SUN Hockey Pool

Russian evolution

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

His smile is getting bigger every day.

And his hockey skills are growing, too.

Things haven't been easy for Calgary Flames prospect Andrei Taratukhin since he left Russia this summer with hopes of playing in the world's best league.

But the 23-year-old centre has steadily improved as he adapts to life in the NHL.

"I'm finally getting used to it," Taratukhin said through teammate Andrei Zyuzin, who has been serving as a guide and translator during training camp.

"Everything is so different -- hockey and the lifestyle here, the culture."

Leaving behind a wife and two children, Taratukhin came to Canada alone, unable to speak the language and unable to predict his future in hockey.

Although he has a great feel for the game, he admits he was lost initially and had no idea how organized and specific the drills would be in an NHL camp.

"I didn't understand what to do on the ice in the drills. All the game drills," said Taratukhin.

"Now I understand more. I just watch the guys doing it and try to do the same thing. I'm getting better."

His comfort level with his new surroundings certainly seems to have translated into a better performance on the ice. His best game of the pre-season came in Edmonton last week and, should he draw into the lineup tonight against San Jose, you can bet Taratukhin will take another step forward.

But that doesn't mean he doesn't still miss his homeland. Especially his family.

"Of course, it's tough. It's really tough," he said. "Every day I call my wife."

His interpreter can vouch for the difficulty in making the move overseas.

"It's hard for Andrei," said Zyuzin. "It's his first year here -- different language, different lifestyle. I've been in his shoes before. I know how he feels. I didn't speak any English. I understood a couple of words. It's always like locker-room talk -- you always listen and ask the guys, 'What does that mean?' Then I met my wife, she's American, she's from San Jose. She helped me out. We started dating and I started picking up the language."

Zyuzin isn't alone in making Taratukhin feel welcome.

It seems everybody treats Taratukhin as if he's their little brother. Both Andrew Ference and Dion Phaneuf were poking at the puck while Taratukhin practised stickhandling after practice yesterday. The Russian is smiling a whole lot more than he did in his first few days of camp.

"I think he's doing pretty well. He's adjusting to life here," said Zyuzin. "I think he's starting to think more about practice -- the way he has to prepare for practice. It's not like in Europe. (There) you basically show up for games."

Flames head coach Jim Playfair likes the progress Taratukhin has made.

"Andrei's on track, development-wise, for us," said Playfair.

"He's a good student and wants to learn, he doesn't think he's got it all figured out. And he's going to get better every day."


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