Mikhail Grabovski is a long way from his humble beginnings in Minsk, Belarus, these days.
And on the day he signed a five-year, $27.5-million contract extension to stay with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 28-year-old centre wanted to offer a long list of thank yous to friends, family and the organization.
He also talked about the small two bedroom apartment he grew up in, living with his parents and grandparents, acknowledging that Tuesday’s payday was beyond his wildest dreams as a boy.
“I always [wanted]to be in a place where people believe in me and give me a chance to play,” Grabovski said. “For me, it’s better to stay here than go anywhere else.”
He credited his father, Yury, with being a big part of his NHL success.
“I always dreamed to play here, in the NHL,” Grabovski said. “My Dad was my first coach, my best coach, and he made me believe I could make it big and stay here... Somebody asked about money – I’ll send money to him, to take care of his life, because he doesn’t want to go to work anymore. He just wants to watch hockey every night for me and support me.
"We didn't have a big house, but I always had good food and [enough]to be a good player."
Grabovski had been set to potentially cash in over the summer as one of the top free agent forwards available leaguewide, as the thin crop of players headed to UFA status made a relatively young and productive centre quite desirable.
His new contract’s $5.5-million salary cap hit makes him the Leafs highest paid forward next season and would rank him 36th among all NHL forwards this season, just ahead of teammate Phil Kessel.
Negotiations between the two sides had been far apart as recently as last month’s trade deadline, with Grabovski’s side wanting as much as seven or eight years and a higher annual salary than Kessel’s $5.4-million cap hit.
The team had wanted to sign Grabovski for five years at $5-million a season.
In the end, it was the term that came down rather than the dollar figure.
“We are extremely pleased to have Mikhail under contract for the next five seasons,” Leafs GM Brian Burke said in a statement. “His speed and skill are valuable commodities and fit perfectly with our style of play. He leads by example and his work ethic speaks for itself.”
In a slump recently, Grabovski is 71st in league scoring with 20 goals and 45 points in 59 games this season, which is a 63-point pace over a full 82-game season. He leads the Leafs in plus-minus at plus-7 and, despite his modest size, is one of the team’s best defensive forwards.
The Leafs originally acquired the Belarusian speedster from the Montreal Canadiens, a deal made by former GM Cliff Fletcher in 2008 that saw Toronto give up only a second-round pick and low level prospect (Greg Pateryn).
Grabovski said Tuesday he doesn’t expect his new contract to change how he plays or who he is.
“Not at all,” he said. “Because money is not first, you know? First it’s how you play the game. I don’t look at who has what kind of salaries [on the team] For me, what kind of person you are [is]how hard you work on the ice, give everything to win the game.”
The father of two young children, Grabovski added that his family – including partner, Kate, who is from Toronto – is ecstatic over the new contract, which includes a limited no-trade clause.
"I thank very much the whole coaching staff, managers," he said. "They believe in me. Right now, I start a new life, you know? I'm very happy to stay here... I don't think it's just me. All my family worked for that.
"I believe people here [in Toronto]believe in me... I think the fans, No. 1, who believe. That's more important than anything. I don't know why [they like me] I don't know if they like me, but I believe they like me, you know?"