TORONTO — The soup Ilya Mikheyev’s girlfriend makes to keep him happy and remind him of Omsk requires stewing beef slowly. A good four hours of warming and marinating before stirring with beets, cabbage and other veggies.
But some things are worth the wait, worth the extra effort.
“Borsht is very hard to cook,” Mikheyev says, smiling as he holds court and talks soup inside Toronto Maple Leafs headquarters for the second time in under 24 hours—and the second time ever.
His mind drifts from the arena to the bowl.
“Ooooh. Very good. I can show you picture.”
Were it not for John Tavares’ captaincy reveal and Auston Matthews doing Auston Matthews things on opening night, the story in Leafland after the Maple Leafs cruised through Game 1 with a 5-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators would have been Mikheyev shining in his North American debut with a goal, an assist, and a quote for the ages.
When we asked the third-line winger about the greatest challenge he’s faced, packing up and moving to the big city and small rinks of Toronto, he spoke at first of the language barrier, naturally.
Then he paused to address a subject near and dear to his heart.
“What’s important for me, I don’t know why – I like soup. Yes. I like soup. I don’t know why you don’t eat soup,” Mikheyev said, incredulous. “My girlfriend is cooking, and I’m very happy when I eat.”
The affable Mikheyev’s offhand comment about the culinary differences between his homeland and his new home team went viral Wednesday evening, with fans photoshopping Mikheyev’s smiling face on Campbell’s cans and sharing silly soup gifs, and his teammates teasing him about his liquid diet when he arrived at Thursday practice.
“Yes, yes,” Mikheyev says, undeterred by the beet-red minor gash open under his right eye, the result of a fresh high stick. “All guys say me about soup.”
It’s true that Mikheyev’s agent, Dan Milstein, lost a valuable client in Artemi Panarin shortly before the UFA signed an $81.5-million contract with the New York Rangers on July 1.
But who needs the Bread Man when you have the Soup Man?
“Trust me, you’re going to remember his name and know how to spell it,” Milstein told Steve Dangle and Justin Bourne during a summertime radio appearance on Sportsnet The Fan 590. “He’s a hard worker, a great character. He’s a guy I would bet my life on. You guys are in for a treat.”
At the risk of sounding biased and hyperbolic, Milstein touts Mikheyev, 24, as the best undrafted talent out of Europe since 2015, the season Panarin flew over from St. Petersburg to swipe the Calder Trophy from Connor McDavid.
Toronto’s courting of Mikheyev — a 6-foot-3, 195-pound left shot who slurps up penalties, throws shoulders and finishes plays with soft hands — began back in August of 2018 and was a dogged recruit involving GM Kyle Dubas, head coach Mike Babcock and the scouting staff.
Well over 20 teams expressed interest, but the Leafs were persistent in their admiration and communication.
“He didn’t really think too hard after all the presentations,” Milstein said. “His heart was with Toronto.”
— Dan Milstein-Hockey (@HockeyAgent1) October 3, 2019
Mikheyev explains (without an interpreter, because he wants to do this on his own) that he didn’t have a contract following his fourth and final KHL season with Omsk Avangard, during which he posted a career-best 23 goals and 45 points in 62 games and helped propel his hometown to the Gagarin Cup final. He wanted a raise, sure, but he was also chasing a dream.
In May, Mikheyev inked a one-year, $925,000 deal that will make him a restricted free agent next summer.
“I want all my life to play in NHL because here in NHL is best league, is best players, and I like,” he says. “I’m very happy today. I have my first NHL game; I’ve been working a long time for. I’ve waited for this moment my whole life.”
The year Mikheyev made Russia’s national squad, he skated alongside his childhood idol, Pavel Datsyuk, at the 2018 world championships and picked the icon’s brain about making the jump to the highest league.
“I like Datsyuk because he’s very smart,” Mikheyev says. “I spoke with him before I came to Toronto. He helped me about Mike Babcock because he worked with him in Detroit about five years all season.”
And what advice did Datsyuk give Mikheyev about dealing with Babcock?
“You need work,” he says. “You need work.”
The growing scrum around the rookie breaks into laughter, but the coach is such a convert that he’s been anticipating Mikheyev’s arrival since losing Game 7 in Boston.
“He’s a really smart human being. He speaks English. His gal speaks English. He’s confident, confident, confident,” Babcock said Thursday. “His habits and his life lead him to be ready to go each and every day. So, he’s a high-end human being who loves hockey, and you’re just seeing his start here. You’re going to see a hockey player.”
In this clubhouse, it’s difficult to decide if Mickey’s teammates are more impressed with the kid’s skills or his grasp of a second language.
Tyson Barrie, who set up Mikheyev’s first goal, will tell you about the time Mikheyev “roasted” him during one of the Leafs’ pre-camp skates. His centreman, Alexander Kerfoot, describes him as the “complete package.” Matthews casually compares Mikheyev’s stickwork and edging to Datsyuk’s. And Babcock loves the third-liner’s zest for 4-on-5 play.
“He’s an unbelievable penalty killer,” the coach says. “Boy, can he fly.”
Leafs staffers were taken aback that Mikheyev declined the use of an interpreter during his media scrum following his debut. They had never heard the player speak for so long, or so well.
He sent a photograph of himself in a Leafs sweater overseas, and the 10-hour time difference allowed him to tell Grandma the good news before his head hit the pillow Wednesday night.
“When I go to bed, my grandma wake up,” Mikheyev said. “My grandma 83 years, but she can use WhatsApp.”
Mikheyev comprehends English better than he can speak it, and now that he doesn’t have access to his language teacher in Russia, he’s been burning through Friends episodes on Netflix to pick up our slang.
If a phrase flies over his head, he pops open Google translate.
Morgan Rielly shakes his head. He can’t imagine switching countries, cultures, playing styles and still debuting with the impact Mikheyev did this week.
“It’s pretty darn impressive,” Rielly says. “I’ve been surprised at how good he is [with English]. I think he has a real desire to learn and improve it, which is awesome, but I think he’s been outstanding. I don’t think it’s been a problem at all.”
First NHL goal alert! Ilya Mikheyev! pic.twitter.com/UMCvksuKkt
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) October 3, 2019