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Loktionov Struggles Mostly Off The Ice

Wednesday, 02.09.2011 / 3:00 PM / Los Angeles Kings | News
By Rich Hammond
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Loktionov Struggles Mostly Off The Ice
For almost every young player, the road to the NHL has its difficult moments. Andrei Loktionov’s struggles, though, have had little to do with his on-ice performance.

Since being drafted by the Kings in the fifth round in 2008, Loktionov has been on the fast track. He had one successful season in junior hockey, helped the AHL Manchester Monarchs to the playoffs last season and made the Kings’ roster this season.

Easy, right? Not even close. Last season, Loktionov missed four months because of a dislocated shoulder, suffered in his first NHL game. This season, he missed a week of action to return home to Russia after the death of his father, following a brief illness.

Throughout it all, Loktionov has persevered. He arrived in North America two-plus years ago as a skinny teenager who spoke almost no English. Now he’s a popular teammate whose rapidly improving language skills are matched only by his on-ice improvement.

``He has a presence on the ice that is just contagious,’’ Manchester coach Mark Morris said. ``He's got a smile on his face the whole time he's playing. He just exudes a confidence and a joy that is hard to describe, other than that everybody loves to play with him because they know that he's going to try to find their sticks.’’

Kings center Andrei Loktionov celebrates his first NHL goal and point during the third period of the game vs. Carolina on Oct. 20.
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
On the ice, this has been a good season for Loktionov. He broke training camp with the Kings and impressed in a limited role before being assigned to the AHL in early November. There, he totaled 31 points in 31 games for the Monarchs.

Called up on Jan. 20, Loktionov has two points in seven games and has become the Kings’ first-line left winger. But in between, things haven’t been easy. In early January, Loktionov’s father died after a brief illness and Loktionov returned home for a week.

``Two months ago, he got sick and was in the hospital, and every day he felt more bad, worse and worse,’’ Loktionov said last week.

Even in his somewhat halting English, Loktionov was able to find the simplest, more accurate words to describe losing a parent at a young age: ``It’s not easy,’’ he said.

Loktionov didn’t slow down much, though. He spent a week back home, returned to the Monarchs on Jan. 12 and played the next night. He didn’t record a point, and had a minus-1 rating, but the very next night, Loktionov had one goal and two assists.

``The first game was not OK,’’ Loktionov said. ``I felt so bad. But then the first game, we won and I felt good. I just tried to play my game and not think about it too much.’’

The whirlwind didn’t end. One week after he returned to the Monarchs, Loktionov got the call from the Kings after Marco Sturm went on injured reserve. In less than 10 days, Loktionov went from grieving with his family to Russia, to AHL hockey in New Hampshire, to NHL hockey in Los Angeles.

``Big step,’’ Loktionov said, simply, with his traditional grin.

Andrei Loktionov began his North American career with the Memorial Cup-winning Windsor Spitfires.
That’s nothing new, though. In 2008, Loktionov’s talent did not reflect his draft status. He slipped to the fifth round, apparently because many NHL teams feared that he would continue playing in Russia rather than make the jump to North America.

Before the draft, though, the Kings felt secure in Loktionov’s promise that he would play a year of junior hockey in Canada, and Loktionov was a young man of his word, as he came over in the fall of 2008 to play for Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League.

A year later, Loktionov was in Kings training camp and, later, in the AHL. Loktionov challenged himself by leaving the comforts of home. He came to North America, a land of strangers, few of whom spoke his language. Loktionov helped himself, at the strong suggestion of the Kings, by taking English immersion classes upon his arrival.

Loktionov’s English is still a work in progress, but he clearly tries. His perpetual grin makes him highly approachable, and he’s chatty -- as much as possible -- with teammates in the locker room and on the road. Loktionov developed a close friendship with fellow Russian Viatcheslav Voynov in Manchester, but doesn’t isolate himself.

``He's funny, because I think he always understands more than he lets on,’’ said Kevin Westgarth, Loktionov’s teammate with the Kings this season and with the Monarchs last season. ``He's getting more and more comfortable with English, but he goes out and we chat. It's pretty easy. He comes out with his and he's fitting in. There are lots of barriers. He's such a young guy, and obviously there's the language, but he's doing good stuff.’’

Loktionov is making strides on the ice as well. In November of last season, the Kings needed a center when Jarret Stoll went down with a strained groin during a road trip. Lotionov got the call and made his NHL debut in Edmonton.

Loktionov didn’t look out of place in the first two periods, but in the third, he went down after a fairly innocent-looking shoulder check and, clearly, was in pain.

The diagnosis was a dislocated shoulder, and doctors in Edmonton had trouble putting it back in place. Loktionov had to stay in Edmonton while the Kings traveled to Vancouver, and he faced a four-month recovery and never returned to the NHL.

When next seen, in training camp last fall, Loktionov looked more confident and stronger on the puck and made the roster coming out of camp. As in Manchester, Loktionov also benefitted from a teammate who could help his comfort level.

Loktionov is often seen walking two paces behind veteran winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, a native of Kiev who is bilingual but whose first language is Russian.

Alexei Ponikarovsky, fluent in Russian, has been an important teammate for Loktionov.
``He basically just asks a lot of questions and, with my knowledge, if I know, I will always give him advice and kind of show him in the right direction,’’ Ponikarovsky said. ``He's still learning a lot, and he has not been around for too long. He's trying to learn English too, which I'm trying to encourage him to do.

``As I've said to him, it's going to be tough if he's not going to learn. You can't just only speak Russian. You have to learn English as well. He's getting there, and he's a good kid. You can see that he's willing to learn, and listen to what's going on.’’

Ponikarovsky said he hasn’t had too many in-depth conversations with Loktionov about his father’s death, instead preferring to let the youngster grieve in his own way, on his own timetable, with a few encouraging tidbits thrown in here and there.

``I'm not asking him too much about it,’’ Ponikarovksy said. ``It's just one of those things that's kind of personal. He's dealing with it, and I think he's dealing with it fine. The only thing I told him is that you just have to play. Things happen. We all have relatives that pass away, and sometimes it's your closer relatives. It's just the way life is, but you just have to keep playing and try to make something good out of it. The way he plays hockey, I think it helps take his mind off it, too.’’

Despite the personal struggle, Loktionov’s game in blossoming. A natural center, he’s currently playing left wing, a position with which he had very little familiarity before last season. In the long run, with proper development, he could be a second-line center.

``He really prides himself on being a guy who sets people up, and at times I wish he was a little bit more selfish, when he has shooting opportunities,’’ Morris said. ``I think that, as his confidence grows, he will probably become more of a shooter. But what we've seen of him is that he makes everybody on the ice better. He doesn't give up on pucks. He's relentless in his pursuit, and he gets to the right places at the right times.’’

Size has been, and will continue to be, the biggest question mark about Loktionov.

He’s listed at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds. That’s not tiny, and Loktionov appears to be adding strength, but he still runs the risk of being exposed against more physical teams.

Still, the Kings are confident that Loktionov will grow into a high-profile role naturally.

Loktionov tries to stuff one past Flames goalie Mikka Kiprusoff last weekend.
``I think Mother Nature will take its course,’’ Morris said. ``He works extremely hard. It may not look like he's real thick right now, but I can assure you that he takes all the necessary steps, during his free time. I've seen it when he's been injured. I've seen it when he's healthy. He's always doing extra. When you look at his body, you can tell that he's starting to get more definition and more thickness.

``Players like him don't come around too often. He's a hard-working guy. You've never got to question the effort. His strength, and his whole game, is going to blossom.’’

Loktionov might face another bit of off-ice challenge this week. Veteran Kings forward Marco Sturm is on track to return from injured reserve, and Loktionov is the only Kings forward eligible to be sent to the AHL without first having to clear waivers.

There’s no language barrier here. As Loktionov sat in a locker room in Calgary over the weekend, he was able to clearly express his knowledge of the task ahead of him.

``I need to get some points,’’ Loktionov said. ``There's a little bit of pressure on me. If I want to play here, if I want to stay here, I need to build up some points.’’