They come to Canada as kids, some of them unable to speak more than a couple of words of English.
In Western Canada, they ride the busses for six, eight or more hours at a time through -30 C weather and the occasional blizzard, teenagers from European nations looking for major junior hockey experience.
Once in a while, one of them becomes a Stanley Cup playoff hero celebrated in their junior hockey city. That’s the way it is right now with former Saskatoon Blades goaltender Anton Khudobin.
“It’s cool to be a Blades fan in Saskatoon with all the Khudobin talk with all the Stanley Cup and even some Conn Smythe Trophy talk. Crazy,” said Les Lazaruk, the long-time voice of the Blades.
It this case it’s a warm, fuzzy story that goes both ways.
“He may have only played one season with the team back in 2005-06 but he left more than a lasting impression on the team and his teammates, a billet family and hundreds of Blades fans, all of whom loved him,” said Lazaruk.
Anton Valerievich Khudobin was born 34 years ago in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakh SSR, Soviet Union, now known as Kazakhstan, and was brought to Saskatoon by then coach and general manager Lorne Molleken.
Drafted in the seventh round, 206th overall by the Minnesota Wild, ‘Dobby’ has also played in the NHL for Boston, Carolina and Anaheim and is at the end of a two-year deal with Dallas and is about to become an unrestricted free agent which might make him of interest to the Edmonton Oilers who happen to be in the market.
Mostly used as a backup, the five-foot-11 goaltender has started 198 NHL games and won half of them, recording a 2.46 goals against average and a .919 save percentage.
Average numbers. But replacing injured starter Ben Bishop, he’s been brilliant.
He’s 3-1 with a goals against average of 1.64 and a .952 save percentage.
When you are a play-by-play guy with a junior team you get to know players on an entirely different level, riding the busses with them and Lazaruk was talking about how that makes an occasion like this special for even a veteran media guy.
“Anton knew little or no English when he arrived in Saskatoon. His billets were a great help in that respect as were his teammates with the usual chatter, laced with expletives. European players usually learn all the bad words before they learn the more useful words in order to communicate.”
Lazaruk said some things are difficult to communicate beyond the normal stuff — like Saskatchewan not having anything to do with daylight saving time.
“The Blades had a simple there-and-back game day trip to Regina and Anton was scheduled to start that night but when it was time to depart there was no Anton.
“He was still at home because he didn’t know that everywhere else in the world the time changes but not in Saskatchewan. His timepiece changed the time on him and he thought he still had an hour before the bus left. The bus met him at a gas station just south of Saskatoon on Highway 11 on the road to Regina. It was quite entertaining to experience the explanation of Saskatchewan time to him.”
Lazaruk has experienced Khudobin getting in the zone he’s in right now during his junior year in Saskatoon.
“Anton will forever be remembered for several brilliant performances but none more than on the night of Saturday, April 8 in Medicine Hat when he stopped 80 shots in a 4-3 overtime playoff loss to the Tigers. He was spectacular that night like he has been for the Stars in the playoffs thus far.”
Molleken said one of the first games Khudobin played for the Blades was like that and against Medicine Hat as well.
“It might have been the first game he played with us. It was an exhibition game against the Tigers and I think we lost 2-1 or 3-2. I think he faced 68 or 69 shots. They played the whole third period five on three. He threw his arms up. I had to try to explain to him that it wouldn’t be like that every night.”
Molleken said Khudobin came to him as a bit of a gift.
“He’d already been drafted and we were going through our process with the European draft when I got a call from Tom Thompson who scouted for Minnesota asking if I might be interested in this kid because he was a 19-year-old. He was in Traverse City at a tournament there and we had to go to Seattle to pick him up to take him through customs and get his paperwork done.
“He didn’t understand any English. I was trying to ask him what he wanted to have to eat. He said ‘sushi.’ That was our first introduction to Anton. He was quite the kid. He was a character. He was a lot of fun to be around.”
Important to him in his time in Saskatoon was finding David and Anna Gersher as his billets. She worked at the University of Saskatchewan and did the translating for Team Russia when the World Juniors were in Saskatoon.”
When I asked Khudobin about his time in Saskatoon in the Zoom media post-game interview session Saturday night, he spoke mostly of them.
“I still have conversations with my billet family over in Saskatoon. I see them during the season when we come to Edmonton and sometimes Calgary. They drive from Saskatoon and I still have a very good relationship.”
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