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Kulemin recalls days with Maple Leafs
20 îêòÿáðÿ 2014 ãîäà. Toronto Sun. By Lance Hornby
UNIONDALE, N.Y. - The tape recorder was stopped at the five-minute and three-second mark, longer than any interview Nikolay Kulemin ever gave as a Maple Leaf.
But there were a few things the reticent Russian was keen to chat about as Tuesday’s game approaches, his first as an Islander against the team that drafted and housed him six years in the NHL.
Though he was the silent partner to a gabby Mikhail Grabovski in Toronto (the latter has a suspected concussion and won’t make Tuesday’s reunion), Kulemin couldn’t hide a little Leaf pride.
He was asked to recall his first Toronto game on Oct. 9, 2008, at Joe Louis Arena. The winger beat Chris Osgood on a breakaway for a 3-2 game-winner that silenced Joe Louis Arena on the night the ’08 Cup banner was raised and the mug itself made an appearance.
“It was interesting to see the Cup. Hopefully, one day we can win it,” Kulemin said that night.
Gordie Howe came into the Leafs room that evening at the invite of coach Ron Wilson and the big Kulemin was elated to learn his goal puck would be mounted.
“Yeah, that’s one of the good memories,” Kulemin said Monday, in an Islander dressing room about a quarter the size of his old ACC den. “Especially the big presentation after they won the Cup. It was a long ceremony and (I scored) in my first game.
“It will be very interesting for me to play against the guys I played with for so long. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Kulemin arrived in Toronto the same time as centre Grabovski and for a couple of years, their off-ice bond and shared language extended to success on the ice.
Kulemin netted 30 goals in 2010-11 with Clarke MacArthur on the left side of a line that challenged the Phil Kessel-Tyler Bozak combo (pre-JVR) for prime minutes. Then Kulemin dropped off dramatically to seven goals in a following year that would be Wilson’s last as coach, replaced by Randy Carlyle.
“I think I was just playing a little different role on the (2010-11 team), a lot of power play and a lot of minutes where you could score,” Kulemin said of that positive spike and the reason many people saw him as a lesser player afterwards.
The new Leafs coach emphasized more defence and despite Kulemin’s size and credentials to play Carlyle-style hockey, there was some kind of disconnect as time went on. There was also Grabovski’s acrimonious split with Carlyle, which led to an expletive-filled rant when the centre was bought out and went to Washington last year.
Kulemin made a more dignified exit as a UFA — and wound up back with his free agent pal on the Island.
“You never know (what will happen),” Kulemin said of the tug on his heart to stay in Toronto where he was part of a large Russian-speaking community. “But I’m part of this team now.”
Mutual agent Gary Greenstin managed to steer both clients to the same team in the summer.
“We just talked about how it would be great if we could be together, but we didn’t have to,” Kulemin said of what unfolded. “I hope it works for me the next couple of years.
“(Toronto) was a good city and a good organization and I was happy to play there for six years. I have a lot of friends I stay in touch with. I know a lot of the (Leafs), but half of the team only played together for a couple of years.”
Kulemin didn’t enjoy the way Leafs wins and losses were over-magnified in Toronto, especially if he happened to get caught in the bright TV headlights after a game. Here, only a few beat writers, bloggers and the team’s in-house TV and radio channels are regulars at practice.
Kulemin’s doing fine on the ice, two assists in five games for a team that’s lost just once heading into Tuesday.
“There’s a lot of good young players and they’re a good group of guys,” Kulemin said. “We just keep moving.”
Kulemin is getting along well with head coach Jack Capuano, while former Wilson-Carlyle assistant Greg Cronin is also on staff.
“He’s been as advertised, a hard working guy and good in the room,” Capunao said. “No question he uses his body to protect the puck and keep it in the offensive zone. He makes the simple play when he doesn’t have anything and puts the puck where we want it to be.
“He comes to the rink with a business-like attitude and wants to get better.”
That could come at the expense of his old team on Tuesday.
He looks so different in Islanders colours, his number is new ... heck, even his name is changed.
It’s now spelled and pronounced Niko-LAY Kulemin, not Niko-LIE, a change the former Leaf said was somehow gummed up on his passport when he first came to Canada in 2008 to play for Toronto.
Starting anew in New York was an opportune time to switch spellings as the Russian was getting grief from security-conscious officials when he applied for a driver’s license or went through customs. But Kulemin also monkeyed with his surname during the Sochi Olympics.
And from No. 41 in Toronto, he’s No. 86 on Long Island — not to out-do buddy Mikhail Grabovski, who wears No. 84, Kulemin insists, but because there was a distinct lack of choices.
Kulemin was No. 14 growing up in Russia, but Matt Stajan had it when he arrived in Toronto and Kulemin was wary of the Dave Keon aura the longer he played in Toronto. So he stayed with 41 as a Leaf, only to find defenceman Thomas Hickey had already claimed it on the Island. So Kulemin now wears his birth year.
He hopes for a quick recovery by the woozy Grabovski, who had post-concussion symptoms last week after being hit by San Jose’s John Scott.
“I think he feels all right and he’ll be back in a couple of days,” Kulemin said. “I still don’t know if he had a concussion or not.
“I’m happy to be with him again. We had a good time playing together in Toronto for awhile. We’re still good friends and I’m just happy to have a friend on this (new) team.”