He shoots, he scores, he cracks wise

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

The London Knights have had a few comedians over the years, but none quite like Sergei Kostitsyn.

Brendan Shanahan was good for a giggle. Same with David Gilmore. David Schill would take the mike at the front of the bus and do a stand-up routine. Greg Smyth was pretty hard to beat for outrageous stuff.

None carried it off in two languages, though.

"He's always smiling about something," Knights' head coach Dale Hunter said, "even on the bench."

It's the smile, the wisecracks in broken English, the quickness of his repartee that makes the Kostitsyn schtick work.

Every team needs some comic relief. As the Knights prepare to open their best-of-seven OHL final against the Peterborough Petes tonight at the JLC, it's even more important to help keep people loose.

So, what is it about this 19-year-old from Belarus that makes him so funny?

"It's the accent," goalie Adam Dennis says. "He was quick to pick up certain words (read cuss-words) and the way he says them is hilarious."

"A lot of it is the impish look he always has," says trainer Don Brankley, who has seen a lot of comedians come through the Knights over the years. "He's got more facial expressions than anyone I've ever seen."

Kris Belan knows him best, from driving him to practices and games.

"He's got a comment for everything," Belan said. "It's always about me being a bad driver and 'Let me drive.' No way. On the ice, if you miss the net, it's 'Hey, nice shot.' It never ends."

Kostitsyn erases the caricature of the typical former Soviet athlete, the grim, unsmiling and taciturn player so often ill at ease in new surroundings.

The Montreal Canadiens draft pick stepped right in, not only as a laugh machine, but as a scoring one, too. He's far in the lead of all rookies in playoff scoring, with 11 goals and 29 points.

The value of a team comic cannot be underplayed. They help lighten a long road trip, soften a slump, provide some fun at practice.

Knights associate coach Jeff Perry gets a kick out of Kostitsyn and notes the ease with which he blended in.

Coming halfway around the world to play with strangers in a strange land might daunt some teenagers.

"He was so quick to adapt to North American ways," Perry said. "Normally, a team would go out of its way to accommodate somebody like Sergei, but he did that himself. He fit right in from the start and that dictates the way he plays, too."

From the outset, Belan reports, Kostitsyn became involved in everything the team did, from watching NHL games to going out for a burger with the boys.

How about a word from Kostitsyn? One wondered whether the horrors of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster had some bearing on his lighthearted approach.

Twenty years ago last week, the Ukrainian nuclear plant, seven kilometres from the Belarus border, went up and Belarus received 75 per cent of the radioactive fallout. The thousands of deaths and disfigurement of children born since has been shocking.

"No, Chornobyl is five or six hours away," Kostitsyn said. "My home town (Novopolotsk) was not affected."

Kostitsyn is less open with a reporter than with teammates. Perhaps that's a carry-over from the past, when reporters doubled as spies in the old Soviet Union.

He was a bit of a joker in school, he said. He has learned some of his English watching television, usually hockey. And he did have some brief views on the Petes.

"Pretty good team," he offered. "Have a lot of good players, good D (defence)."

Your favourite English word, Sergei? He had three:

"Pass. Goal. Win," he said.

With a smile, of course.


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