EDMONTON - Mikhail Grigorenko says he’s in North America to stay.
The highly touted prospect for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft has been repeatedly asked about the possibility of bolting back to Russia if a sweeter deal came down the pipe.
“They ask me this question all the time,” said Grigorenko, brought to town by the Edmonton Oilers and presented to the media Thursday. “But I came here to play in the NHL. Look, I have a Canada polo (shirt) on.
“I really like Canada, I like this country and not just because of the hockey, even though the hockey is amazing here. I really like living here, it’s amazing being in Canada.”
Born in Khabarovsk, Russia, Grigorenko, 18, is an outside bet to be selected first overall by the Oilers at the draft in Pittsburgh.
He spent last season playing for Patrick Roy and the Quebec Remparts, scoring 40 goals and adding 45 assists in 59 games.
Grigorenko was also a member of Russia’s silver-medal winning team at the World Junior Championships in January.
“It was a really good season for me,” Grigorenko said. “Going to World Juniors was also a good experience for me. I would have liked to have it gone better in the playoffs, but still it was a good experience for me.”
Brought over to play in the QMHJL by the Remparts, Grigorenko didn’t speak a word of English when he first arrived in Quebec.
He did well to assimilate himself to the culture and by the end of the season was able to conduct interviews. Grigorenko handled himself well in front of the Edmonton media contingent.
“When I first got here, I couldn’t talk to people,” he said. “Then, when I learned how to speak, everything got easier and I was able to learn about Canada, about the culture and the people here. It made things so much easier.
“But the first time I was in the locker room, I didn’t know anything so I just sat there and didn’t say anything, I was really shy. But as the season went it got better for me. I became so much more comfortable.”
Dealing with the language was just the first of a number of hurdles Grigorenko had to clear in order to succeed in Quebec. But it probably paled in comparison to having to learn to deal with Roy as a coach.
“I don’t think there was anything bad about playing for him. Yes, sometimes it was tough and sometimes it was scary, but it was a good experience,” he said. “The best part about it was that he was always there trying to help me. It’s really different here than it is in Russia.
“In Russia, you can’t be friends with the coach. Here, off the ice you could talk to him and he would help you and would support you.”
At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Grigorenko is the biggest among the top prospects eligible for the upcoming draft.
Yet despite putting up impressive numbers as a 17-year-old in his first year of major junior, there have been questions raised about his work ethic and desire.
“That’s their opinion, so they can say whatever they want,” Grigorenko said of his skeptics. “When I’m on the ice I try to do my best every game and every shift. Sure, I might have some problems, but I want to work on them and I want to get better every game.”
Up the middle, Grigorenko would be a good fit for the Oilers. He would be a complement to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at centre.
The fact the Oilers decided to bring the talented Russian to town speaks to their diligence when it comes to making what they believe to be the right selection. The club is bringing defenceman Ryan Murray in Friday to kick the tires.
For Grigorenko, Edmonton was the second stop on his NHL tour. He’s already been to visit the New York Islanders and will be heading to Montreal.
“I like the arena here, it’s really nice and the locker rooms here are really nice,” Grigorenko said. “I know that it’s a really young team and they have a lot of really, young talented players. It’s a team with great history, they’ve won five Stanley Cups. I think Edmonton is an offensive team with a lot of good, young players.”