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Russian prospect makes impression on, off ice Add to ...

Sergei Shirokov sought out a pair of former teammates before leaving a front-line role in his native Russia to start over as a Vancouver Canucks prospect.

The advice he received from Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, both onetime linemates during a junior career that produced 13 points in 12 games at two world championships, was simple.

"Go. Try. You'll be happy and successful," Shirokov said with translation help from the Canucks' amateur Russian scout, Sergei Chibisov.

Following that advice was more difficult, but Shirokov has already checked the first three items off the to-do list, and the fourth may soon follow.

While the slick winger still relies on assistance dealing with the media, there are already signs the 17 goals and 41 points he recorded as CSKA's leading scorer last year in the Continental Hockey League (KHL) will translate more easily into the NHL.

Just eight days into his first NHL training camp, Shirokov has established himself as a contender for a top-six forward role that opened up after Pavol Demitra announced he'll miss the start of the season recovering from shoulder surgery. He was often dominant while picking up three assists in a pair of exhibition games during prospects camp, and a thunderous payback hit helped ease any lingering doubts the 5-foot-10, 165-pound right winger could adjust to a more physical style of hockey on this side of the Atlantic.

But it's been off the ice - first in a Russian courtroom and now in the Canucks' locker room - where the always smiling Shirokov has made his greatest impression.

"Here's a guy that from what I understand speaks very little English, but he was getting involved with his teammates, was trying to talk to the trainers, and was really outgoing," head coach Alain Vigneault said. "That tells us that the kid really wants to be here."

Considering the path Shirokov took to get here, that shouldn't have been in question.

As if leaving family, friends, a starring role and a tax-free $500,000 (all figures U.S.) salary behind wouldn't be hard enough for any 23-year-old, Shirokov had to take his famed Red Army team to court for the right to do so. And he did it despite a frank face-to-face assessment from Canucks senior adviser Stan Smyl that he'll probably start his North American career in the minors, riding buses for $60,000 a season and living in Winnipeg.

"It wasn't that comfortable but all my dreams were to come here," Shirokov said, never losing the permanent grin as he shrugged off reports of pressure tactics from KHL chair Slava Fetisov, and CSKA coach/general manager Sergei Nemchinov.

"NHL now is the best league in the world and every player likes to come over and play NHL."

Few from the KHL do. But even after an arbitrator ruled in favour of KHL regulations that force all players under 28 to re-sign with their current team, Shirokov refused, leading to a one-year suspension. So while fellow arbitration case loser Denis Parshin returned to CSKA, Shirokov joined Florida Panthers prospect Evgeni Dadonov as the only young Russians to leave this summer, joining a Canucks team that drafted him 163rd in 2006.

Smyl, who spent much of a 10-day visit to Moscow last season answering questions from Shirokov about the NHL and Canucks, believes his willingness to leave so much behind is based on an outgoing nature that his new teammates say is already evident in attempts at locker room banter. But he adds it is also a function of a sincere belief he will soon be earning the $875,000 NHL portion of the rookie-maximum contract he signed.

"That's why I came here," Shirokov repeated when asked about expectations.

There is work to be done. Like junior and college prospects getting their first taste of the NHL, Shirokov must adjust to higher intensity on the ice and in the training room. A lack of speed won't help, but he already handles the puck as well as anyone on the team, and Smyl believes his personality will ease both the cultural and hockey adjustments.

"Some of the Russian players I've played with and coached, there always seems to be a wall with trust that's not there with him," said Smyl, comparing Shirokov's character to a former teammate, Igor Larionov.

"The trust has always been there, and those walls are already broken down with his personality. He's very outgoing, he likes to smile a lot, and he makes you laugh with the jokes and comments he comes up with."

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