Anton Volchenkov
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Anton Volchenkov


February 28, 2003

Volchenkov gaining open-ice reputation

By Lindsay Berra
ESPN The Magazine

It's a lost art form, the open-ice check, the delivery of a crushing blow that topples its victim so perfectly end-over-end that his shoulder blades -- or worse, his head -- are the first to hit the ice.

An open-ice check requires precise timing, not to mention a healthy dose of hubris and bravado. New Jersey's Scott Stevens, the epitome of don't-mess-with-me defensemen, is the master of the move -- just ask Eric Lindros, who crumpled after a crushing Stevens blow in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals. Behind Stevens, the Rangers' Darius Kasparaitis is a close second.

But Stevens is 38 and Kasparaitis is 30, and they have spent years in the NHL honing their craft, and homing in on their victims. Young Ottawa Senators defenseman Anton Volchenkov is a rarity, a confident 21-year-old kid capable of meting out open-ice punishment without pulling himself out of position.

"He's a force, I tell you," says Senators GM John Muckler.

Volchenkov flattened Jonas Hoglund of the archrival Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada on Feb. 15. A few nights later, he laid out Devils forwards Christian Berglund and Jiri Bicek in a particularly heartless fashion. Each was a clean, hard, throwback-style, open-ice hit.

"There's a real art to that, a skill he obviously learned growing up," says teammate Jody Hull. "Everyone can hit along the boards, but a solid, open-ice hit like that, you don't see too often in our game anymore. He's really starting to make a name for himself."

Names like A-Train, A-Bomb, the Russian Tank, and the Big Bear.

Volchenkov cultivated his crushing style within the Soviet Central Red Army hockey system. Volchenkov's father, Alexei, played in the fabled New Year's Eve tie between the Red Army and the Canadians at the Montreal Forum in 1975. The NHL beckoned to Alexei, but with the Iron Curtain still formidably in place, North America was out of the question.

The son followed in the footsteps of the father. Anton began attending the Red Army's hockey school in Moscow when he was just six years old. He grew through the ranks of the Central Red Army hockey program under the tutelage of Yuri Chabarin, the same coach that groomed standout Russian defenseman Slava Fetisov, and Viktor Tikhonov, longtime coach of the Central Red Army and the Soviet National team.

They taught him well, and where Alexei's path stopped, Anton's continued. He was taken 21st overall by the Senators in the 2000 entry draft and captained the 2001 Russian World Junior team to a gold medal, scoring the game-winning goal in their final victory over the Canadians.

Nine months later, he so impressed the Senators coaching staff that he made the team after his first NHL training camp.

"I liked his confidence. He felt he was good enough to play with the Ottawa Senators, and he wanted to prove that," says Muckler. "He's showed so much poise and played so well and so steady."

Steadier, even, since the Senators hulking Slovakian defenseman Zdeno Chara bruised his chest in that Feb. 15 game against the Leafs. Before that, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Volchenkov was averaging 15 minutes, 24 seconds of ice time a game. In the six games since then, he's been anchoring Ottawa's dwindling blue line; his ice-time average is up to 18:27.

"What's surprising is that he has been real consistent," says Senators assistant coach Don Jackson. "The first thing you look at is how well he handles the puck under pressure, in tight situations. He's a quick player, he has a quick shot, and he has the ability to hit big. All of it comes from attitude and the ability to understand what it takes to play here."

What it takes is solid defense, offensive contribution (he does have 14 points), good pass selection, and, of course, the hitting. The only thing Volchenkov isn't excelling in is English. He still speaks through an interpreter and is attending weekly English classes with Senators backup goalie Martin Prucek. Just last week, he learned to order his own dinner.

But no matter: His English will come. For now, he's sending a message that the whole league can understand -- with his body checks.

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