Commentary

Could it be? Tikhonov and Gretzky with the same team?

Updated: June 21, 2008, 6:58 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

OTTAWA -- In some ways, Viktor Tikhonov, grandson of the legendary Soviet national coach and taskmaster who is his namesake, is the hockey player who fell to earth. Virtually unknown in hockey circles before this year, Tikhonov displayed his flawless English in describing the thrill of hearing Phoenix Coyotes head coach and part-owner Wayne Gretzky announce that the Coyotes had made Tikhonov the 28th pick in the 2008 entry draft Friday night.

"When I was growing up, I was watching him every day. He's been the man. Having him say that, you can't really describe it. It's a huge honor," the well-spoken 20-year-old said.

And then, in an instant, Tikhonov switched to equally flawless Russian, answering questions from a Russian journalist.

Take a look at most of the top draft prognostications, and you won't find Tikhonov's name anywhere on them (it is worth noting, however, that ESPN's Gare Joyce had Tikhonov pegged perfectly in his mock draft).

If there is a mysterious quality to Tikhonov, is it due to the fact that Tikhonov, who was born in Latvia, did not possess a Russian passport until last summer. He'd been asked in the past to play internationally with Russia, but he'd had only a U.S. passport, so it didn't quite work out.

[+] EnlargeViktor Tikhonov
AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Fred ChartrandThis Viktor Tikhonov knows both the borscht and the beach.
And given his lineage, Tikhonov said he's never thought about playing for anyone but Russia.

"I always wanted to play for Russia -- the name and everything," Tikhonov told ESPN.com in an interview before the draft.

With his documentation in place, Tikhonov played his first international hockey for Mother Russia last Christmas at the annual World Junior Championships, helping the Russians to a bronze medal and being honored as the best forward of the tournament.

If Viktor Tikhonov inherited his grandfather's name, it was Tikhonov's father, Vasily, who inherited the coaching genes.

While coaching junior hockey in Finland in the early 1990s, Vasily Tikhonov was approached by the San Jose Sharks about joining their coaching staff. He can still remember the sight of then-owner George Gund's private jet with the San Jose Sharks logo sitting at the small Finnish airport. He jumped at the chance.

Tikhonov spent three yeas as an assistant coach in San Jose, from 1993 to 1996. He then became the first-ever European-born head coach of a North American pro team when he took over the Kansas City Blades of the old International Hockey League. When the Sharks set up their new American Hockey League affiliate in Kentucky in 1996, Vasily Tikhonov went as an assistant coach. But there was little youth hockey to be played there, and so the family returned to the home they'd purchased -- and still own -- outside San Jose.

"From that day I put his [Viktor's] career ahead of mine," Vasily Tikhonov said.

There is an easiness about father and son that speaks to the deep trust they share.

"My dad? He knows everything. I just play. I pretty much do what he says," Tikhonov said.

The moment Gretzky uttered Tikhonov's name, Tikhonov turned to his father to thank him. "The first thing I wanted hug my dad and tell him thank you for all the work [he] put into me, just growing up, all the practices he took me to," Tikhonov said.

Young Viktor Tikhonov received his first pair of skates from his grandfather at three years old. The family was living in Finland at the time and Tikhonov wore the skates in the apartment for three straight days, waiting for the weather to cooperate. When it did, he began playing outside, his mother watching him for hours. When he returned home, he refused to take off the skates, even at night.

"I slept in my skates, too," he said.

And so his life's path was defined.

"That was it. That pretty much did it for me [in terms of the future]," he said.

From the time he was 5 until he was 13, Tikhonov played minor hockey in Santa Clara, Calif. Although his English was impeccable and he sported the trademark California sun-bleached blonde hair, Tikhonov was "the Russian kid" -- even if his classmates and teammates had little idea of his connection to one of the greatest coaches the game has ever known.

While minor hockey was still in a growth period, there was always ice time to be had after the Sharks finished practice.

"As long as they didn't turn the lights off," Tikhonov said.

At one point, the employees began to play games of shinny after the Sharks were done, but they soon decided young Tikhonov was too good to be playing with them -- he never let them have the puck.

Every summer the family would head back to Brainerd, Minn., where many of the Sharks worked out and where the Sharks sometimes held part of their training camp. Tikhonov received piggyback rides from Igor Larionov, and developed a special bond with Viktor Kozlov, now of the Washington Capitals.

For the past five years, though, Tikhonov has been learning the game in Russia, slowly working his way up through the Russian system, from junior to super league farm team to the Russian elite league, in which he played last season for Cherepovets Severstal.

Again he was something of a curiosity: the Russian with the iconic grandfather and the American accent.

"It took me about three years to get the accent out," he said. "I was known as the American."

Tikhonov could have played for his grandfather's team, but he and his father decided it was better to chart a different course.

"The decision I made not to play for him was because I wanted to go my own way. I didn't want people to think that I was on the team because of my grandfather, so I went another way and made my own way up," Tikhonov said.

Could he play for him given his toughness?

"I'd love to try. I don't know how good I'd do, but I'd love to try," he said with a laugh.

"It's kind of weird because as a grandfather he's just like a loving, caring person, he really doesn't transfer his old life to me. But whenever we do get into hockey or after games, he does come up to me, he does say this was good, this was bad, think about it. He doesn't really push it far," Tikhonov said.

While the delays in getting the Russian passport might have conspired to keep Tikhonov something of a mystery and delayed his selection in the draft, both father and son say they never wavered in their belief it would happen.

"As a coach, I saw the big talent and I know he'll play in the NHL sooner or later," Vasily Tikhonov said.

"We like sooner," he added.

So do the Phoenix Coyotes.

"We look at him as a California kid playing in Russia, not a Russian player. He just fits with what we're all about, hard on the puck, competes," GM Don Maloney said.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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