Bryzgalov hopes for Tretiak-like impact
It may not be on a par with Vladislav Tretiak's emergence from the Russian hockey wilderness to stun Team Canada and the rest of the hockey world in 1972. But for pure drama, a young Russian goaltender named Ilya Bryzgalov stands at the ready, hoping to write his way into international hockey lore.
The prevailing wisdom is that the Russian entry in the World Cup of Hockey is ready to spontaneously combust at any one of a dozen pressure points. Defections, injuries, crisis of confidence in management and coaches left the former world hockey power in a shambles before the first blade touched ice at their European training camp, and before their 3-1 victory Thursday night over the U.S. in St. Paul, Minn.
Assemble the players that have turned their back on this tournament and they'd be as good a bet as any of the eight teams to win it all; Nikolai Khabibulin, Alexei Zhitnik, Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Zhamnov, Valeri Bure, Sergei Fedorov, Evgeni Nabokov.
Each day seems to bring with it a new crisis for a country that dominated the sport for literally decades. But nowhere is this fatalism more evident than in goal.
First Khabibulin, still basking in the glow of a Stanley Cup win in Tampa Bay, blew off his countrymen saying team management was in disarray (they were and are) and that without Russian hockey icon Igor Larionov running the show he wanted no part of the team.
Then Nabokov, the former NHL rookie of the year and the San Jose Sharks' netminding anchor, decided he was not recovered sufficiently from arthroscopic knee surgery to take part. Although he said before training camp that he would not play at anything less than 100 percent, sources close to Nabokov told ESPN.com he will not be playing even though he wants desperately to take part.
That leaves a Russian league netminder, Maxim Sokolov, and Bryzgalov. But just as Canadian scouts were dismissive of Tretiak on the eve of the Summit Series, those who are equally dismissive of Bryzgalov may soon be eating vulcanized crow.
The 6-foot-3 native of Togliatti has played exactly 32 minutes of NHL hockey. But no less an expert in goaltending acumen than Francois Allaire, the godfather of the butterfly and the man behind Patrick Roy, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and virtually every top French Canadian goaltender in the NHL, says Bryzgalov is ready.
"Ilya since three seasons with the Ducks I think has made great progress," Allaire told ESPN.com recently. "First of all, he's really an athletic guy. Technically I think he's improved a lot. He's a lot more in control of his game."
Allaire credited Bryzgalov's improved leadership skills in leading Cincinnati to the AHL playoffs last season. Bryzgalov turned in a solid 2.32 GAA in 64 games for Cincinnati.
"He's really developed as a leader on the team. That was one thing we asked him to do after his second year," Allaire said.
Part of that development came from his presence in Salt Lake City, where the Russians won a bronze medal, but a large dose Bryzgalov's personal education came from being the third goalie with the Ducks on their storybook run to the 2003 final.
"I think he learned what kind of commitment the guys in the NHL are bringing," Allaire said. "I think that was a helluva good school.
"Last year he came up as a man, not as a kid coming from Russia. Mentally he had to be stronger, grow up a little bit. Last year he put everything together mentally and technically."
Until arriving in North America as the Ducks' second pick, 44th overall in the 2000 draft, Bryzgalov, 24, lived at home with his parents while playing for the hometown team Togliatti in the Russian elite league.
When he arrived he spoke no English and had to learn an entirely new culture, paying bills, maintaining an adequate diet. With help from his wife and part-time translator Euginya, Bryzgalov said that his learning curve has included both on-ice lessons and lessons in living.
"Before I came to the United States, I was a totally different goaltender," he said. "Now, I feel like I've grown as a goaltender. I think I learned how to control better the game. I'm more professional in terms of getting ready for the games. I'm sharper mentally in technical terms.
"The first year here was a big challenge. The country is totally different from Europe, different language, different mentality. I learned a little bit from the Olympics but more I learned from the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. I learned that the game can go on forever, but you have to stay sharp. You have to find the energy in yourself to be able to win."
The one advantage Bryzgalov may have over other Russian netminding options is his familiarity with the North American style of game, the smaller rinks, the more physical play.
"He's a butterfly guy," Allaire said. "He's developed pretty good with it. He's really, really athletic and really flexible. Most of the time, Ilya is a goalie who's at the right place at the right time."
Can he come out of nowhere in a tournament like the World Cup of Hockey?
"Yes, it's possible," Allaire said. "It's a short tournament and anything can happen. But there is no doubt in my mind this guy is really good."
If you're looking for a bit of symmetry, Bryzgalov credits both Allaire and Tretiak, with whom he's worked at Tretiak's summer camps, as major influences. Although listed as the Russian's third goaltender at Salt Lake City, Bryzgalov said Tretiak told him that if Russian starter Khabibulin was injured, he would have been the one to step in.
"To be honest, I was waiting for a call from Russia," Bryzgalov said. "Because I knew that Khabibulin would not be playing. Then I was just waiting. I was ready.
"If I can, it's a great honor to play for your country and I hope I can help them to play well. Of course it bothers me, players who basically decide not to play because of some disagreements with management of the team. My personal belief is the country should not be punished because of the management of the team. It's, of course, still everybody's choice."
Whatever the circumstances that have opened this rather exceptional door of opportunity, Bryzgalov, father of a 3-month-old Valery, makes no apologies.
"Of course it's a great challenge for me to show my improved game," he said.
As for the perception that the Russian team is taking on water even before the tournament begins, Bryzgalov is nonplussed.
"If I did not believe we could win I would not go there," he said. "I only go on the ice with only one goal -- it's to win."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.