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Gusev: From Nizhny To Dallas
[by John Sanful - 4 October, 1997]
When the Dallas Stars began the 1997-98 NHL season, they did so with a new member along the blue line: Sergei Gusev. The 22 year old Russian native has come off a solid training camp including an impressive three assist game against Tampa Bay on September 25. In a short period of time, Gusev has done so much and capable of doing more.
Gusev's North American journey started in Nizhny Tagil in the Ural Mountains. He began his professional hockey career with Sputnik Nizhny Tagil in 1993. Briefly, his teammate with Sputnik was G Nikolai Khabibulin, now with the Phoenix Coyotes. Gusev remembers little of the time they spent on the team.
In 1994, Gusev was invited to play for Central Sportivny Klub Samara (CSK Samara) in the second division of the Russian Hockey League. Samara-the military sports team in the city- won the second division championship that year-Gusev's second in pro hockey.
Breakthrough in Red Deer
An important distinction occurred for Gusev in late 1995 when Russian junior national coach Igor Dmitriev was assembling his team for the World Junior Championships scheduled for Red Deer, Alberta. The smaller rinks in Canada and more physical nature of the game there made for some tough decisions in what players Russia would carry. It meant that Dmitriev had to find players- especially on defense- who could best play under these demanding conditions. He chose Gusev to be a part of the team. Dmitriev later admitted that Gusev's style, as he observed, was best suited for what faced the Russians juniors in Alberta.
It was one of the very few times a player from a second division team was selected for national team duty. Players spend most of their lives in Russian hockey looking to leave the second division-which is the equivalent of the minors-and play for one of the top teams in the first division like CsKA Red Army, Moscow Dinamo or Lada Togliatta. Players there get first consideration for the World Championships and World Juniors but Gusev beat the odds and accomplished something.
Gusev did not disappoint as the Russians won the silver medal. He contributed 1 goal and 3 points in 7 games. It was a learning experience that he was grateful to have been involved with. Playing against other athletes his age from around the world was quite a test and one he passed.
"I was happy being there and learned from it." he says of the Red Deer experience.
"I Will Do What Is Needed"
That summer, Dallas selected Gusev with the 69th pick of the 4th round in the entry draft. It was just his second year of professional hockey.
In Russia, like North America, many boys dream of making it to the NHL but few achieve that goal. Gusev beat the odds, and wasted no time in doing so. In just two years Gusev has gone from being a second division rookie in Russia to a member of the Dallas Stars, and it's like a dream come true for him.
"I'm really enjoying being here and glad to be on the Stars," he mused when asked about everything.
He's clearly enjoying himself much like a little boy absorbed in his favorite activity but he knows what is expected. Now that the season has begun - his first NHL season - he will be judged on a higher level and must use his talents effectively to do what is expected. If he feels any pressure, however, it doesn't come through in his words.
"I will get used to life [in the NHL] and do what is needed," Gusev says, matter-of-factly. "I just want to play hard and help the team win."
Coming off a stellar season that saw the team finish 48-26-8, good for 104 points and a Central Division title but quickly forgotten after a first round playoff upset at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers, this year's team has its sights set on playing hockey into June. Dallas has a formidable squad, but is strength is clearly in the back. The defensive corps is solid with veterans Sergei Zubov, Derian Hatcher, Craig Ludwig, Sean Chambers and Richard Matvichuk patrolling the zone in front of the Dallas cage.
Whether he plays or merely watches, Gusev can learn a lot from this group, and indeed he has already. His production against Tampa Bay shows his offensive capabilities and, and as season gets going, he relishes the opportunity to take his game even farther
"I want to contribute more offensively and have offensive game," Gusev says. "Maybe score some."
With the offensive-minded Zubov on the team, he will have the chance to learn from one of the best offensive specialists in the game. Dallas' power play - an anemic 14.6% last season- could use another point man besides Zubov who can move the puck. This fact not withstanding, the young Russian is acutely aware of his defensive responsibilities and wants to improve them. In the same manner he talks about upgrading his offensive skills, he is adamant about his role in own end of the ice.
"I need to be more defensively responsible and want to get better in that area," Gusev says.
"I Want to Win"
Training camps over and most young hopefuls have either been returned to their junior team or Europe; others have been sent to the minors. Gusev is one of the few who has stuck and made the big team.
He seems grounded in the fact that he has so much to learn on and off the ice but his teammates and coaches have been supportive. He is enjoying life in the NHL so far but remains aware of the ultimate goal.
"I like to win and want to win, no question," Gusev says unequivocally. "That is what I'm here to help do. I know the team is good and want to make them better."
Culturally, socially and professionally, it's a long way from Nizhny Tagil to Dallas, but Sergei Gusev survived the trip. After all he's achieved over the last three years, there is little doubt that Gusev is equipped to handle the array of challenges he will surely encounter in the NHL and North America.