Grabovski starting to settle in

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

Mikhail Grabovski doesn't speak much English. Doesn't matter.

So far, the Maple Leafs' 24-year-old centre has pretty much let his game do the talking.

He is 5-foot-11 with big dreams. Last year he couldn't break into the lineup of the Montreal Canadiens, who already have their quota of smallish centres who are quick with the puck. And while Grabovski may have trouble understanding English, he could read the writing on the wall in Montreal.

He even left the team to confer with his agent about his lack of playing time. A definite no-no in NHL culture, the move didn't endear him to management or teammates. It hastened his exit and this off-season, with just three goals in 24 NHL games he was gone -- traded to the Maple Leafs.

"I am happy. I like it much here," he said yesterday. And, what's not to like. So far this has been a mutual admiration society between team and player. Grabovski led the team in pre-season scoring on the No. 1 line with Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Yesterday, he worked between Jiri Tlusty and Niklas Hagman. No matter.

As long as he's getting a chance to prove himself an NHL front-liner, he's not picky about the company. He believes he was born to be on skates -- always has, since the first day his father, Yuri, took him to the rink half a world away in Belarus.

"My father. One day we go to the stadium. I skate first time. I was very good. My father say, OK, go. I didn't fall down. I liked it a lot," says Grabovski, in halting sentences. The grammar, like his game so far this spring, cannot be faulted for effort and the words come with a wide grin at the memories they stir up.

From that moment there was no doubt: "It was always about hockey, sometimes soccer, but more hockey."

His favourite player was Peter Forsberg.

"He was smart player. A centre, like me. He had a good head for the game," says Grabovski, sounding like countless road-hockey wannabes from Scarborough to Peggy's Cove. He cheered for the Colorado Avalanche.

"My family liked sports. My dad played all sports but not professionally. He works in a factory as an engineer. He was my first coach. He has helped me all the time ... and soon he will be coming (to Toronto)."

He scored 10 goals in 48 games with Moscow Dynamo in 2005-2006 but what really got him noticed was his outstanding play with Belarus in the world championship. It earned him his ticket to North America, and both the most thrilling and scariest experience of his life.

CULTURE SHOCK

"I go to Montreal. I remember first day I couldn't sleep. I think about my new future. I stay alone. No friends, nothing. Lonely," he says.

It is an experience with which many Europeans can identify.

"I went to Moose Jaw and didn't say anything for three months, all I did was nod a lot," says Pavel Kubina, laughing now.

"Having (Antropov and Ponikarovsky) here gives him someone to go to," says Kubina, who spoke only his native Czechoslovakian when he arrived 12 years ago. "I was playing for a few hundred bucks a month (in junior). You can't afford plane tickets to bring family, your parents. The language is different, the style of life is different. You get lonely."

Suddenly the camaraderie, so much part of the sport culture, is gone. A player can find himself alone in the crowd.

"You go home, you can't even make a phone call," says Kubina. "Sometimes you don't know what the coach wants or what your teammates are saying."

So, what's more difficult. Learning to talk Canadian, or learning to play Canadian? Grabovski laughs. He seems to laugh a lot.

"Hockey is first the hardest. It is different. Small rink. Second problem is English. Hard.

"I understand but sometimes I can't speak because my English is not so good yet. Sometime I don't know what other players or coach (he stops, searching for a word) think (another pause and a shrug) me do. I ask Antropov and Ponikarovsky sometime and they help me," he says.

The language, like his game, is a work in progress. But, unlike in Montreal, at least there will be an opportunity for both to flourish.


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