogenov. The injury occurred thousands of miles away with witnesses who haven't been named. Because of his neurological state in the weeks following his concussion, he didn't grant interviews.
The timing also seemed suspicious, coming the day after he agreed to a lucrative contract and the day before he returned to the U.S.
There was talk of the Russian mob, a drunk-driving accident, some sort of brawl. It was hard to believe a club player's slap shot could shelve him for so long.
"All the time, somebody's always talking a lot," Afinogenov said. "What can you do? You guys in the media and some other people start talking, I can't stop that.
"I was surprised, too, by the timing of it. I felt it was going to be a couple weeks and I was going to play."
Even when asked about it four months later, Afinogenov has difficulty with specifics. He doesn't know the name of the person who took the shot. He doesn't know the name of the rink. He doesn't know the name of the hospital.
Neither Gandler nor the Sabres prodded for answers. They accepted Afinogenov's story at face value.
"There's been whisperings of what really happened," Ruff said. "I get the feeling (him getting hit by the puck) is really what happened."
Sabres defenseman Alexei Zhitnik said it's a good idea to let sleeping dogs lie. Zhitnik, a Ukranian, has spoken publicly about the Russian mob's attempts to extort money from him - with threats of blowing up his car - when he was with the Los Angeles Kings.
"A lot of rumors are going around," Zhitnik said of Afinogenov. "But lately it's gotten quiet. It doesn't make sense to dig around and find out. We're just happy to have him back."
Afinogenov scored a career-high 21 goals last season, third on the team. He also had 19 assists. His absence was a major reason the Sabres staggered through the first three months of this season.
Afinogenov was in sad shape, too. He had headaches almost every day until they finally abated about 10 days ago. He was unable to take pain medication because masking headaches makes it difficult to monitor them.
"When you have a headaches constantly, every day, 24 hours a day, you can't sleep properly, you have no appetite," said Zhitnik, who has had at least one concussion. "You feel nothing works right, everything's broken."
Afinogenov's mother stayed with him in Buffalo. He was visited often by his father and sister.
"The guys, the trainers, coaches, everybody in Buffalo, were saying, "Good luck,' and, "Get well,' " Afinogenov said. "That was helpful, too. It helps a lot when people say they feel for you."
To make matters worse, Afinogenov wasn't drawing a salary. He didn't have trouble paying the bills, but he was supposed to make $1.1 million this season. He can't start collecting until he passes his physical and is cleared to play. For that to happen, the headaches would have to stop first.
Many would be tempted to lie. There's no test to gauge whether someone is feeling pain. He easily could have pretended everything was fine to get on the payroll.
"It's a tough decision because I know if I go on the ice and I have headaches, I know if I get hit again it's going to be worse," Afinogenov said.
"A lot of people would sacrifice their health to get a paycheck," Gandler said. "But Max is an honest man. He's always been up front with everybody. Max is just being himself, and he's a smart person. He knows if he cheats it could lead to consequences both for him and the team."
At last, Afinogenov feels he's on the verge of playing. His teammates say Afinogenov hasn't lost one bit of his blazing speed.
"Now I feel like months ago," he said.
Страничка Максима Афиногенова
на сайте "Звёзды с Востока"
23 сентября. Максим Афиногенов: "Почувствовал российский
хоккей" // "Спорт-Экспресс"
13 марта. Максим Афиногенов: "Обмена пока не требую"
5 января. Максим Афиногенов:"Теперь есть повод позвать
земляков в ресторан" - "Спорт-Экспресс"
23 сентября. Максим Афиногенов: "Почувствовал российский хоккей" // "Спорт-Экспресс"
13 марта. Максим Афиногенов: "Обмена пока не требую" - Спорт-Экспресс
5 января. Максим Афиногенов:"Теперь есть повод позвать земляков в ресторан" - "Спорт-Экспресс"