Arturs Irbe, Rick DiPietro, Tomas Vokoun, Martin Gerber… it is among these NHL netminders names that a year ago you would have found Colorado Avalanche/Lowell Lock Monsters goaltender Vitaly Kolesnik – on the international stage, anyway.
This season, Kolesnik was named to the 2006 Olympic hockey team from his native Kazakhstan, giving him another spotlight on the world stage. The 26-year old netminder has represented his homeland no less than five times in global tournaments since 1999, including the last two World Championships. At the 2005 WC in Austria, he turned in a 1.72 goals against average and ranked third with a .952 save percentage in five games, positioning himself firmly among regulars in the NHL who were competing in the same tournament. Perhaps that’s why the Avalanche didn’t consider it much of a risk to sign the undrafted Kolesnik to a contract this past summer.
“He’s an older guy as far as rookies over here go, but he has a lot of international experience,” said Lock Monsters Assistant Coach Joe Sacco, who was assigned to the Lowell bench this season by the Colorado Avalanche. “We had known before we signed him in the summer that we would lose him to the Olympics for a couple weeks.”
Though the announcement for Team Kazakhstan came just before Christmas, Kolesnik has known for a while about this opportunity, as most of the World Championship team from 2005 will remain together for the Winter Olympiad.
“In Austria, that team… we knew then,” said Kolesnik, in a thickly-accented version of broken English. “It is a good team with good guys. All the guys are from just one city in Kazakhstan – Ust-Kamenogorsk – the only city. We’ve played together for a long time, so we are (getting) better and better.” Kazakhstan was competitive at the 2005 tournament, but struggled for wins, finishing 1-5, despite Kolesnik keeping his team in most games. They didn’t lose by more than two goals in any contest, which included a 1-0 defeat at the hands of eventual champions, the Czech Republic.
Then a stranger to North Americans, Kolesnik is no longer a stranger to the AHL or the NHL. After starting the season as one of the workhorses of the American Hockey League with Lowell, he was recalled in early December to Colorado. He appeared in seven games with the Avalanche this season before his reassignment to the Monsters just before the New Year, staking victories in each of his first two NHL starts.
“It was good to win the first game,” he says regarding the 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins on December 7th. “But I was happier with the second game.” That second contest was a 4-3 shootout win two nights later over the New Jersey Devils, giving him a head to head victory over Martin Brodeur. “In Kazakhstan I only watched the NHL on television and always Brodeur. Then I play in the game against New Jersey and look across and… it’s Brodeur,” he says emphatically, clearly proud at taking a victory from one of the most prominent netminders in the world.
Kolesnik has enjoyed a relative amount of success of his own in his brief time on this side of the pond. Among the league leaders in the AHL in wins and minutes prior to his recall, the Lock Monsters struggled initially without their Kazakh netminder with the unconventional style. Though he had appeared in just 19 of the Monsters first 36 games, Kolesnik recorded 10 of his team’s 13 victories, going 10-8-0 on a club with a 13-18-1-4 record.
Kolesnik is settling into his new surroundings and his new team, and his English has dramatically improved. And while he isn’t necessarily fluent just yet, his attitude toward his teammates and not shying away from communicating with others has helped his progress.
“We got him an interpreter right away,” said Sacco. “And having him around has helped Vitaly in a lot of different ways. Not only is he learning the language from a Russian native, but he’s meeting other people away from the rink that he can talk with; hang out with. It’s always important to have friends away from hockey, and to have a life.
“He’s made a pretty good transition. His teammates have been great for him and he’s adapted because he has such a great personality. Vitaly’s very friendly and he’s an outgoing guy and I think being older and more experienced helped him in that regard.”
Sacco knows the enjoyment of Olympic participation and is excited for his “rookie” goaltender, as he himself was a participant in the 1992 Albertville games for Team USA.
“Having the chance to play for your country and go to the Olympics is a great experience. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
And Kolesnik is looking forward to his first trip to Italy, and Kazakhstan’s chances at the 2006 games.
“It will be good,” he says, just adding another nation to his international resume. “I have gone to Japan, Germany, Slovakia two times, Hungary five times… This will be good. We have played together before. Maybe a medal and I am happy.”