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09-27-2003, 10:07 PM
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Kondratiev is quietly making a case for himself

BY JEREMY SANDLER CanWest News Service—Toronto

Russia’s Maxim Kondratiev (right) checks Switzerland’s Andrei Ambhul during their world junior hockey championship game in Sydney N.S., Dec. 31, 2002. Kondratiev, who helped Russia win gold in the tournament, has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ training camp this year.

Much-hyped youngsters who play for the Toronto Maple Leafs usually have a difficult time avoiding the media spotlight.
Impressive performances in practices and exhibition games led Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn this week to make a heady comparison between Maxim Kondratiev and such accomplished NHL blueliners as Dmitry Yushkevich and Danny Markov.

Despite the tongues set wagging by the native of Togliatti, Russia, the 20-year-old’s contribution to clips for the local press corps had been nil.

Thursday, for the first time, Kondratiev spoke. Sort of. Apart from the words ‘‘hockey,’’ ‘‘defencemen’’ and ‘‘nyet,’’ Toronto reporters had no hope of understanding directly from the mouth of the sweaty and wide-eyed youngster, but still aimed their microphones and camera lenses at their foreign quarry in his first full-blown scrum.

‘‘He’s got a lot of different words, Marlboro and vodka usually,’’ insisted fellow Russian Alexander Mogilny, who was pressed into service as interpreter for his countryman.

‘‘He believes in himself and he always knew that he could do it,’’ came the first answer filtered through Mogilny when someone asked Kondratiev about his first NHL training camp.

Challenged on the exactness of his translation, the ever wry Mogilny fessed up to some polishing of the youngster’s words.

‘‘No he didn’t ‘say that’, but I’ve got to make it look nice,’’ the winger/translator said before relaying another set of questions and answers.

‘‘Obviously he can do everything he can and he’ll be happy to stay here,’’ came Mogilny’s next translation, showing that the standard North American sports cliches are a universal language.

Quinn impressed

While the interview was not all that expansive, Kondratiev’s play thus far has spoken volumes. Coach Quinn, while still unsure what role the player selected 168th overall in the 2001 NHL entry draft might have with the Maple Leafs this year, he reiterated how impressed he has been with the youngster’s play thus far.

He also indicated that part of his successful conversion to North America will be picking up more English, whether he plays in Toronto or with the farm team in St. John’s.

‘‘Over the years I’ve experienced lots of guys that come in and the language barrier is difficult at the start,’’ said Quinn, praising current Leaf imports Tomas Kaberle and Nik Antropov for improving their language skills. ‘‘Going back to when we first brought Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov out, one guy — Krutov — didn’t care about it and one guy — Larionov — did, and he’s still here.’’

Besides an impression on his coach, Kondratiev has also impressed his teammates, including captain Mats Sundin, who said the Russian had been one of the team’s best performing rearguards through the pre-season. And while Sundin, a centre, can not relate to trying to learn the rules of engagement for an NHL defenceman, as a Swede sent to play for the Quebec Nordiques in 1990 he understands the culture shock facing Kondratiev.

‘‘Socially, it’s a challenge,’’ said Sundin, who could speak English when he arrived in the NHL, something he said helped a lot. ‘‘I was the only Swedish player in Quebec City, but I it doesn’t matter what nationality, if you have good people in the room.

‘‘I think with having Alex here and some of the other European players, hopefully it’s going to be better for him and I think the most important thing for him is that he gets to know the language as fast as he can and gets to speak English. Just to get friends and get him by in the community.’’

Mogilny gave a qualified endorsement of Kondratiev’s performance with the media.

‘‘Because he talked to me, he doesn’t have to do all the answers, but I think he handled himself good,’’ said Mogilny, who added he is willing to help Kondratiev as best he can, but that’s not the ideal scenario for integration.

‘‘The more he tries on his own, the better for him it’s going to be.’’

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