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Leafs rookie Zaitsev listens to his elders: Promising young Russian defenceman turns to ex-Leafs Roberts, Yushkevich for advice
2 октября 2016 года. Feschuk, Dave. Toronto Star

It wasn't long into Nikita Zaitsev's first sweat-soaked summer in the famous gym that he was introduced to one of Gary Roberts' rules of clean living.

"(Roberts) told me, 'If you train and drink beer, the training doesn't work,' " Zaitsev was saying recently, laughing a little at the memory.

"It's funny, but it's true. I don't drink a lot, but I just remember that. (Roberts) explained a lot of things to me that I didn't know.

"Like, how to be a pro."

You might have seen Zaitsev, the 24-year-old Russian defenceman https://www.thestar.com/sports/breakaway_blog/2016/09/maple-leafs-have-something-in-matthews-and-zaitsev.htmlsigned by the MapleEND Leafs in the off-season, displaying his well-conditioned wares at the Air Canada Centre last month, when he commanded team-leading ice time for his country at the World Cup of Hockey. It's expected he'll play a considerable role on Toronto's defensive corps in the 82-game season to come.

But as Zaitsev began life as one of the newest Maple Leafs, he spent some time giving credit to the mentorship of a couple of club alumni. Zaitsev cites as two of his biggest hockey influences both Roberts, the rugged ex-forward who has found a prosperous second career as a https://www.thestar.com/sports/hockey/2016/09/22/trainer-gary-roberts-pushes-phil-kessel-to-walk-the-talk-feschuk.htmltrainer to NHL starsEND, and Dmitri Yushkevich, one of Roberts' former Leafs teammates.

"They both gave me so much," Zaitsev said. "Big thanks to both of them."

Yushkevich, who played the bulk of an 11-season NHL career as a heady, gritty presence on the Toronto blue line, met Zaitsev seven years ago. Zaitsev was a teenaged rookie with a KHL team based in Siberia. Yushkevich, now 44, was a first-year assistant coach.

Yushkevich remembers a kid who played "high-risk junior hockey" and could barely get on the ice as a result.

"The first thing I told him was, 'You don't know anything,' " Yushkevich said.

Yushkevich said he was happy to discover Zaitsev was a quick and willing learner whose best asset - along with inherent gifts as a strong skater unfazed by rough play - was his "intelligence." As Zaitsev kept listening and improving, his playing time kept increasing. Upon his return from the 2011 world junior championship, where Russia won gold with a stunning third-period comeback over Canada in the final game, Yushkevich said Zaitsev went "from a boy to a young man."

"Nikita was pretty much my first project. And I definitely wanted to help him like my son," Yushkevich said, speaking over the phone from his hometown of Yaroslavl, where he is spending the current season as an assistant coach with the tragedy-touched Locomotiv club.

Yushkevich's guidance extended to finding an off-season training home for the teenaged Zaitsev who, though he's now six-foot-two and about 200 pounds, needed to add muscle mass. Yushkevich said he could only recommend Roberts. When they first met at teammates in Toronto, after all, Yushkevich, then 29, said the training and diet tips dispensed by Roberts extended his career.

Zaitsev willingly made the long trip from Siberia to the GTA, even though the bill for airfare and Roberts' services was relatively steep.

"I talked to Nikita's father, and he told me Nikita saved all his money, all his contract. He didn't buy anything. He spent all his money to go and train with Gary Roberts," Yushkevich said.

Yuskevich figured Zaitsev would have been earning about $20,000 (U.S.) at the time, or loose change compared to the one-year deal he signed with Toronto in May that can pay him as much as $1.8 million in salary and performance bonuses.

Roberts was a generous host, inviting Zaitsev to stay at his family home in Uxbridge and including him in a training group with the likes of Steven Stamkos and Connor McDavid.

"Nikita was just a really good person. And a smart one, too," Roberts said. "First thing he told me in that broken English is, 'I need to gain four kilograms this summer.' I did my best. We didn't get quite there. But we got close. I was waking him up in the middle of the night with a protein shake."

While Zaitsev went back to Russia having made considerable gains, the results didn't immediately transfer to the ice.

"After his first summer with Gary, his season wasn't very good," Yushkevich said. "He didn't understand that being strong was just a tool to play hockey. He thought it was the only tool. So he tried to do too much."

Given the disappointing year, Yushkevich said he was worried Zaitsev would regret his summertime outlay. But Zaitsev returned to train with Roberts the following year. And it was only after that second go-round with Roberts that Zaitsev made bigger progress on the ice. He's been on an upward trajectory ever since. After four seasons in Siberia, he spent the three most recent campaigns with hometown CSKA Moscow, the famed Red Army team. A two-time KHL all-star, last season he led the league's defencemen in playoff points.

Standing in the Maple Leafs' Etobicoke practice digs the other day, he looked around and smiled a keen smile. Playing in the NHL, he said, had been a lifelong dream.

"It's the best facility I've ever seen," Zaitsev said. "Everything is here for you, just to play hockey. It's unbelievable."

Zaitsev and his wife, Margo, who is also Russian and also speaks English, spent most of this past summer in Toronto tending to their seven-month-old daughter, Sonia.

"Everything's different here," Zaitsev said. "Mentality. City. Rules. Hockey. Everything."

Roberts saw his former protege play in person for the first time at the World Cup. He hadn't spent time with Zaitsev in a few years after visa problems halted those off-season training voyages. Roberts said he could immediately tell Zaitsev had taken his lessons in lifestyle to heart. ("He's in good shape. He's really disciplined and committed, which I love," Roberts said.) He also saw on-ice qualities in the young Russian that reminded him of Yushkevich, high praise considering Roberts refers to Yushkevich as "one of the best warriors I ever played with."

"Yeah, 100 per cent there's a comparison. Right-hand shot. Not afraid to block a shot. Got a little bit of an edge to him. Nikita is maybe a little more offensively gifted, but what kid isn't nowadays?"

Yushkevich figures Zaitsev has "all the tools" to prosper in the NHL, including a combination of Soviet-worthy selflessness and what Yuskevich calls "unusual" confidence.

"I thought at first maybe he was too confident, too cocky. But no - it was confidence. Great confidence," Yushkevich said. "There are no minuses in his game. It'll take some adjustment because the ice surface is smaller and he'll need to learn how to make quicker decisions. But in the World Cup he looked very comfortable. So I think the transition will come smoothly."

For all the gratitude Zaitsev expresses to his elders - he calls Roberts "a real man" and says Yushkevich "changed everything" about the way he looks at the game - he said their Toronto connection didn't play into his decision to sign here.

"I had other (reasons) to come here. It's a rebuilding team. Many good young guys. Great city. Great fans. History. That's why I decided to come to the Leafs," Zaitsev said.

No matter why he's here and how he performs, he's got at least two fans who'll be keeping close tabs on his progress. Yushkevich said he always follows the news from Leafland: "This year there's a reason to follow it even closer."

Roberts thought back to that first sweat-soaked summer in that gym north of the city.

"He said his goal when we first met was to play in the NHL, and now here he is," Roberts said. "Honestly, I think the Leafs have a good kid. I don't get an opportunity to train many Leafs, so to have an impact on this guy, it'll be fun to watch him."

Credit: Dave Feschuk Toronto Star

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