Russian's rough ride

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

If sacrifice is a prerequisite for a successful NHL career, Calgary Flames prospect Andrei Taratukhin's future is bright.

The Russian spent much of last season in a foreign environment, playing on an unfamiliar surface and surrounded by strangers. Meanwhile, his wife and twin babies were overseas waiting for immigration papers to arrive.

Taratukhin's wife Daria visited Omaha -- where the 24-year-old was sent to adapt to the North American game after growing up on the larger European ice -- for a couple of weeks in November.

Daria brought son Alexandr for a month around Christmas, and returned in February with daughter Maria, but the young family wasn't together until March when papers for Taratukhin's mother-in-law arrived, allowing one of the babies' primary caregivers to lend a hand and bring both twins -- who turn two Aug. 30 -- to the U.S.

"It's pretty tough for my wife with two kids," Taratukhin said at the Don Hartman Northeast Sportsplex, where the Flames development camp continues through Saturday. "She needs help."

As tough as it is for a young mother to raise twins when dad is on the road, it's equally arduous for a Russian with no real grasp of the English language to make a go of life in North America on his own.

"It was a hard time for me," Taratukhin said, searching for the right words. "It was difficult last season without my family.

"That's too much time without my family."

Incredibly, the off-ice situation didn't seem to affect the happy-go-lucky centre as he contributed 17 goals, a team-best 43 assists and a shared team-high 60 points for the AHL Knights as a rookie.

"Between Russia and North America, it's a big difference," said Taratukhin, whose improvements off the ice are as impressive as those he's made on it. "The first 10 games it was really hard and after that it got better, better, better.

"It was a good year. Good coaches, good team, everything good -- except money, of course."

With that, the affable 6-footer with the permanent smile breaks out in laughter. But the fact he remains dedicated to achieving his goal of playing in the NHL, despite having to earn his way there while toiling for much less money than he could make in the Russian Superleague, speaks volumes of his character.

"You never really saw him upset or without a smile on his face. He's such a good kid and so laid back. Maybe if he is frustrated he doesn't show it," said teammate Brandon Prust. "He's always having a good time. He's always with the boys. We try to talk and help him out, and we're even trying to learn some Russian from him.

"We make it comfortable for him when his family is not there."

Taratukhin found a surrogate family of sorts when the team discovered two of their season-ticket holders, John and Jodi Campbell, had a son born in Russia. Their 12-year-old boy, Alex, befriended Taratukhin and played a major role in the hockey player's off-ice transition.

"They really helped me," Taratukhin said. "It was just good luck."

After depending on Andrei Zyuzin as his interpreter last fall, Taratukhin's English has come a long way. He pauses to search for certain words, but the progress is inspiring.

"He's picking it up. He's always trying to learn. I'll correct him even on some things, and he'll remember and repeat it," Prust said. "Like yesterday he said, 'I won somebody in ping pong.' And I said, 'No, you beat someone.'

"I heard him repeat it four or five times."

In addition to upgrading his English, Taratukhin has come to development camp in better condition, both physically and mentally, than for last fall's training camp.

"I feel much better now," he said. "I'm comfortable here (he points to his head), I'm comfortable with this game, I'm comfortable with life."

Another year of seasoning in the minors isn't ideal, but he's committed to his NHL dream and doesn't appear willing to abandon it like some of his other countrymen have done for richer forays into Europe.


Videos

Photos