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Battle of Belarusians // The Gazette. Montreal
It was during last month's All-Star Skills Competition when the word "rivalry" took on a new meaning.
There was Evgeni Malkin reaching into a bag of props to offer a fishing hat, oversized sunglasses and a squirt of Gatorade to supposed enemy Alex Ovechkin during the Breakaway Challenge. Afterward, the two hugged and smiled for the cameras.
For the two bitter rivals, who had physically battled each other on the ice and verbally sparred away from the rink, the public display of camaraderie was unexpected. But so was the fact the two Russians had disliked each other in the first place.
Therein lies the problem with feuds. It is easy for them to escalate to the point where no one remembers why they even began. And sometimes a small gesture is all that is needed to bury the hatchet.
Unlike Malkin and Ovechkin, who are embroiled in a healthy competition to be the NHL's best player, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski said he has no idea why fellow Belarusians - and former friends and teammates - Sergei and Andrei Kostitsyn hate him.
Grabovski did not steal either brother's girlfriend. But for whatever reason, sparks fly whenever they are all on the ice - or talking about one another off it.
"You'd like me to explain what is going on between Kostitsyn and Grabovski? Believe me, this is over nothing," said Grabovski's agent, Gary Greenstin. "I think it will be good for them to shake hands and make a joke from everything. But that's probably not going to happen."
Indeed, Grabovski will probably be greeted with a fist than a handshake from his former teammates when Montreal hosts Toronto tonight (7 p.m., CBC, RDS, CJAD Radio-800) in what has been hyped as The Battle of the Belarusians. Of course, trying to pin down where exactly this battle began is a mystery.
Grabovski, who was born in Potsdam, Germany, and grew up in Minsk, has played with the Kostitsyns at various stages of his life. The three have been teammates at international events, in the minors and with the Canadiens. But when Grabovski was traded to Toronto from Montreal last summer, their relationship changed.
Nothing of substance happened when the team's played each other in their first meeting of the season. But Grabovski and Sergei Kostitsyn combined for almost 70 minutes in penalties in the next two games.
Grabovski is partly to blame for instigating the bad blood. In a 6-3 win on Nov. 3, he scored a goal and an assist, butt-ended goaltender Carey Price in the midsection and repeatedly taunted his former teammates by pointing up at the scoreboard.
When Sergei Kostitsyn received a 10-minute misconduct for taking a run at the Leaf, no one was surprised. Nor was anyone shocked when they almost fought in a rematch two months later.
Grabovski received a three-game suspension in that 6-2 Toronto loss for making contact with a linesman while trying to get at Kostitsyn. But it appears that Grabovski abandoning the Canadiens during a road trip last season turned the former friends into inevitable enemies.
Four months later, everyone agreed it would be best if Grabovski were traded.
Grabovski was a healthy scratch for Toronto's 5-0 loss to Buffalo on Wednesday. It was the first time he missed a game all season. Though he agreed with the decision, he said there was no way he would be missing a chance to seek redemption against the Canadiens.
"It's not about the players. It's about the team in Montreal," Grabovski said this week, downplaying his rivalry with Sergei Kostitsyn. "I'm ready to play a simple game, a regular game."