He has no clue how to tie a bow tie, but that doesn’t stop Sergey Tolchinsky from wearing one.
The one he’s sporting is pre-tied, and purple to match his shirt. The form-fitting wool cap on his head makes the diminutive Russian look like a cross between history professor and baby-faced hipster. When asked about this particular fashion statement, the Soo Greyhounds forward is ebullient.
“It’s a special day for me,” says Tolchinsky.
It’s a non-descript Sunday afternoon in Mississauga, though he has just collected three assists while helping the Greyhounds beat the host Steelheads 4-3. He celebrated his 18th birthday in early February.
So what exactly is so special about today?
“Every game day is a special day.”
Tolchinsky is a colourful character who is happiest when on the ice. It’s not uncommon to find him at the rink in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., long before everyone else arrives and long after everyone else has gone home. Hockey for him has always been fun, not hard work, he says, because there’s no other place he’d rather be than the arena.
“He goes out in the mornings by himself and stickhandles,” says Greyhounds teammate Andrew Fritsch. “He loves it. Sometimes I’ll go out with him.”
Like many teammates there’s a healthy dose of competition and camaraderie. But as many who have seen Tolchinsky play, his very particular set of skills are Liam Neeson-worthy.
“I just watch him and I’m amazed,” says Fritsch of their stickhandling sessions. “I’ll try it and maybe I’ll move a pylon or something, and for me, I think I have OK hands. Watching him I’m like, ‘OK I need to work on my hands a bit more.’ It’s fun watching him and playing with him is even better.
“He just loves hockey, you can tell. He loves being at the rink and loves doing all the extra stuff.”
The extra stuff – Tolchinsky’s labour of love – has paid dividends. He’s among the OHL’s top-scoring rookies with 23 goals and 46 points in 56 games. Eligible for June’s NHL entry draft, he’s ranked 149th among North American skaters. One of the biggest drawbacks for Tolchinsky is his size. The OHL lists him at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, but that’s being generous.
"Size doesn't necessarily preclude a player, but for certain teams size is more of a factor than others," says Dan Marr, director of the NHL's Central Scouting Service. "The ways the rules have changed (in the NHL) there are more opportunities for smaller players to get their chance in the NHL.
"Tolchinsky is on the smaller side of small ... but for him as a first-year player coming in with the offence that he's creating, that is going to put him in for draft consideration."
The right winger says his speed and puckhandling developed out of necessity playing in the Russian club Red Army’s junior system. His grandfather, Vladimir Tolchinsky, played hockey professionally for Red Army in the former Soviet Union. Like Sergey, Vladimir was also slight, so the elder Tolchinsky instilled the belief that hard work could compensate for lack of size.
“I have to do something different from what other guys can do,” explains Tolchinsky. “I have to be quick. I have to have more skill because I am small.”
It’s not unusual for him to spend hours doing drills to improve his stickhandling.
“I am crazy about it,” says Tolchinsky. “If my hands feel wrong, I feel so bad.”
“Sometimes you think his hands move quicker than his feet,” adds Fritsch. “And his feet move so fast.”
When asked about his size in relation to the NHL draft, Tolchinsky points to a little girl – less than half his size – waiting in the corridor to get into a dressing room with her minor hockey team.
“She is small. I’m not.”
Despite his stature, Tolchinsky thinks the game big. He sees his size as an asset, though he readily admits he needs to get stronger and add muscle before the draft.
“I can’t really compare him to anyone I’ve played with,” says Fritsch, a sixth-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes. “He’s just a little guy out there. But he doesn’t play like a little guy. He might be 5-foot-5 and people might take him lightly, but he can get into those corners no problem.”
Tolchinsky talks about his teammate David Broll, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound power forward who is aptly nicknamed ‘The Brolldozer.’
“It’s difficult to move fast for him,” says Tolchinsky of the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect. “I don’t mean that he is slow. It’s just harder for him to move fast, than for me.
“I think that it is a big plus that I am small.”
There is something very endearing about Tolchinsky. Perhaps it’s seeing an enormous personality in such a petite frame. In the post-game he is darting around the hallway outside the Greyhounds dressing room like a new toy with a fresh set of batteries. His teammates are fiercely protective of him, not only because he’s the runt of the Greyhounds’ litter, but because North America is still somewhat foreign to him.
“He’s just like a little kid that we’re watching (over),” says Fritsch, as Tolchinsky smiles in the background. “He’s like our son or something.
“He’s excited, he’s always excited.”
But excited wasn’t a word he used when he arrived in Canada at the start of the season. He left behind his friends and family in Moscow: his father Alexander, an engineer; his mother Yulia, an ecologist; and older brother Dmitry. He learned the basics – survival English – studying one year before coming to Sault Ste. Marie, but the transition was still fraught with difficulties.
There were times when he felt emotionally isolated. He says for his first few months in the OHL, he couldn’t understand former Soo coach Mike Stapleton without the use of hand gestures or the dry-erase board.
“The first month was so hard,” says the rookie. “I could say: ‘Hello. I am good. How are you? What are you doing?’ But nothing more.”
He says it was particularly difficult in the dressing room where he would see players congregate to discuss the usual teenage fodder – hockey, girls, school, video games, TV.
“I wanted to say something,” says Tolchinsky, who has been taking English classes. “They were talking about something and I wanted to talk with them. But I didn’t have enough words to say what I wanted to say and I was so upset about that. It pissed me off.”
One of his closest friends is Daniel Nikandrov, a Canadian-born player for the Sarnia Sting with Russian ties. The Nikandrov famly, who live in Markham, Ont., have tried to help Tolchinsky adapt to North America.
“He’s a social guy,” says Nikandrov. “He’s not shy, I’ll put it that way. I think because he talks a lot and socializes so much, that’s helped him with his English. He couldn’t just sit there quietly all year.
“He’s not a person you could keep a leash on, to say the least.”
Tolchinsky says he was “sure 100 percent” that he would come to Canada to play junior, staying home was never an option, though he first thought the Windsor Spitfires were going to take him in the import draft. In hindsight he says he's happy he ended up in the Soo, even though it's the complete opposite of a bustling metropolis like Moscow.
“Sometimes it’s a little bit boring, but it’s good for hockey,” says Tolchinsky of his temporary home. “There you can think just about hockey, so I like it.”