- Scott Burnside, NHL
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When does a young man step out of the shadow of his past?
When does a single, isolated moment of brutality cease being his constant companion?
Is it in the moment when he skates in alone, scoring his first NHL goal on a highlight-reel breakaway? Or does it take more for Alexander Perezhogin to free himself of the memory of defenseman Garrett Stafford convulsing on the ice in a pool of his own blood?
You look at Perezhogin, 22, a native of Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, standing in his blue pinstripe suit after a Montreal Canadiens team meeting in this early NHL season, and it's hard to reconcile the player with the schoolboy looks and the curly hair with one of the most violent incidents in hockey memory.
He is shy, a product of his unfamiliarity with the English language, a skill that atrophied last season when he played in the Russian elite league after being suspended by the American Hockey League for the entire season.
Through interpreter and tutor Alexei Kovalev, Perezhogin described his excitement at finding himself on a line with Kovalev and Habs captain Saku Koivu, and how he is trying to learn from them, asking questions, watching them.
"What he's trying to learn is what he needs to do in this league to get better, and definitely, he watches us and the rest of the guys that have been in the league for a while, to adjust himself because, you know, [the] Russian game is a completely different game than the NHL," Kovalev said. "We tell him, go to the net, he goes to the net. We tell him, shoot the puck, he shoots the puck, and that's why he's already scored a couple of goals. He's a quick learner."
After a recent 2-0 win over the Atlanta Thrashers in which Perezhogin notched an assist, his third straight game with a point, he and Koivu were seen gesturing and chatting afterward about what Perezhogin was trying to accomplish on a given play.
"Sometimes he talks and you don't know what he's saying," Koivu said with a grin. "But we're getting used to each other. I'm surprised by his play without the puck. He's not cautious. He's willing to put his nose in tough spots."
In some ways, the language barrier is a natural buffer between Perezhogin and the highly publicized incident during the 2004 AHL playoffs. When Kovalev was asked to relay a question about whether Perezhogin thought that it worked out better to play last season in Russia, away from the attention, Kovalev gave a wry grin.
"He's not really happy talking about this question. I'll ask him," Kovalev said.
The answer is brief.
"He doesn't want to talk about it. He's going to try and forget about it, and there's a lot of people asking about it. He doesn't like that question," Kovalev reported back.
Kovalev was asked to try a follow-up question: Does Perezhogin think he will ever be free of the incident? The answer is again brief, the shy grin disappearing quickly behind a severe frown.
"He doesn't know how to answer that," Kovalev said.
Perhaps it is a question without an answer. Can Stafford answer the same question about whether he will ever walk free of that moment on April 30, 2004, in Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario? (After considering a request for an interview from ESPN.com for several days, Stafford declined through a Cleveland Barons public relations official.)
It was late in the first period of a playoff game between the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Canadiens' top farm club, and the Cleveland Barons, the top affiliate of the San Jose Sharks. During an altercation in front of the Barons' net, Stafford struck Perezhogin in the back of the helmet with his stick. The 6-foot, 190-pound Stafford went down just as Perezhogin turned and swung his stick baseball style.
In the normal course of events, it would have been a slash to the pants or midsection. But Perezhogin's stick struck Stafford in the head, opening a cut that would take 20 stitches to close. Stafford was hospitalized with a concussion along with a series of facial contusions.
Perezhogin was later charged with assault causing bodily harm, a criminal charge to which he pleaded guilty.
According to sources close to Perezhogin, he tried desperately that evening to try to contact Stafford through the Barons' training staff, but was unable to. Later, he made a public apology for his actions.
Neither player had a history of such behavior.
"He has to move on. He's done that. All I can say is I know him, I know him well enough to know it was uncharacteristic of him to do that. There was no intent behind it," said Montreal coach Claude Julien, who coached in Hamilton before being promoted to the Canadiens' head position in January 2003.
"I've looked at it and there's no way he deliberately tried to do that. He just turned around [like a] reflex and it happened. The league took a stance that it had to take because we're trying to clean up the game. We respect that. But in respecting their decision, I think it's important for people to know it's not his style."
There is a tendency in these situations to focus on the accused. It's easier to address issues of crime and punishment, remorse and penance than it is to address the murkier issues of effect and recovery. It's also somehow more compelling when the accused is a star or has star quality.
It is so with Todd Bertuzzi and the victim of Bertuzzi's attack, Steve Moore, and it is so with the talented Perezhogin, the 25th overall pick in the 2001 draft, and the relatively unknown Stafford.
Whether Moore will ever play again is unknown. Stafford returned to play a year ago, but there is no doubt the incident has stunted his development.
A native of Southern California, Stafford, 25, starred at the University of New Hampshire but went undrafted. He was cut by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Dallas Stars before landing a gig with Cleveland. He was signed to his first NHL contract by the Sharks in December 2003. A skilled puck mover, Stafford was a member of the AHL's all-rookie team in 2004 and a second-team All-Star.
Stafford is described by San Jose assistant general manager Wayne Thomas as a "workout freak." But recurring headaches prompted by the attack prevented him from attending prospect camps leading up to the start of the 2004-05 season, then Stafford found himself pushed down the depth chart because top young defensemen such as Josh Gorges, Jim Fahey and Christian Ehrhoff ate up much of the ice time during the lockout.
"I think he's moved on. But I think it was difficult," Thomas said. "Last year, I think he was thinking the whole thing through."
That said, Stafford remains a viable NHL prospect.
Thomas said Stafford had a "really good" training camp with the Sharks last month and managed to get in an exhibition game in Anaheim.
In the new NHL, Stafford is exactly the kind of player who might find a future in the NHL.
"He has great hockey sense," Thomas said. "He's got high-end skill."
Perhaps that's where the answer to that difficult question lies, that question of two players being able to finally put the past behind them.
Perezhogin has been living out of a Montreal hotel, but Julien said that is a function of the Habs' early road schedule. Soon, he will be given leave to find a place to live, having found a home in the NHL.
Stafford hopes for such news someday, and perhaps in that moment, both will be able to walk free of their shared past.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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