Khavanov a key building block

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:22 AM ET

What better way for the Maple Leafs to repair the post-lockout rift with the their fans than get a guy who can build bridges?

But civil engineer Alexander Khavanov's biggest project will be improving Toronto's defence, where the brainy Russian could emerge as general manager John Ferguson's key off-season addition.

"I'm very thankful to that guy," Khavanov said of Ferguson yesterday as the Leafs opened training camp with medicals at Ricoh Coliseum. "He came to visit me (in 1999) when our national team played in Sweden. He wanted to bring me to St. Louis (Ferguson was then in the Blues' hockey office) and that's the biggest story of my life; meeting the right guys at the right time."

Khavanov, 33, had taken a very un-Russian path to hockey, quitting for two years as a teen to attend a prestigious engineering school in Moscow.

"That was important for me," he said. "I wasn't an 'A' student, but I was a good student."

Can he put his degree to use?

"Whatever it takes, bridges or boats," he said, laughing.

By the time Khavanov departed the Blues in the spring of 2004, he compared favourably with the best offensive defencemen in the NHL, though he was content to let Chris Pronger, and before him, Al MacInnis, get the publicity in St. Louis.

Ferguson kept in touch after he became GM of the Leafs and Khavanov's play at the World Cup showed the boss he could fill some of Brian Leetch's role when the lockout ended.

"He's got good stamina and we look upon him as a 20-minute guy in a game," Ferguson said.

Keeping out of the spotlight in Toronto will be a lot more difficult for Khavanov.

"I never expected I would ever be a hockey player, so right now, I'm enjoying it," he said

Defenceman Tyson Marsh (abdomen) and forwards Roman Kukumberg (knee) and Tyler Beechey (shoulder) were the only prospects to check in yesterday with injuries. The Leafs begin scrimmages this morning at Ricoh.

"It (the lockout) is past us now and it's a great day," coach Pat Quinn said as the 60-odd Leafs convened.

Quinn disagreed with the theory that the drama has been taken out of this camp with six to seven bona fide NHLers acquired in the summer certain to beat out youngsters such as forwards Alex Steen and Matt Stajan and defencemen Carlo Colaicovo and Staffan Kronvall.

Fighting in the Leafs' scrimmage games is permitted but Quinn warned any players on the bubble not to think they'll curry favour with him by instigating a brawl.

"I don't like (pre-meditated) fights," he said. "But I don't mind the spontaneity of two guys dropping their gloves."


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