Denis Shvidki‘s 10th birthday was on the horizon when he laced up his first pair of hockey skates, a graybeard in the realm of youth hockey.
Growing up in the small town of Kharkov in the Ukraine before the Iron Curtain rusted and fell, Shvidki’s passion was soccer. He never even paid attention to hockey. Instead, he dreamed of playing for the national soccer team in the Olympics.
So, when the coach of a local hockey team approached him in 1990 and asked if he’d ever played the game, Shvidki was surprised.
“He said that he had been watching me play soccer and because I was athletic thought that I would make a good hockey player,” Shvidki said. “Then he asked if I had ever skated before and I laughed.”
Shvidki wasn’t laughing much after putting blades under his feet for the first time soon after, as the younger kids skated circles around him.
“Most of the kids who were playing hockey had started skating when they were 4 or 5 years old,” he said. “So, I was really behind in my skating and it was hard to catch up.”
Shvidki definitely has caught up. So much in fact that the Florida Panthers made him their first pick (12th overall) in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft — 10 years after he pulled on skates for the first time.
Shvidki represented the San Antonio Rampage at the 2004 American Hockey League All-Star Classic in Grand Rapids, Mich. Named to replace Eric Beaudoin, who was recalled by the Panthers in January, Shvidki makes his second midseason game appearance.
He has 39 points (13 goals, 26 assists) in 54 games with San Antonio this season.
In 2001, while playing in Louisville, Shvidki set an AHL All-Star Game record with five points (one goal, four assists). He has played in Florida, Utah and San Antonio since that day, but says he is looking forward to the game.
“Denis is playing well,” Rampage coach Scott Allen said of Shvidki, who recorded a hat trick against Norfolk on February 7.
“He’s working very, very hard this year and he’s someone that we’ve come to rely on each night in order to be successful.”
The Rampage are not the only ones relying on Shvidki’s hockey prowess.
His mother and younger sister still live in Kharkov and have not seen Shvidki play hockey since he left for Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League in 1998. His mother used to work in a doctor’s office, but since Shvidki’s first day as a professional, he told her to stay home and take care of his sister.
Making those decisions for his family has become the norm for the 23-year-old. He was away from home in a hockey school when he was informed that his father had been killed.
“I have very good memories of my father,” said Shvidki, who is reluctant to open that part of his past. “But losing him made me grow up early and I’ve been taking care of my family for awhile now.
“I would love to see my mother and sister come over here to see me play hockey, but it is so difficult to get travel permission for them. But I go home every summer and relax and see them; it’s very enjoyable.”
Lee Scheide covers the Rampage for the San Antonio Express-News