MONTREAL— Alexander Radulov has been making waves since he landed in Montreal.
One look at that gap-toothed grin of his and you can tell he’s a real hockey player, but he’ll prove it to you on the ice with the way he thrashes his way through all three zones, playing with the type of intensity and abandon that naturally endears him to Canadiens fans.
Radulov has had his detractors over the years, and those doubters re-emerged this off-season when he signed a one-year, $5.75-million deal with the Canadiens.
Many of those critics questioned Radulov’s character, citing his previous NHL stint with the Nashville Predators. (Radulov and then-teammate Andrei Kostitsyn went out until 4 a.m. on the eve of Game 2 of Nashville’s second-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Coyotes in 2012.)
But the Radulov we see in Montreal now can’t be mistaken for the 24-year-old version of himself.
“A lot of people have been talking about my stuff off the ice and what was in the past, and I can understand,” Radulov said after his first-star performance in Monday’s 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. “What I did there—it’s mine. I’m not waving it away and saying I didn’t do it.”
It’s a decision he wishes he could reverse.
“I did miss curfew and yeah, maybe people got some of the details wrong, but if there’s a time to be there you have to be there. I know that,” he said.
Now, with everything to prove and a contract to play for, this Russian dynamo isn’t looking back — and he certainly isn’t taking anything for granted.
Every member of the Canadiens who’s weighed in with their impressions of Radulov thus far has used the word “passionate” to describe him. Both general manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien have admittedly been blown away by his work ethic in practice and during games.
And the fans? They nearly brought the Bell Centre down with chants of “RADU! RADU! RADU!” after his one goal, two-assist showing against Philadelphia.
“I don’t know how to say it… tickles a little bit? Ah, goosebumps! It gave me goosebumps,” said Radulov. “It’s a good feeling obviously. It’s nice to get that from them. Like I said before when I got here, it’s all about the fans.”
There’s no question Radulov had plenty of fans in Montreal after spending his junior hockey days with the Quebec Remparts and helping them to a Memorial Cup win on home ice in 2006.
Ten years later, now married and a father to a soon-to-be one-year-old son, he’s winning over the naysayers one by one with his electric start to his first season with the Canadiens.
“It’s a long season and there are going to be some moments when we’re not going to be our best,” said Radulov. “But we all have to work.”
That’s the attitude Radulov has had since the puck dropped in Montreal’s first exhibition game in September. It’s the same attitude that led him to four spectacular seasons in the KHL, accumulating 238 points in 181 regular-season games and adding 44 points in 45 playoff games with CSKA Moscow.
He came back to the NHL having achieved everything there was to achieve in Russian hockey. Radulov is a four-time KHL MVP, the league’s second all-time leading scorer behind Sergei Mozyakin, a Gagarin Cup champion and a World champion with the national team twice over.
What motivates him?
Radulov says playing in a market where there’s constant pressure to succeed and so many fans watching helps him keep his foot on the gas pedal.
Along with Radulov’s “all-in” approach, one can’t help but be impressed with his five-point start to the season and his contribution to Montreal’s league-leading 5-0-1 record.
He says the adjustment to the NHL pace, after not having appeared in a game on this continent in over four years, has been seamless.
“I don’t find there’s a big difference now from when I was playing in the NHL back in 2012,” Radulov said. “It’s just that time is different. I’m older.”
It’s clear that Radulov is more mature and wiser, too. And that’s great news for the Canadiens and their fans.