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Rambler's Top100

How St. Louis Became the Hometown Vladimir Tarasenko Envisioned From the Start
5 2019 . Sport Illustrated. By Alex Prewitt


Here is a boy with boundless energy. No older than nine, he lives in the riverside Russian city of Novosibirsk, a major hub along the Trans-Siberian railway. Because his parents are divorced, and because his father is away playing professional hockey, the boy shares an apartment with his paternal grandparents. It is a small place, two bedrooms. It will not do much to contain him.

One day, for example, he is barreling around the apartment. Full sprint, no regard. Emerging from a hallway, as the boy will remember many years later, he comes to a crossroads. Turn left and enter the kitchen. Veer right for the living room. His mind spins fast. His legs churn faster.

I finally cant decide, Vladimir Tarasenko says, so I just go straight and hit this middle wall with my body.

Condolences to the wall.

Here is a father raising two boys, each with boundless energy. The oldest is stepson Mark, a goalie for a local youth hockey program. The youngest, Aleksandr, as Tarasenko puts it, is like hurricane. In this regard, the Blues winger sees a spitting image of his younger self. Lot of power, never gets tired, just play-play-play, Tarasenko says. The difference is, I was living with a 50-year-old grandpa and he is living with 27-year-old NHL player.

Along with his wife Yana, the Tarasenko family resides in a quiet St. Louis suburb. Naturally, his $7.5 million annual salary affords more than a small apartment. There is a mini floor hockey rink in the basement, where Mark faces his dads world-famous shot. A swimming pool, a playground and a sprawling backyard outside. They also installed a basketball hoop, around the same time that the Blues were beginning the Stanley Cup Final. Anything to keep the kids busy.

It makes me really happy for them, because I didnt have a chance to grow up like this, Tarasenko says. I try to create some opportunities for them to get older, not only mentally but physically too, so they can spend their energy in the right way.

Clearly Tarasenko hasnt lost a step from his younger days, either. If anything, the burly left-shot sniper has gotten stronger as this spring progressed. A personal eight-game point streak was snapped when Boston blew out St. Louis in Game 3 last week, but Tarasenko quickly responded with a critical first-period tally in Game 4, punching a juicy rebound from the low slot to break a 1-1 tie and helping the Blues knot the series at two apiece. It was his 11th goal of these playoffs, two shy of Brett Hulls franchise record, and 33rd overall in the postseason since 2014, barely trailing countryman Alex Ovechkin (34) for the NHL lead.

On the ice, Tarasenko is a superstar offensive talent, perhaps the only legitimate such solo artist that the Blues can claim, capable of altering entire nights with a quick wrist flick. But he is also an unapologetic homebody. When I come back there, just calm and relaxed right away, he says. I dont need to go anywhere. Indeed, while rehabbing from reconstructive shoulder surgery last summer, Tarasenko opted against training with fellow NHL players in St. Louis and mostly just worked out alongside Yana at their house instead.

There is no question that winger Patrick Maroon is the real local hero story: raised in nearby Oakville, two victories away from bringing the first-ever Stanley Cup to his childhood team. But Tarasenko counts as an adopted son of the city. He did not know any English when he arrived during the 12-13 lockout, a highly touted first-round draft pick two years prior; now he cracks jokes better than most native speakers. He has developed a friendship with Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, among other local athletes. He helps at practice for the St. Louis Rockets youth hockey club, shooting on Mark and the other goalies. He and Yana pay regular visits to Promise Christian Academy, a school for special needs children.

Their third child is on the way. Obviously, the baby will be born in St. Louis.

We have apartments in my hometown, but it dont feel like my hometown anymore, Tarasenko said last season. All my life is here.

Brock Wilson was stunned. A former minor-league defenseman-turned-strength coach (and the son of the late Blues blueliner Rik Wilson), he was watching Tarasenko shoot after one of their training sessions two summers ago. Pucks normally dont make a noise, Wilson says. But when that puck leaves his stick and zips through the air, it whistles. Its like a bullet out of a gun.

There is no distinct origin story that Tarasenko can recall, the first time that he began honing his deadly wrister. But I remember my dad always talked to me about it, tried to make me shoot faster, he says. Back then, Andrei Tarasenko was a high-scoring winger in the Russian Superleague. Im like, What do you want from me? Why I need to do this? Vladimir says now. And during that time I start to recognize it helps me.

The result is readily apparent. Vladi beats you more with accuracy and speed, more than some guys beat with deception, Blues goalie Jake Allen says. Thats the best way I can describe it. Hes got big forearms and he can really fire the puck in tight, awkward spaces. The strength is no secret to anyone who sees the 225-pound Tarasenko in the gym. Hes just a machine, defenseman Joel Edmundson says. On the bike, bench press, overall hes a monster. But the truly terrifying feature is how little Tarasenko pulls the puck back before releasing. Can you tell me any other person in the NHL who shoots like him? Wilson says. Theres no real windup. He could stand there without stickhandling and snap his wrists and thats basically his shot.

Perhaps more impressive, though, is how Tarasenko has grown as a 200-foot player. Hes more well-rounded now than hes ever been taking care of his own end, captain Alex Pietrangelo says. Plays a simple game, but hes pretty effective and he commands so much space over the ice. I think his passings underrated, his defensive game is underrated. A lot of things, when youre a big-time goal-scorer, that a lot of people dont see.

Not that Tarasenko is sacrificing in the offensive zone. Consider his signature strike from the playoffs so far, captured by this Deadspin headline: Vladimir Tarasenko Nearly Ripped Himself In Half Scoring This Goal. Late in the first period of Game 2, after fishing a loose puck from the Blues end and zipping past Brad Marchand to start an odd-man rush, Tarasenko was initially denied on a rebound attempt by goalie Tuukka Rask. But, contorting his hips while tracking the puck, he somehow managed to lunge forward and backhand it into the net while falling down.

Obviously didnt surprise us, Edmundson says. Hes doing whatever it takes. Hes been here long enough and they havent won. He feels like this is the year to do it. Here the Blues defenseman references the celebration following Carl Gunnarssons overtime winner that night. Specifically how the front of Tarasenkos jersey was flecked with blood. Hes laying it on the line, Edmundson says. When we see our top player doing that, every other guy follows.

It is the kind of inspired leadership that can make a guy run through a wall.

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