Joyce: Scouts wrong about Cherepanov

They had it wrong about Alexei Cherepanov when he was 18 and a hot topic at the NHL draft. They’ll get it wrong again today, 18 months later, when they’ll talk about an athlete who didn’t live to see his 20th birthday or his first NHL game.

Cherepanov collapsed on the Omsk Avangard bench during a Russian league game yesterday. In this video, you can see linemate Jaromir Jagr hovering over Cherepanov as team staff tried to revive him. Cherepanov died of cardiac arrest minutes later.

Going into the 2007 draft in Columbus, Cherepanov was portrayed as moody and lazy and selfish. One newspaper guy described the young Russian as "enigmatic" and then piled on: "an underachiever who is prone to losing his focus and has no interest in playing defense." Not that he’d ever seen Cherepanov play.

Those knocks were the explanations given when Cherepanov was still there at pick No. 17 for the New York Rangers. When they were packing up after the draft, some NHL scouts explained their clubs passing over Cherepanov with thinly veiled shots. "We evaluate their skill, their talent and their character," the St Louis Blues assistant general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told a reporter. "All of those things go into the equation when you make your list and we passed on [Cherepanov and Angelo Esposito] because they weren’t that high on our list."

They took satisfaction and considered themselves validated when Brandon Sutter, Colton Gillies and Milan Lucic ran Cherepanov and the Canadians knocked out him out of the Summit Series in the summer of ’07. Cherepanov had a concussion. Sutter had his own diagnosis: "He’s a pretty soft player and when you hit him, he doesn’t like it."

They said that he stayed in Russia instead of coming over to the NHL because the Summit Series put a scare into him. One account: "The alleged Russian star maybe never want to go anywhere near the New York Rangers, where [sic] he’ll have to face those big hitters in the NHL."

At best, they’re xenophobic stereotypes. At worst, slander. Maybe they’ll be cleaned up in remembrances and tributes. Maybe they’ll be given an extra layer of veils.

A lot will be said and written about Alexei Cherepanov by many who never saw him play or only ever caught a glimpse of him. He did play in the past couple of world junior tournaments. Maybe hockey fans in this country and a few writing about him today noticed him in Russia’s semi-final win over the host Swedes or a tight loss to the Canadians in the gold-medal game at the 2007 world juniors. Likely they missed him completely in the 2008 tournament because the Russians didn’t meet Canada. Two, maybe three games, that’s all they ever saw. They might even know and note that he was named the top forward at the 2007 tournament, that he scored five goals in six games.

I saw Alexei Cherepanov play a few times more than that. I saw him at the 2007 world juniors but also at the world under-18s in Tampere, Finland, before the 2007 draft. I saw a lot of hockey that season—I was working on my book, Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts. He was the most gifted kid I saw all year—maybe not the best player or best prospect, but the most purely talented.

Three moments stand out. The first couple came against Sweden in the semi-final.

No.1 The camera work on this clip doesn’t do Cherepanov justice and doesn’t tell the whole story. Yeah, a sloppy turn-over by the Swedish defenceman in his own zone, especially when it’s 3-all midway through the third period. Fact is, the little bluleiner in blue and gold had made exactly the same bad pass in the first period and it looked like the puck woke up Cherepanov when it hit his stick. The first time he did nothing with the chance and NHL scouts in attendance were shaking their heads, as if to say, at least make it look like you’re trying. Truth is, he didn’t look like he was pressing too hard when he clinically finished the chance for what might have been the goal to send the Russians to the final. He made it look pretty easy.

No. 2. The camera work on this clip of the winning goal later in that semi-final is a little better. The Swedes had come back to tie the game but the Russians were on a powerplay at the end of regulation. At about 59:50 it looked like Cherepanov was nothing more than a spectator. The Swedes had to know that he was Russia’s best threat to score but he had lulled them to sleep. Read the play one of two ways: Either No. 26, Evgeni Dadonov was setting a great pick for Cherepanov or Cherepanov stole a pass intended for his team-mate. The critics would say he was lazy and then greedy. Fact is, it was everything but that. He displayed great hands – he stick-handled a rolling puck through Dadanov – and again finishing that cannot be taught or learned. And it was amazingly clutch. The time says it all: 59:59.

The last moment came in the final against the U.S. in the gold-medal game.

No. 3. This clip has been viewed 12,000 times as of this morning. I probably account for 100 of them. It took me that long to figure out how he scored the goal that put the Russians ahead for good in the final. I was sitting at the same end of the rink and couldn’t have had a better look at it. I presumed it was some sort of fluke, a wonky carom. Anything but. Cherepanov fired the puck between Kevin Shattenkirk’s skates and top-corner short-side past goaltender Josh Unice. You have to let the video roll to about the 1:05 mark to get a good look at the angle that he was shooting at. Phenomenal stuff. What I came to appreciate though was Cherepanov’s play leading up to the goal—he tried exactly the same play earlier in the shift, weaved and stick-handled through the U.S forwards Nos. 16 and 19 (Vinny Saponari and Jim O`Brien) like they were hand shadows.

I suppose this play left only one item off Jarmo Kekalainen`s check list. But I digress.

When I next saw Cherepanov at the NHL combine, I was struck by just one thing: He was a boy, barely an adolescent. That is, he wasn’t physically mature in any way. Age 18, he looked like a 14-year-old. When Alexander Ovechkin was at the combine, he looked like a 30-year-old linebacker. Sidney Crosby looked like a well-trained decathlete. Cherepanov looked like a paperboy. He was lucky to squeeze out a couple of reps on the bench. It didn`t look like he had spent any time in the weight room but, that shouldn`t be read as a knock or evidence of a bad work ethic or bad attitude. He was still at the stage of his development when he couldn`t have added any muscle.

That made what he had already accomplished Omsk Avangard even more remarkable: 18 goals in 47 games, a record for players his age in the Russian elite league, numbers that thoroughly outstripped Ovechkin’s and Evgeni Malkin’s going into their draft years, numbers that were a testament to skill and game instinct.

Team execs who spoke to me at the combine were surprised by Cherepanov. They had expected the enigma. They were ready for a heaping dose of attitude. Not what they got at all. One interview seemed to start off badly and the scouts thought he was disinterested. In fact, they asked him if he wanted just to end it and leave the room. Cherepanov apologized. "I’m just jet-lagged, " he said. He then proceeded to talk to them for twenty minutes. When asked about his work habits, he said that he had heard it before and understood the criticism. He told the scouts that he looked for things early in the game, that he studied play. That made sense, especially in the case of that first goal against Sweden.

Last night I spoke to Gordie Clark, the Rangers top amateur scout. Clark had only heard about Cherepanov’s death a couple of hours before. Clark told me that he had only met Cherepanov a few times—at the 2007 draft and at the team’s rookie camp later that summer. The Rangers assumed he`d be back in Russia last season but they`d had been optimistic that they could sign him and bring him to North America this fall. It didn`t happen. Cherepanov was locked in a two-year contract with Omsk and left out in the cold by the Cold War relationship between the Russian league and the NHL these days.

"I think we would have signed him after this season," Clark said. "I think he was misunderstood. Maybe it was just his game. He was his best in the biggest games. He was never going to be a grinder or someone who did it all on effort. Not all players are the same. He was like Jagr in that way. He had great talent and amazing hockey sense. It looked easy for him because the game came easily to him. "

They’ll write tributes and read eulogies today but it’s hard to remember a young player they never really knew.