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The Long Road to the KHL



Former Mustang Ilya Ezhov Chases NHL Dream


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A teacher at École Félix-Leclerc in Montreal's Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood should be eating her words.

An English as a Second Language teacher told Ilya Ezhov, a rowdy Russian kid, that he would never play professional hockey.

"'If you try as hard as you try in school, you will never become a professional hockey player' is what she told me," said Ezhov, a goalie for SKA Saint Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League.

"I was really upset," he said. "I had a fit of rage, threw something at her and ended up getting kicked out of class."

Now 27, with his temper tantrums long behind him, he posted a .930 save percentage and 1.91 goals-against average in 18 games during the regular season, helping SKA Saint Petersburg secure a second-place finish in the Western Conference. SKA swept CSKA Moscow in the conference quarterfinals of the Gagarin Cup playoffs this week.

Ezhov was born in Krasnodar, a city of 740,000 near the Sochi region, where palm trees and the Black Sea kill hockey dreams.

But Ezhov became a true Montrealer when he immigrated to the city 19 years ago.

Given the choice of being interviewed in Russian, English or French, he chose French simply because he is fluent.

"I only discovered hockey when I came to Montreal," Ezhov said. "In Krasnodar, there was some soccer, swimming and dance, but no hockey."

The Ezhov family moved to Montreal in 1995, a year in which the number of registered crimes in Russia exceeded 2.7 million, including more than 31,000 murders. The Ezhovs traded a world of rampant organized crime and insecurity for a safer environment that, nonetheless, offered its own challenges.

"I didn't know a word of French when I arrived in Montreal," Ezhov said. "In English, I just knew the words 'yellow' and 'scissors' for some reason."

Ezhov's father, Igor, like many newcomers to the city, fell in love with the Canadiens and exposed his son to the national pastime. Hockey was a way to integrate. But there were no minivans, parent meetings and Tim Hortons stops on the way to crack-of-dawn practices in Ezhov's boyhood. He did not play organized hockey until he was 11. And he had only learned to skate after arriving in Canada.

At 13, Ezhov received his first pair of goalie pads - brown and banged up from the Ken Dryden era.

"I wanted to become a goalie because I thought it looked cool," Ezhov said. "I liked that goalies wore different equipment and spent the whole game on the ice. Because goalie gear was expensive, my parents wanted to make sure I was committed before purchasing the equipment."

And because money was scarce and time was money for the immigrant family, Ezhov's grandmother, Galina, who followed the family to Montreal from Russia, pitched in to get her grandson to the rink.

"My grandmother would take me to practice and would even shoot red rubber balls at me on the street," Ezhov said.

"I don't think I could have done it without her."

Sightings of the gritty grandma and Ezhov dragging hockey equipment on a sled were frequent in the early days of his hockey career.

"People would look at us strangely when we were dragging our sled," Ezhov said. "But that's just how I went to hockey."

Ezhov quickly turned into a made-in-Quebec butterfly goalie, joining the cult of Patrick Roy. He developed a quick glove, explosive lateral movement and a golden attitude.

"Ilya is a pure natural talent, but he's humble and grounded," said Angelo Lazzara, Ezhov's longtime coach and mentor. "I don't know any coach who wouldn't want Ilya on his team."

But as Ezhov established himself as a Montrealer, on and off the ice, circumstances forced him to leave home. Again.

When Ezhov was on the verge of being cut from midget Triple-A despite having allowed only one goal in 13 periods, Lazzara suggested he look outside the province.

"We had to find a solution," said Lazzara, who still trains Ezhov during the off-season in Montreal. "So I suggested he go play Junior B in Cornwall."

With Cornwall as a launching pad, Ezhov graduated to Junior A, before getting drafted by the St. John's Fog Devils in the 2005 Quebec Major Junior League expansion draft. Ezhov was never drafted by an NHL team.

But when the 20-year-old goalie was pushed aside by a younger prospect in St. John's, he hit the road again. This time, to Melfort, Sask.

"Ilya has always had to fight for everything he's had," Lazzara said. "But what is so great about him is that he just works hard, shuts up and does his job."

Ezhov played 44 games in 2007-08 with the Melfort Mustangs, recording a .925 save percentage and a 2.01 goals-against average. He was named MVP of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

His successful season in the Prairies led to various offers to attend professional camps in North America. His agent suggested he double his chances by attending tryouts in the Russian league, which were being held earlier than those in North America.

With the help of his loyal grandmother, Ezhov filled out a Russian passport application, an unfathomable Cyrillic alphabet soup. After playing out a three-month tryout contract, he was offered a three-year, two-way contract with SKA Saint Petersburg.

"I had trouble when I first arrived in St. Petersburg," Ezhov said. "I had to re-adapt. I still read like an eight year old. When I saw the thick contract written in Russian, I was afraid to sign it."

Ezhov's unconventional road to the KHL, one of exiles and adaptation, has taught him to embrace his role and accept his success with grace.

"My goal has always been to play in the NHL," Ezhov said. "But I am very happy to be in St. Petersburg. Who gets to play, how many games, how much time, that's the coaching staff 's decision. All I can do is go out there and help my team win."

Once SKA's quest for the Gagarin Cup is over, he'll return to Montreal to marry his longtime girlfriend, Amy. He will visit with his parents, sister and grandmother, as well as friends from the old neighbourhood.

And if Ezhov bumps into his old English teacher, he will smile as he hands her his KHL card