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Kirill Kabanov #7 of the Moncton Wildcats skates during the QMJHL game against the Montreal Juniors at the Verdun Auditorium Centre on October 21, 2009 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Wildcats defeated the Juniors 4-2. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Kirill Kabanov #7 of the Moncton Wildcats skates during the QMJHL game against the Montreal Juniors at the Verdun Auditorium Centre on October 21, 2009 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Wildcats defeated the Juniors 4-2. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Kabanov trying to put career back on track Add to ...

The kid should be in Brandon playing alongside his former Moncton Wildcats teammates, competing for the Memorial Cup in front of an audience of NHL scouts.

Instead, Kirill Kabanov, 17, one of the most talented prospects for next month's NHL entry draft, is in a southeast Calgary fitness facility, doing one-legged squats atop an exercise ball. Ask Kabanov why he's here and the young Russian whose hockey life has been off-balance for more than two years will say it's been a mistake. His mistake. He never should have left the Wildcats.

"I wanted to show I could play," Kabanov said of his decision - Moncton's, too - to bolt the Quebec Major Junior League for Russia's under-18 national team, a choice that blew up in his face like a trick cigar. "I made a mistake. I recognize that now. I'm learning from it."

Kabanov has plenty to learn but what he's gone through has given him an education no other player his age has experienced. Consider that since 2008 he has been sold for $1-million and told his Continental Hockey League (KHL) contract did not have an NHL out clause as had been agreed upon. He's had to fight for his freedom by going to the International Ice Hockey Federation, which ruled he could play for Moncton, the team that took him in the Canadian Hockey League's European draft.

In Moncton, Kabanov said he was promised he would "play on the No. 1 or 2 line and more than 20 minutes a game." Then came the wrist injury, a broken scaphoid bone that required surgery and changed everything. The Wildcats came together and began winning games. There was no place for Kabanov, who returned to the ice in a limited role and wasn't keen about it.

Eventually, the player and head coach, Danny Flynn, came to the same conclusion: It would be best if Kabanov got his game on track by playing for his country's U-18 team. Within days, the same Russian coach who had been asking Kabanov to leave Moncton and play for him, called Kabanov into his office and said, "You're released."

By then, Kabanov's Central Scouting Bureau ranking for the 2010 NHL draft had dropped to 31st from 15th and his reputation as a trouble maker was being sealed.

"I was told, 'We don't need American bubble gum on the team,' " Kabanov said. "When Russia was a closed state, if you like America or the culture, [you were dubbed]American bubble gum. They just want to show I'm enemy of Russia [for fighting the KHL]

"I'll never come back to Russia [to play hockey] I'm trying to show I can play in the NHL. It doesn't matter what the [draft]number is. If a team picks me, I'll sign the contract right away."

Kabanov is an engaging conversationalist with a lively sense of humour. He outlines his game - good technique, explosive speed - and admits he needs to work on being more physical. "It's the typical Russian skill set," he said. "In KHL, everybody would get the Lady Byng Trophy."

Born into a well-to-do family - his father is a businessman, his mother a doctor, his brother an actor in the Russian theatre - Kabanov was allowed to explore his passions and settled on hockey early. While he admires Russian NHLers Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, his first hockey idol was Valeri Kharlamov, the 1972 Summit Series great. As a tribute to Kharlamov, Kabanov wears No. 17 and has XVII tattooed on his left wrist.

"There's talk he has a bad attitude," an NHL scout said of Kabanov. "But he's 17 living in a different culture. He missed the world juniors with a broken wrist and he's worried about the [NHL]draft. I see a young man with a dynamic skill set that only a small number of players have in this draft."

Kabanov is in Calgary staying with his agent, J.P. Barry, and training with Doug Crashley, whose hockey-specific regime has worked for NHL defencemen and Norris Trophy nominees Duncan Keith and Mike Green.

Crashley was asked to work on Kabanov's lanky 6-foot-3, 176-pound frame. The kid's frame of mind was an equal consideration.

"I read the news - the good and the bad," Crashley said. "I was curious to see how it would work. To be honest, it's been a lot better than I expected. The key is taking the time to help him understand the expectations. That's where he's been super responsive.

"Look at him. Look at the leg length and the feet. He's definitely a puppy dog. I'd say he's going to grow another one to two inches in height."

As for his personal growth, there are signs of that, too.

"I'm trying to know if I can make it to the NHL," Kabanov said. "I just want to play."

 

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