Konstant changes

SCOTT FISHER -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:28 AM ET

As they do after every home game, the Calgary Hitmen shed their equipment, walk down the hall to the Flames dressing room and ride the stationary bikes for 15 minutes.

Veteran centre Shaun Landolt strolls out of the exercise room, clearly searching for something, or as it turns out, someone.

Peering down the hallway, Landolt sees him.

"Pushy!" he hollers. "C'mon!"

Rookie import Konstantin Pushkarev -- or simply 'Pushy' to his teammates -- hurries to join the workout, trying in vain to explain his tardiness.

It's a familiar scene at the 'Dome. If you see Pushkarev, Landolt won't be too far away.

The overager took it upon himself to take the young player from Kazakhstan under his wing this season, he explains.

"I didn't think it was my job," Landolt says. "I just kind of put myself in his shoes and thought how he feels not knowing anyone and not speaking the language.

"He didn't really know what was going on so I thought I'd show him around."

Pushkarev, the Hitmen's second-leading scorer who spoke very little English when he first arrived, now feels comfortable conducting his own interviews.

He takes classes up to three times a week and is able to communicate with teammates and coaches much more effectively, says Landolt.

"He was a pretty quiet kid but I guess it would be like that for anyone who has left their country," Landolt says. "He started to open up around Christmas. He could talk a little bit but nothing compared to what he can comprehend now. He still has a little trouble but he can manage."

As the 20-year-old Pushkarev became more comfortable with his surroundings, he started to hit his stride on the ice. He averaged .60 points per game over the first half of the season but has been over a point a game since.

However, the 6-ft. 1-in., 180-lb., forward is still getting accustomed to the North American game.

GM/head coach Kelly Kisio, who doesn't have much hair to spare, has lost -- or torn out -- more than a few follicles watching the wildly unpredictable but always entertaining Pushkarev.

The young Euro has good days and, as Kisio puts it, "Pushy days."

"He's the type of kid who can change a game in a hurry," says Kisio, who has done his best not to stifle Pushkarev's creativity.

"So you just keep talking to him and talking to him and putting him out there."

The Los Angeles Kings second-round draft pick has become a fan favourite for his top-end puck skills. Whirling and spinning, searching for open ice, it's as if he believes the game will be decided by whoever holds onto the puck the longest.

Sometimes it appears as though he doesn't want to shoot the puck because it will mean giving up possession.

While thrilling for the fans, it can drive linemates crazy. Landolt said he has given up trying to anticipate what Pushkarev will do next.

"In Europe, it's a totally different style and you can still see that in his play when he holds on to the puck a lot longer," Landolt says. "The longer you have the puck over there, the better. I played with him for a couple of months and it was really hard because you never know what he's doing."

But he has made strides. He's more aware of his defensive responsibilities and has been more physical the past few months, which brings a smile to Kisio's face, said the coach.

"He's come a long way," Kisio says. "And I think it has been very good for him to come over and play for a year or two before he makes the next step.

"Our game mirrors the NHL, for the most part, so he's understanding what it takes to play."

Kings scout Al Murray has watched Pushkarev a half-dozen times this season and has noticed a dramatic improvement.

"There's been a huge change in his style," Murray says. "He's always had good hands and good vision but, with that European style, he's always circling, cycling and holding onto the puck. There's a lot of east-west skating instead of north-south.

"But he's improved those areas quite a bit over the year."

Pushkarev had originally planned to play in Russia's elite league but rule changes eliminated the necessity of using young players.

So Murray said he was ecstatic when the Hitmen took a chance on Pushkarev by taking him in the CHL import draft.

"We have a lot of confidence in Kelly Kisio, with his background in the NHL, and the Calgary Hitmen organization in their ability to develop young players," Murray says. "We think it's a terrific situation."

A junior club's responsibilities can be wide-ranging when dealing with European players. In addition to teaching the North American style, teams must also deal with the youngster's culture shock, Murray added .

"With some teams, you might be concerned," Murray says. "But not with Calgary."

Pushkarev, with 19 goals and 45 points in 59 games, has earned his ice time in Calgary. With Ryan Getzlaf and Andrew Ladd away at the world junior tourney, the club leaned heavily on Pushkarev for offensive production.

The Hitmen will need that level of play from Pushkarev down the stretch and into the playoffs, Kisio said.

"He's a key guy for us so I'm sure as we get down to the wire here, he'll play a lot more."


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