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A Belarus fight night; A lot of love lost after trade separated Grabovski from the Kostitsyns // The Vancouver Sun
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. Afterwards, 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 that 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 says 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. Nor does he owe the two Montreal Canadiens forwards any money. But for whatever reason, sparks fly whenever they are all on the ice -- or talking about one another off it.
"You would 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 is likely to be greeted with a fist than a handshake from his former teammates when Montreal hosts Toronto tonight 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 both 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 teams 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 Leafs rookie, no one was surprised.
Nor was anyone shocked when the two opponents almost fought each other 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. As he left the ice, he departed like Richard Nixon leaving the White House, arms raised with his fingers making V symbols to a chorus of boos from the Bell Centre crowd.
"I cannot stand Grabovski any more," Sergei Kostitsyn said after the game.
"I don't know why he wants to fight with me," Grabovski said then. "If he wants to fight, we'll go in the street and every minute of every day I'll wait for him and we'll fight."
Less than a year ago, Grabovski and Kostitsyns were fighting on the same side. The three formed a forward line at the 2008 world championship, where they helped Belarus qualify for the 2010 Olympics. Whether they are able to put aside their personal differences for the good of their country, as Malkin and Ovechkin did, is anyone's guess.
"Where this animosity came from, I don't know, because I never witnessed it," said Curt Fraser, who was Belarus head coach at the 2008 world championship. "We needed those guys to be their best, because they were the best players that Belarus had. They played great together."
While Ovechkin and Malkin were born in the same country, their rivalry was born out of wanting to be the best in the world. Ovechkin was drafted first overall in 2004, while Malkin was second.