'I made the right move for myself'

Nikolai Zherdev's agent calls him a typical 19-year-old boy from Russia. He's proving to be anything but.

Updated: December 11, 2003, 7:46 AM ET
By Rob Parent | Special to ESPN.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There are two Nikolai Zherdevs.

The first comes as advertised: "A typical 19-year-old boy from Russia," said his agent, Sasha Tyinych.

Nikolai Zherdev
Nikolai Zherdev is one of five Blue Jackets prospects from CSKA.
Having just completed a practice with his newest hockey teammates Wednesday, Zherdev was keeping quietly to himself, fidgeting with his skates, playing with his cell phone and appearing in need of a dab of Clearasil.

A typical teen in any nation.

The second is making news as the focal point of a worldly sports issue being contested as if the international stage were still separated by a curtain of iron.

This Nikolai re-enters the locker room dressed appropriately for the part -- donned in a black turtleneck, black leathery jeans and silver-toned sneakers. A left winger for the Blues Jackets or a soldier who fled his country? He's the NHL's international man of mystery, his fast feet capable of making the swiftest of escapes.

He made one on Nov. 29, a sole decision from the heart to leave the Russian Elite League's Central Army team, CSKA-Moscow. He would pursue the professional life that awaited him in far-away Columbus. Zherdev's travels and the international tidal waves they have caused have been well chronicled since then.

"It was unbelievable to me when he called and said he wanted to play in Columbus," Tyinych told ESPN.com. "I said, 'You sure about that?' He's only 19 years old. It's in the middle of the hockey season. He doesn't speak English, and he wasn't prepared. He had no idea about what kind of hockey was played here. It was a different ice surface, everything was different. But he said, 'I would like to come, and I think I am ready.' It was a tough decision to make for a kid, and I'm very proud of him.

"He's that kind of kid," added Tyinych, an agent now based in Ottawa who played for the Soviet Red Army team as Vladislav Tretiak's backup. "To make this decision by himself, this is special. Of my young Russian clients who are of the same age, not too many would have that kind of toughness to be able to make that tough decision.

"This comes when there's a lot of pressure on him, and it's from both sides. But he said, 'I'd like to try. I'd like to do it myself.' "

So Zherdev got on a plane in Moscow and flew to Frankfurt, Germany. From there it was on to Toronto, where he met Columbus' director of amateur scouting, Don Boyd. The two then flew to Ottawa for an interview with a member of the U.S. consulate to gain a two-year work visa, and then if was off to Columbus where he finally was allowed to collapse in a hotel room a week ago Monday.

Zherdev was in the starting lineup the next night at Nationwide Arena against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. His impact was felt immediately, scoring a goal and an assist and logging a disallowed goal in his first two games.

"The way he sees the ice is something you don't often see in younger guys," said Manny Malhotra, who is centering Zherdev and right winger Tyler Wright on the Blue Jackets' new third line. "He has that patience. He sees everything. He can shake off (defensemen), and the stickhandling is what you really notice about him. I'm impressed so far."

So are his bosses, who drafted Zherdev fourth overall in last June's draft. With Rick Nash already blossoming into the two-way star everyone has been predicting him to be, Zherdev and fellow Russian prospect Dmitry Kosmachev are expected to become impact offensive players for the Jackets in the near future.

He understands he's under a microscope with people here, in the NHL and in Europe and with the Russians. But I told him to relax, try to enjoy this. It's a great opportunity for you; a great life.
Sasha Tyinych, Nikolai Zherdev's agent
CSKA and Russian Ice Hockey Federation officials aren't ready for that future to come now, though. They've charged that Zherdev is a conscripted soldier. Zherdev has said he's neither taken an oath nor signed any agreement to serve. Without proof that he wasn't in the Russian military, the NHL confirmed his eligibility.

"He's here on his own accord, and he doesn't want to go back," Blue Jackets assistant general manager Jim Clark told the Columbus Dispatch on Tuesday. "It's a spoof to the point that if he's been inducted into the military, it's been done ... for the sole purpose of restricting his movement. He's received no military training. He's never been through any sort of boot camp."

Perhaps not, but it was reported in Moscow on Tuesday that Russian federation officials have certified documentation proving Zherdev's military status. If an arbitration hearing is ordered, preparations for the case could take one to three months, and NHL officials would likely take as long as they can to delay the hearing.

At issue, of course, isn't the kid or the man. It's the money.

Zherdev, who played 2002-03 with CSKA, signed a three-year rookie contract with Columbus at the Aug. 15 deadline, becoming the last European player to sign a contract under the NHL-IIHF transfer agreement that expires at the end of this season. That didn't seem to cast him in a favorable light with his team. Vasily Tikhonov, who was filling in for his father and legendary Russian national team coach Viktor Tikhonov, yanked Zherdev from his usual position on a scoring line and cut his ice time. The two butted heads, apparently expediting Zherdev's decision to leave. Reportedly, Vasily Tikhonov was disciplined by the team. And now, Clark said, Kosmachev and another one of Columbus' four prospects still playing for the CSKA have been "officially inducted" into the Russian military.

Strange coincidences.

When he signed, the agreement required the Jackets to only pay a $100,000 transfer fee, but the actual price to pry a good Russian prospect away is thought to be many times that. Now the Zherdev case will be in the forefront of the Russian federation's push to move that transfer fee closer to the million-dollar mark.

A heavy burden for any kid or man.

"He understands he's under pressure right now," Tyinych said. "He understands he's under a microscope with people here, in the NHL and in Europe and with the Russians. But I told him to relax, try to enjoy this. It's a great opportunity for you; a great life."

Naturally, then, the kid did what anyone under the gun would do -- he went to the mall. So Nikolai, where'd you get the shoes?

"Moscow," Zherdev replied with a smile.

Moscow is one of only two discernible English answers he gave during an interview Wednesday, with Tyinych acting the part of careful translator and editor. With so much international intrigue surrounding Zherdev, both Tyinych and Blue Jackets management have limited questions to Zherdev's hockey life.

Zherdev said he'd like to play for Russia in the World Junior Championships, Dec. 26-Jan. 5, in Finland, if that's what the Blue Jackets think is best. Of course, there are other considerations.

"I would like to help my country win the gold championship," he said, "but I don't know right now if that can happen."

He does make an effort to talk about how he misses his girlfriend and his parents, whom he left behind in Kiev when he was just 13, saying through Tyinych, "I'd like to get settled here first, then I'll probably bring my parents over to Columbus."

Meanwhile, he calls and tells mother that he's eating well, which leads to the other English word Zherdev knows. His favorite meal? "Pasta," Zherdev said with obvious delight.

Maybe the pressure's worth it after all.

"It's pretty tough for him just with the language barrier," Wright said. "But on the other hand, the biggest part of his game is handling the puck. So the defensive side of it, obviously he's going to have to learn that over the next little bit. But you can't teach people skill and hockey sense, and when a kid is that creative you don't want to limit any part of that. You have to let it go and let him be creative."

It's all Nikolai Zherdev the kid and the man seems to want for himself. To be let go. To create his own new life.

Asked if he thinks the move he made is a courageous one -- a question that seemed to make Tyinych nervous -- Zherdev's translated response was quick and succinct:

"Yes, I think so," he said. "I think I made the right move for myself. And I'm very happy right now."

Rob Parent of the Delaware County (Pa.) Times is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE