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|Tarasenko's dream about to come true.|
09.02.2014.Strauss, Joe. McClatchy - Tribune Business News
A year ago Vladimir Tarasenko dealt with a concussion and what seemed like skating in a bathtub.
Sunday he returns to his homeland to celebrate an almost seven-year-old dream.
Of 10 Blues players chosen as Olympians to represent their country in the Sochi games, none will cherish the honor more profoundly than the right winger. On the day the International Olympic Committee awarded these games to the Russian resort town, Tarasenko's father and grandparents waited half a nanosecond before issuing a challenge:
You work to be there.
"It was a dream we all had," Tarasenko remembers of words he heard that Siberian summer day half a world away from an announcement made in Guatemala City.
The challenge came with a fair amount of pressure attached. Vladimir's father, Andrei, spent 21 years playing right wing in the Kontinental Hockey League, twice leading the world's second-best league in scoring. Andrei also scored twice for the Russian national team in the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.
Imagine growing up the son of a star in the national sport. Imagine having the goal of a faraway Olympics placed before you even before turning professional at 17, getting drafted by a foreign team at 18, wrestling for two years whether to stay or go, and meanwhile getting traded from the local team to St. Petersburg. Then, upon deciding to jump, finding the NHL convulsed in a lockout.
"I think 100 percent right now that it's right to be," in the NHL, Tarasenko said last week. "But it was a tough time when the Blues were after me."
Tarasenko and eight teammates were to travel to Newark, N.J., following Saturday afternoon's game against Winnipeg, a contest in which Tarasenko scored the decisive shootout tally in his team's 4-3 victory. (Honored by the Czech Republic, Blues center Vladimir Sobotka had Olympic experience sabotaged by a fractured kneecap.) The trip's second leg will take Tarasenko to the Russian coastal town and a reunion with family members he hasn't seen since July.
Tarasenko's parents divorced when he was 3, two years before he first laced on skates. His grandparents raised him for the final 11 years of his father's career. Now the son occasionally plays in games involving retired players, his father among them. In deference Vladimir moves to left wing with Andrei on right.
The challenges keep coming.
"They tell me right away it's not enough just to make it," he recalled of the message he received immediately after the Russian roster became official. "Play good there. Start preparing. Be more focused."
Compared to the last 14 months, the request should be a snap.
Barely a year has passed since Tarasenko left the KHL to join the Blues' abbreviated training camp.
The language was new, the ice narrower, the players faster and the play more physical.
Strangers approached at the mall for photos or an autograph, something that would not happen back home. Tarasenko scored on his first two shots. Folks quickly tried to call him "Tank." (Nyet.) He got blasted into the sideboards one night. A concussion followed, further distancing him from his team.
"It's a different country. Different people. Different culture. Different game. The rink is smaller. The game is faster with more contact," he explained. "The time after my injury was hard."
The international game plays on ice 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. NHL ice is the same length but narrower by 15 feet. Contact is inescapable. Less room exists for creativity. Compounding the difference, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock emphasizes a decidedly north-south style. As Tarasenko learned a new language he also learned a new philosophy. The Olympics seemed very far away.
Asked if he remained committed to his decision to leave Russia, he admitted, "It was hard to say right away. This is my second season. We have a great team. I have some great relationships. I have more experience now. After this I can say it's been the right decision."
If Tarasenko a year ago resembled what Hitchcock commonly refers to as a "passenger," he has become an offensive force this season. He notched an assist Saturday and has 34 points in 54 games, nearly twice what he managed in 38 contests as a rookie. He now plays bigger. Barely 6 feet and pushing 220 pounds, he is a load to take off the puck.
"Playing with and against men has taught him how hard he has to train away from the rink," Hitchcock says. "It's different training with junior players than training with real men."
A rink that once seemed restrictive now fits Tarasenko like a properly altered suit.
"He's learned to play in a small room," Hitchcock says, noting the NHL style that demands more stops and starts. "Now you're seeing his skill level. It's awesome. His awareness on the ice is strong now."
Tarasenko possesses a lightning lefthanded release. He is nimble on the puck and gives as good as he gets. Only 22, his ceiling is considered stratospheric.
"He's really smart, really strong," said Hitchcock, who will be behind the bench next week for Team Canada. "For a young man to fend off 30-year-old players is really nice to see. For a guy his age, he's really a strong man."
For an extended interview Tarasenko keeps an interpreter nearby, mostly to confirm what he already suspects. His responses rarely require an intermediary. His game is now unfiltered.
"I feel more comfortable in practices,'' he said. "I know the drills. I know what the coaches want from me and the forwards. I don't need to think about everything now. I can just play hockey."
The 16th selection of the 2010 draft hoped for this week but never allowed himself to assume it. His family challenged him at 15 with this moment. Tarasenko had yet to play professionally. It seems like a lifetime ago. Now it's as close as tomorrow.
"I still can't believe I made it,'' he said. "I can't wait to go there.''