Crunch rookie making sacrifices for stardom

by Maggie Walters || AHL On The Beat Archive

filatov09b Imagine you are a freshman in college, leaving home for the first time.

Although you may be homesick at first, you know that home is probably, at most, only a few hours’ drive away.

Now, imagine being an 18-year-old Russian leaving home for the first time and traveling to a new country on a new continent, where the majority of people speak a different language, and you are over 4,500 miles away from the place where you grew up.

That is exactly the situation Nikita Filatov faced at the start of the 2008-09 hockey season.

The Moscow native, at just 18 years, four months and 13 days old, had been the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first-round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Three months after being picked sixth overall, Filatov left behind family, friends and his life in Russia to move to the United States and pursue his dream of carving out a career in professional hockey.

Because Filatov was only 18 at the time and chose to come over to North America to play, Columbus had a few options after evaluating where he was in his physical maturity as a player.

The first option was to send him to juniors. Earlier in the summer Filatov had been picked first overall by the Sudbury Wolves (OHL) in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft.

The second option was to keep him in Columbus.

The third and final option was to send him to the Crunch to learn the North American style of play and develop into an NHL-caliber player.

The Blue Jackets chose option number three after seeing Filatov at training camp.

Columbus assigned Filatov to the Crunch on Oct. 8, 2008, just two days before the Crunch’s season opener. Despite the difficulty of being in a new country, Filatov remembers being excited and the transition being fairly easy thanks to helpful Crunch veterans.

“It was exciting,” said Filatov. “I really remember the older guys trying to help and being very nice; they made it easy to feel comfortable here.”

Filatov was not given much time to settle into life in Syracuse. His performance in his first couple games as a professional impressed Columbus enough to recall him a week after his original assignment. Filatov played two games with the Crunch, scoring a goal in each of them before being recalled to Columbus.

When Filatov heard that he was going to the National Hockey League for the first time, he was surprised.

“I was so surprised. I was called up very suddenly and didn’t expect it,” said Filatov. “I think I had just been here for two games when I got the call someone was injured. It was so sudden. I got the call and three hours later was in the airport.”

Two nights later Filatov made his NHL debut at Nationwide Arena against the Nashville Predators.

“I remember everything exactly like it was,” Filatov said. “I remember it because I scored my first goal in that game.”

His goal helped to propel the Blue Jackets to a 5-3 victory and proved that Filatov had the potential to excel in the NHL. Just like in Syracuse, he depended on seasoned veterans — and fellow Russian Fedor Tyutin — to help him learn the ropes.

“I usually played with a veteran on the line with me,” said Filatov. “So they gave me advice and told me what to do exactly.”

This was evidenced in one of Nikita’s games with the Crunch earlier this year. Being that Filatov is one of the league’s rising stars, the AHL used him for a "mic’d up" segment that was posted on the league’s interactive video website,

filatov09aIt showed a very vocal and exuberant Filatov talking with veteran teammate Craig MacDonald about what he should be doing. His youthful energy and passion for the game came across very noticeably.

Since his NHL debut Filatov has made multiple trips between the NHL and AHL. To date he has played in 28 games with the Crunch, tallying 20 points (9g, 11a). He has also skated in eight NHL games with the Blue Jackets and has scored four goals.

Filatov acknowledges there are differences between the two leagues, but no matter where he’s playing his game plan remains the same.

“It’s different. The level is different but no matter what the league it’s the same goal,” said Filatov. “I just have to play hard and good. It doesn’t matter what league. Obviously, I’m excited to play in the NHL but I’m happy to be in Syracuse too.”

Filatov was also happy to represent Russia at the most recent World Junior Championships in Ottawa, Ont. As captain of the 2009 squad, he led his team and was tied for fourth in the tournament in scoring. In a span of seven games, the center tallied 11 points coming from eight goals and three assists. His performance helped the Russians earn a bronze medal and personally helped him gain confidence.

“I like playing for my country. It was an exciting tournament and really helped me,” Filatov said. “I gained a lot of confidence; I played well, had fun and it helped me back in the NHL a lot because of this tournament.”

The benefits Filatov gained from the World Juniors were evident soon after he returned from the tournament when he became the first Columbus rookie ever to record a hat trick. His three goals led to the Blue Jackets 4-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 10, 2009.

While he may have reached high levels of success on the ice, in many ways Filatov is your typical 18-year-old. He spends much of his time messaging his friends and is learning what it’s like to live on his own for the first time.

His mother came to visit for a few weeks back in November to help him get settled, but since then he’s been on his own. Learning how to cook was one of the first challenges he had to tackle.

“I’m learning how to cook,” said Filatov. “I’m pretty excited about it. I think I’m pretty good at cooking.”

When he’s not playing hockey or learning how to cook, he also spends his time relaxing or doing some shopping.

“In Syracuse I mostly stay in my apartment because I feel really comfortable there,” said Filatov. “I sometimes go to the grocery store to get more food or to a restaurant or to the mall shopping.”

A good portion of his free time is dedicated to keeping in touch with family and friends back in Russia. Missing family and friends is what Filatov says is the hardest part about living in the United States. In spite of the distance he always makes an effort to keep in touch and talks to his mom every day.

Even while Filatov adjusts to life on his own and conquers career firsts on the ice, he doesn’t think of his age too often.

“I don’t think about my age,” said Filatov. “It’s an advantage because I have lots more time to grow up and be a good player.”

One thing is very clear about Filatov from the path he has taken to get here. He understands what kind of sacrifices have to be made in order to become the best hockey player he can be. It is this attitude and outlook that will surely lead to a very long and successful career.

Pretty wise for an 18-year-old, wouldn’t you say?