PHILADELPHIA – Sergei Bobrovsky(notes) walks into the dressing room after the morning skate, and his teammates make sure to greet him enthusiastically. Andrej Meszaros(notes) looks up and smiles. He speaks loudly.
“What’s up, Bob?” he says.
‘Bob’ smiles back. He nods. He says nothing.
What can he say? Bob is 20-6-3 and has won his past five games in goal for the Philadelphia Flyers, who are tied with the Vancouver Canucks atop the NHL standings. He has done it even though he is only 22, an undrafted free agent, new not only to the NHL but to North America.
“I don’t speak English,” Bobrovsky tells a reporter sheepishly.
“I don’t know.”
Hartnell’s longest conversation with Bob?
“Maybe 15, 20 seconds,” Hartnell says with another laugh. “I still don’t know where he came from, but as long as he’s stopping the puck and getting us wins and points in the standings, it’s huge.”
On the surface, it seems that simple. Stop the puck. You don’t have to speak the language to do that.
But no position in hockey is more isolated than the goaltender. You’re often on your own – you and the shooter, you and the puck, you and your thoughts – and imagine what that’s like in a strange land and a strange league.
The Flyers are trying to make Bobrovsky feel included and comfortable, and Bob is trying to show he belongs. He has had his struggles. He has had his coming-to-America moments. But his 20 wins lead all rookie goalies. His 2.44 goals-against average and .919 save percentage are second among rookie netminders to the Chicago Blackhawks’ Corey Crawford(notes), whom he beat in Sunday’s Stanley Cup final rematch 4-1.
When you consider candidates for the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year – or who might start in the playoffs for the Flyers, a team that went through five goalies last season and still came within two wins of the Stanley Cup – you have to wonder, well, what about Bob?
“It’s an amazing story,” Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese says. “He’s over here by himself – new language, different culture, different food – and he’s handled it very, very well. Right now, I see a kid that wants to become one of the best guys in the National Hockey League, and for me, it’s just an absolute pleasure to see that, that enthusiasm.”
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Bobrovsky didn’t come out of nowhere. Not exactly. He once played for Russia in the World Junior Championship with Semyon Varlamov(notes), a goaltender the Washington Capitals drafted in the first round in 2006. The Flyers thought about drafting Bobrovsky, but they were worried about signing him. They passed.
So did everyone else. Bobrovsky played in Novokuznetsk, a coal-mining town in central Russia, much closer to Mongolia than Moscow. But the Flyers kept tabs on him in the KHL, and their scouts saw that he was playing well for a poor team.
“We looked back at some of our old reports on him, watched some tape on him and decided to take the plunge,” Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren says. “Obviously, we’re very pleased that we did.”
After the Flyers signed Bobrovsky as a free agent on May 6 – at a salary of $67,500 to play in the AHL, and $900,000 if he made the NHL, plus bonuses, according to capgeek.com – he arrived for rookie camp in July. No one really knew what to expect.
“You never know until he gets over here,” Reese says.
Go back and read season previews of the Flyers, and you’ll find goaltending was a huge topic. Brian Boucher(notes) started the Flyers’ first 10 playoff games last season, then got hurt. Michael Leighton(notes) led them on the rest of their run to the Cup final, then had back surgery in the offseason. Who would be the Flyers’ goaltender going forward? Bobrovsky’s name was rarely mentioned, if at all.
Bob had to introduce himself to everyone at informal skates in August and at training camp in September.
“At the beginning,” Boucher says, “he would just say, ‘I’m Sergei.’ ”
But as it turned out, he didn’t need to say much. Asked when he knew Bobrovsky could play, Hartnell says: “Probably the first couple practices. I couldn’t score on him.”
Few could. Bobrovsky went 3-0-1 with a 1.76 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in the preseason. Not only did he make the team with Leighton sidelined, he earned the start on opening night – in Pittsburgh, against Penguins stars Sidney Crosby(notes) and Evgeni Malkin(notes), in the first regular-season game at Consol Energy Center. He was such a surprise and so unknown that Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said the Pens had to search for tape on him.
Bobrovsky made 29 saves in a 3-2 victory, becoming the youngest goaltender to win a season opener in the Flyers’ 43-year history. He was 22 years and 17 days old. Ron Hextall was 22 years and 159 days old when he won the season opener in 1986. Hextall, of course, went on to lead the Flyers to the Stanley Cup final that season and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player, even though Philadelphia lost to the Edmonton Oilers in seven games.
“He’s been fantastic since Day 1,” Boucher says. “His agility is what stands out. In net, he’s really flexible, and he doesn’t quit on any pucks. He’s real competitive. That stuff is contagious when guys see that type of effort in goal from their goalie. It really inspires the players.”
In one stretch from late October to mid-November, Bobrovsky played 12 straight games. He started that stretch by going 9-0-1.
But as Reese says, “Adrenaline is part of that.” Bobrovsky still had a lot of learning and adjusting to do – the angles on the smaller North American rinks, the shooters firing from everywhere, the expert puckhandling expected in the NHL, the increased traffic in front of the net. He lost at Montreal, 3-0. He got pulled against Tampa Bay after allowing four goals on 11 shots. He went 4-6-2 from mid-November through the end of December, shaking his confidence.
“That was his first little sign of adversity,” Reese said, “and he fought through it.”
Reese and Bobrovsky tinkered with technique. Gradually, it got easier, and Bobrovsky got back on track.
“As far as communication, it’s not a problem now,” Reese says. “In the beginning, it was. But now, he knows certain words, and he knows what I want, and I know what he likes. So we’ve been able to work things out.”
After beating Varlamov and the Capitals last week, 3-2, Bobrovsky sat next to an interpreter in the Flyers’ dressing room. He said something in Russian.
“The confidence is back,” the interpreter said.
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Some things have been lost in translation. Some things are just new. Earlier this season, the Flyers bonded by playing golf in Pinehurst, N.C., before visiting the Carolina Hurricanes. Bobrovsky, who had never played golf before, wore dress shoes on the course.
But Bob’s personality has translated just fine. At a team dinner in Pinehurst, the Flyers took turns telling jokes. Bob contributed one, too. He just needed some help from Latvian teammate Oskars Bartulis(notes). (The joke cannot be repeated here in any language.)
“I can tell that when his English comes along, he’s going to be an easy guy to talk to, because he’s always smiling every day,” Boucher says. “He seems to have a good attitude.”
This a guy who acts like a kid on the ice, staying out after practice and inventing childlike games – hit the crossbar or do pushups. But this is also a guy who acts like an adult off the ice. After he made the team, he got a Lexus RX 350, a soccer mom’s SUV, not the pro athlete’s standard-issue luxury sports car.
“He just loves it,” Reese says. “That just shows his maturity. A single guy, on his own, you’d think he’d be buying an Audi or whatever, a BMW. That’s the way he is. He’s a mature kid.”
It remains to be seen how far Bobrovsky can drive the Flyers this season. With more than 30 games remaining in the regular season, he already has played 1,773 minutes. He never played more than 1,964 in Russia. Can he keep this up?
Boucher has been No. 1 before and could be again. Leighton still lurks in the minors. The Flyers say they are taking it a game at a time, that they don’t put numbers on their goaltenders.
But if you count the Flyers, all four of last season’s conference finalists have ditched the goaltender who got them there. The Blackhawks parted with Antti Niemi(notes), the San Jose Sharks with Evgeni Nabokov(notes), the Montreal Canadiens with Jaroslav Halak(notes). And if the likes of Leighton and Niemi can make the final with deep, talented teams in front of them, why not Bob?
He has come so far already.