Ruslan Salei: From Minsk to Miami

Originally published in Rinkside in 2007

By Lucas Aykroyd

When Ruslan Salei signed a four-year, $12-million free agent deal with the Florida Panthers on July 2, it marked the end of his nine-season run with the Anaheim Ducks. But in the media, this move by the Belarusian defenseman was largely overshadowed by the clamor about Anaheim’s trade for former Norris and Hart Trophy winner Chris Pronger from Edmonton the very next day.

Still, the Panthers appreciate what they’ve got in the hard-hitting Salei, even if he’s unlikely to ever win an individual NHL award. Just ask captain Olli Jokinen or coach Jacques Martin.

“That was a huge signing,” said Jokinen. “He’s a leader for our group of young defensemen. Most of our guys have only played a couple of years in the NHL. I didn’t even realize how good Salei was. I played against him early in my career in the Western Conference when I was with L.A., but I haven’t seen him that much since. Today, he’s an all-around player, and brings some offensive skills too.”

“I think Rusty has been a good addition to our hockey club,” said Martin. “He’s a smart player, and he’s very poised. His ability to handle the puck and communicate with his partners has been a big help to our team.”

While Salei is unlikely to finish 2006-07 with the kind of plus-minus rating he enjoyed last year with Anaheim (+17), the 32-year-old veteran, who logs about 22 minutes a night, has jacked up his offensive game. After recording a goal and two assists in a 5-4 shootout loss to the New York Islanders on December 9, he had 20 points, surpassing his previous single-season high of 19 from the year before.

Admittedly, Salei’s scoring pace slowed during and after the Christmas holidays. Lighting the red light isn’t his main priority, but it’s been a nice bonus for the Panthers.

Asked to explain his enhanced ability to cash in, Salei said: “I’ve been given more opportunities on the power play here, and perhaps I’ve been a little luckier than in the past. Also, I’ve had the opportunity to play with quite a few guys, mostly Mike Van Ryn and Jay Bouwmeester. They’re both really good offensive-minded defensemen.”

Florida also boasts promising young forwards like Nathan Horton, Rostislav Olesz, and Stephen Weiss, and has benefited from the veteran savvy of Gary Roberts and Josef Stumpel for the last two seasons. But still, the Panthers are considered a long shot for any kind of playoff success this year. It’s an all-too-familiar story for fans in Miami, where the club hasn’t cracked the post-season since 2000.

“Pretty much everybody’s been what I expected here,” said Salei, who didn’t get to see much of the Panthers when he played for Anaheim. “We have pretty good talent, and we should be in a better spot than we are right now. We are making some strides, but the bottom line is that we need to be better.”

The 6-2, 205-pounder has retooled his off-season training regimen in order to better handle today’s high-speed, high-skill NHL: “I work a little less on lifting and more on agility stuff, quickness on my feet. I’m not getting younger, so that’s what I need to work on right now.”

If he can maintain his work ethic and consistency, he could finish his NHL career in a Florida jersey and help to build a new winning tradition in the Sunshine State. Consulting closely with his agent Todd Diamond, Salei was happy to land a long-term deal with the Panthers. That’s because in 2005-06, he realized that despite his years of service in the shadow of Disneyland, there wouldn’t be any storybook endings for him with Anaheim under general manager Brian Burke.

What was the toughest part for him about leaving the Southern California city? “Probably moving all my stuff out of my house,” said Salei, who holds Anaheim’s franchise record for most games by a defenseman (594). “I was mentally prepared to leave. Last year we were talking about it. I wasn’t exercising my option with Anaheim. They weren’t offering any long-term deals. We had a short talk before the free agent deadline, and Burke told me, ‘Go out and try out the market.’ So that’s what I did.”

But he doesn’t harbor any bitterness against his former employer. “I’m really happy for Anaheim now,” said Salei. “They’ve got Pronger and they’ve been playing great. They have a really good team, and they have a good chance to win the Cup this year.” He’s stayed in touch by phone with various Ducks, from longtime teammates such as Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Teemu Selanne to more recent additions like Sean O’Donnell and Todd Marchant, all of whom participated in Anaheim’s run to the Western Conference finals last year.

Really, Salei has accomplished more as an NHLer than almost anyone could have envisioned. He grew up far away from the spotlight in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. By North American standards, life in this former Soviet republic of 10 million wasn’t easy. The country suffered during the Nazi invasion in World War II, and under Communism, its eastern regions received a heavy dose of radioactive fallout after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in 1986.

Still, dark images don’t come to mind when Salei looks back: “It was pretty good by the standards that people were accustomed to in those days. You know, I grew up in a three-bedroom apartment. At some point in my teenage life, we had me and my parents, plus my brother’s family and my sister’s family with us. But that was normal for everybody back then. People didn’t expect anything more than what they had. I wasn’t uncomfortable as I would be today due to having experienced a better life. As a kid, playing hockey served all my interests in terms of who I wanted to be. I played soccer when I was six, but I got into hockey the winter I turned seven. Then all I thought about was getting through school and playing hockey.”

Unlike some players who are inspired by the example of family members, Salei was simply motivated by the joy of hockey: “I was the only athlete in my family. My older brother played some hockey and soccer as a teenager, but he’s 12 years older than me. When I was training for hockey, he’d already moved on with his life and started working in the construction business.”

Salei built his skills year after year in the famous hockey schools of Minsk (which also briefly trained a teenaged Sergei Fedorov). In 1992-93, he graduated to the senior team of Dynamo Minsk, competing in the Russian Elite League. Belarus had gained its post-Soviet independence in 1991, and this led to a name change for Salei’s club, which cut off its ties to the old militia in 1993-94.

“The ownership switched to a private owner, and they decided to change the name to Tivali Minsk, because they weren’t getting any financial help from the policemen of Dynamo,” Salei recalled. “Supposedly there was going to be a big arena built in this certain part of Minsk, and supposedly a hundred years ago there was a village called Tivali there. That’s why they came up with that name. Nobody really knew why when they came up with it, but that was the story.”

Salei played in Minsk through 1994-95, but it was clear to him that his development was beginning to stall in his native land. Realignments in Russian hockey pushed the Tivali club to the side. Salei needed a new place to spotlight his skills, and he found one in the most brightly lit city on earth: Las Vegas, Nevada.

Moving there was a huge gamble for a 20-year-old who had spent his whole life in Eastern Europe. But Bob Strumm, general manager of the now-defunct Las Vegas Thunder of the IHL, had enough faith in his scouts’ reports to give Salei a chance.

“He signed me without knowing me,” Salei recalled. “He gave me a chance, and that’s pretty much all you want. You take it, and you hope for the best. I made the team in my first year, and I was pretty successful that year in Vegas. I have only good memories of Bob Strumm and my coach, Chris McSorley.”

The Thunder finished first overall in the league and marched three rounds into the IHL playoffs. Salei’s teammates included NHL players like Sergei Zholtok, Greg Hawgood, and Paul DiPietro, to name a few. Even more remarkable was the goalie rotation, which featured six different names. Curtis Joseph, Clint Malarchuk, and Eldon “Pokey” Reddick were the most prominent ones.

“It was my first year in the States, so everything was amazing for me,” said Salei. “I mean, how many guys got to play in the IHL with Curtis Joseph? I was just enjoying myself and trying to learn as much as I could from everyone.”

Gradually, Salei picked up some English and began to settle in culturally, realizing to his amusement that not every American city had innumerable buffets and slot machines like Las Vegas. He showed he could deliver a rugged physical style, and followed up his 30 regular-season points with 10 more in the playoffs.

His efforts impressed Anaheim’s scouts. At age 21, he was relatively old to be a first-round pick. But that didn’t deter the Ducks, who grabbed Salei with the ninth overall pick in the 1996 NHL Draft, even though Central Scouting had him ranked 20th. Not long afterwards, he signed his first NHL contract, a three-year deal worth $2.25 million.

Salei split time between the Ducks and Anaheim’s AHL affiliate in Cincinnati in his rookie season, but became an NHL regular in 1997-98. However, he still wasn’t particularly well-known outside the Pacific Division until several incidents in 1998 and 1999 attracted unwanted attention.

First, he was suspended for two games for head-butting Chicago’s Sergei Krivokrasov in a February 4, 1998 fight. The only upside was that his suspension freed him up to join Belarus for qualifying play at the Nagano Olympics, and his native country made it into the final group of eight teams.

In October 1998, Salei got five games for slew-footing Phoenix’s Daniel Briere in pre-season action. And one year later, his dangerous push from behind into the boards on Dallas star Mike Modano resulted in a ten-game suspension. Although Salei expressed remorse, he was tagged as a dirty player by some opponents, journalists, and fans.

“There were tough situations for me,” Salei admitted. “People were calling me different names. You learn from your mistakes. You also learn how people react when you’re in a bad position. Who’ll give you a shoulder to lean on? And who’ll just turn away from you because you did something that is not positive for the whole society? I think it helped me grow up. That’s pretty much it.”

When Salei returned for his first home game after the Modano incident, Anaheim fans gave him a five-minute standing ovation. “It really helped to know that people believed I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody,” Salei said. “I was touched.”

Although the big Belarusian now began to rebuild his reputation as a hard-nosed but basically clean defenseman, he still didn’t get to enjoy the playoff success he craved right away. Detroit swept the Ducks in four straight games in the first round in 1999. After that, Anaheim would endure a three-year playoff drought, despite boasting perennial scoring title contenders in Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne.

“If you want a team to accomplish something in the playoffs, you have to be all about the team, not about a couple of individual superstars and ‘the rest of the cast,’” said Salei. “That’s why we usually didn’t make the playoffs and when we did, we didn’t accomplish anything. Don’t get me wrong, Paul and Teemu are great guys. They didn’t treat anybody like they were superstars and everybody else wasn’t. Most of the hype came from the media, who put everything on their shoulders. Both of them did their best to carry that team, but you need 20 guys to do that.”

Salei saw that teamwork combined with good luck can result in miracles when he suited up for Belarus at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. He’d previously competed in three IIHF World Championships, and was excited when his national team beat the host Russians for the first time ever at the 2000 tournament in St. Petersburg. But upsetting Sweden 4-3 in the Olympic quarter-finals was even better. Nobody who saw that game will ever forget the winning goal. It was scored by little-known defenseman Vladimir Kopat on a shot from center ice that hit Swedish goalie Tommy Salo’s mask and trickled in with 2:24 left in the third period.

“Any team can beat any team on any given day,” said Salei. “If we played a seven-game series against the Swedes, we probably wouldn’t have beaten them. But that day, we won because they weren’t as ready as they probably should have been, and we were a little bit lucky. Our goalie Andrei Mezin played great, and the whole team played great. We just put our names into the history books.” That was true even though Belarus lost to Canada, the eventual champion, in the semi-finals.

In 2003, Salei experienced his greatest professional thrill when the Ducks marched to the Stanley Cup Finals, falling to New Jersey in seven games.

“Coach Mike Babcock made each of us accept a role and play within the system he provided, and that’s why we had that success. Of course, J-S Giguere’s play in that ‘03 run was amazing, too. Without Jiggy, we wouldn’t have gotten too far.”

Salei will always be remembered in Anaheim for scoring the overtime winner in Game Three on a slapshot after a faceoff in the New Jersey zone.

“It was an amazing feeling,” said Salei. “It kind of turned that series around, because if we’d lost, it would have been 3-0 in New Jersey’s favor. We wouldn’t have had our chance to get to Game Seven. That gave us a really good positive boost. It was the most memorable moment of my hockey career in the NHL.”

But 2003 is in the rear view mirror now, and the man from Minsk is hoping that his current team in Miami will challenge for a Stanley Cup, perhaps in the next couple of years.

That has to be the focus for the Panthers. Neither Salei nor his teammates can dwell on the loss of franchise goalie Roberto Luongo to the Vancouver Canucks. They won’t get where they want to go just by watching old videos of Florida’s 1996 run to the Finals versus Colorado.

But when it comes to leading by example in the seasons to come, you can be sure the Panthers will get their money’s worth out of Ruslan Salei.

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