Sitting or Skating, Saprykin’s Learning

Originally published on in 1999

By Lucas Aykroyd

Sitting high above the ice and taking in an NHL game is many people’s idea of a good time. But when you’re an 18-year-old phenom from Moscow, Russia who’s being paid over $1 million U.S. per year to score goals for the Calgary Flames, the view from the press box doesn’t look so good.

For the first time in his brief NHL career, rookie left winger Oleg Saprykin sat out a regular season game, watching his teammates defeat the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 in overtime on 13 October thanks to a goal by fellow Russian sniper Valeri Bure. The victory at GM Place lifted Calgary’s record to 1-3-1-0 after a tough start that made it appear even the sharp goaltending of Grant Fuhr wouldn’t be enough to keep the Flames out of the cellar. And despite enduring the suit-and-popcorn routine upstairs, the fresh-faced Saprykin had nothing but positive things to say about his team.

“The guys played well and worked hard tonight for all 65 minutes,” Saprykin told EuroReport amid the din of celebratory music in the dressing room. “I want to play too. I’m a young guy. But if you sit upstairs, it’s a chance to learn more about the NHL by watching. It’s kind of work too. You can think about what you would do next time on the ice. Maybe stop, maybe pass the puck differently.”

If the past is any indication, Saprykin will enjoy a quick learning curve. In 1998-99, he debuted as a rookie in the Western Hockey League and dazzled fans and scouts alike with 93 points in 66 games (47-46-93) with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Yet even though Calgary selected him high in last June’s NHL Entry Draft (first round, 11th overall), there was no guarantee he’d imitate former Thunderbird Petr Nedved by making the leap to the NHL after his very first pro training camp. But already by 26 September, a headline in the Calgary Sun pronounced the favorable verdict: “Kid can play.”

And he has. Very well. Flames General Manager Al Coates says Saprykin “might just be the best player out of the draft,” while Coach Brian Sutter praises the young Russian’s competitive fire. Even though Saprykin (0-1-1 through 4 games) hasn’t matched the scoring pace he set in preseason (1-4-5 in 7 games) so far, the 6-0, 195-pound (184 cm, 89 kg) forward knows how to play without the puck, always an asset in the defensive-minded Sutter’s books. While other young Flames prospects like Rico Fata and Toni Lydman have been dispatched to Calgary’s AHL affiliate in Saint John and HIFK Helsinki respectively, Saprykin is hanging in there.

“I was kind of surprised I made the team,” Saprykin admitted. “I’m just so happy to play in the NHL this year.”

His still-fractured English hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm one bit. Saprykin said: “I only knew two or three words of English when I came over here last year. The general manager in Seattle, Russ Farwell, got me and a Czech guy who played with me, [center] Zdenek Blatny, to go to college for four hours every day and talk English all the time. It’s a big difference between Moscow and Seattle.”

Having a couple of fellow Russians — Bure and Andrei Nazarov — to help him make the transition to the NHL has been a big plus, Saprykin admits. The fact that Valeri is the younger brother of Saprykin’s childhood idol, Pavel Bure, doesn’t hurt either.

Saprykin admits that he had a couple of non-Russian heroes, too: “I liked Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux with Pittsburgh. I got to see them on TV sometimes in Russia. When I played in Seattle, we had Sputnik [i.e. a satellite dish], so I watched lots of NHL games.”

He was impressed by what he saw. He takes a flexible attitude toward whom he plays with on Calgary, because, as he said, “Every guy plays well [at the NHL level].”

Saprykin’s remarkable maturity and poise may stem from his previous experience competing against older players back in Russia. He dressed for 20 games with CSKA Moscow in 1997-98 and recorded two assists.

Or, it could be genetic. His father, Dmitri Saprykin, is a graduate of CSKA Moscow as well. But the elder Saprykin was a goalie, not a forward. He finished his career in 1989, backing up legendary Soviet netminder Vladislav Tretiak. When asked if his father was disappointed that young Oleg didn’t become a goalie too, Saprykin said with a chuckle: “Yeah, kind of. But my mom said no.”

You have to love that protective maternal instinct if you’re a Calgary fan. The Flames have got themselves a top-flight young forward in Saprykin, who will undoubtedly make a bid to become the second Russian in the last three years to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year (Boston’s Sergei Samsonov, 1997). But personal honors don’t come first in Saprykin’s mind. He’s learned that individual success comes from a total team effort.

“I just want to do what Brian Sutter says. Goal-scoring, body-checking, everything” he said. “We need to work hard every game. No five minutes going. ‘Oh, our team is winning tonight.’ Only when the game is over, then you’re done working.” Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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