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
"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
"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.
~End - Top of Page