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Breaking down barriers

Lightning rookie Alexander Svitov slowly overcomes culture shock and hones on-ice skills for a spot in YoungStars Game.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 1, 2003


The learning curve works both ways when it comes to Alexander Svitov. The Lightning's rookie center has tried since training camp to learn English, and his teammates are helping ease the process.

"I've actually been learning a little Russian," left wing Chris Dingman said. "Like 'net' and 'behind the net.' Today he learned 'shut your mouth.' We're teaching him all the good words."

A few more words Svitov recently banked into his slowly growing vocabulary: YoungStars and All-Star Weekend.

Svitov plays in the YoungStars Game tonight at the Office Depot Center in Sunrise. The showcase of three running-time periods for players 25 and under still in entry-level contracts is part of All-Star Weekend, which includes Sunday's All-Star Game.

"I'm very excited to be there," said Svitov, 20, with the help of Tampa Bay right wing Nikita Alexeev, who interpreted. "I just want to have fun and win the game. I want to see and meet the YoungStars players, maybe to become friends."

Svitov said he watched, in Russia, last season's game in which Brad Richards represented the Lightning. The league selected Svitov this season to feature a different budding star.

"It's as big as the (veteran) guys' All-Star Game," Svitov said.

And there are a lot of reporters asking a lot of questions, something to which Svitov is not looking forward.

The No. 3 pick in the 2001 draft actually understands English quite well. He is not as comfortable speaking it, though he tries hard, and uses his Russian-speaking teammates as interpreters to talk to the media.

Svitov said he is learning by watching ESPN and movies. But wing Ruslan Fedotenko, who is Ukrainian, said Svitov's English "could be better if we would speak it between us. But he wants to speak Russian."

It is not surprising Svitov wants to hold on to his language. It is something familiar in a situation where so much is not.

Svitov is in a new country, learning a new culture and trying to excel in a game played differently in many respects from the European style he was taught. And he is trying to do it at the world's highest level.

As if that was not enough, Svitov played only a handful of games last season while two teams in Russia fought over his services and tried to keep him from coming to North America. Some in his hometown of Omsk called him a traitor for leaving.

Svitov said his girlfriend, Julia, should be in the United States soon. He said his father, Nikolai, is having trouble getting a visa.

"He's a good kid," coach John Tortorella said. "But remember what this guy has gone through. He didn't play last year. He was almost held captive. He worries about his family as far as how they are being treated. There are so many things he needs to sort out. I think he's handling it very well."

The transition to the NHL has not been easy. Svitov has two goals and two assists in 33 games, averages 7:37 of ice time and his winning percentage on faceoffs, at which he was supposed to be proficient, is a woeful 34.8 percent. Still, he has a defensive awareness and an understanding of the game that keeps his ice time coming, and still-developing, 6-foot-3, 217-pound body holds many body checks and a nasty edge that has yet to show itself.

The learning curve took a sharp upswing during an early January trip to AHL Springfield, where he teamed on a line with Alexeev and left wing Dmitry Afanasenkov. It was Svitov's third stint with Springfield, where he has four goals and five assists in 11 games and is plus-4.

"He's protecting the puck. He's playing more physical," Fedotenko said. "He holds on to the puck and tries to make stuff happen. He seems like he's adjusting better."

"He's learning to make plays," said Dingman, who plays on Svitov's line with Alexeev. "I think there's an urgency in his game that wasn't there before. It was good for him to go (to the minors) and realize how good it is here, and riding the bus isn't so much fun down there."

What is fun is watching Svitov get comfortable with his surroundings.

He recently got blond highlights in his hair. And after Tuesday's 3-0 victory over the Flyers, in which he had two shots on goal and won five of nine faceoffs, he playfully asked to be interviewed.

"I'm just more confident," Svitov said. "I listen to what the coaches are saying, and every shift give 100 percent."

"He's going to be a hell of a hockey player," Tortorella said. "Is he going to be a guy who scores 50, 60 goals in this league? I'm not sure. He's not a natural goal scorer. But he can score and you can put him in a ton of different spots within lines within the game. Slowly but surely he's going to be one of the cornerstones of the organization."

Yet another "good" word for Svitov to learn.


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