. 1990-1996

20 1991 . 
As Khristich Finds a Home, Capitals Finding a Scorer // The Washington Post 

Dave Sell. 

There was a time last spring, when the seemingly interminable NHL regular season was giving way to the playoffs, that Dimitri Khristich said he was lonely. He was 21, far from his Kiev home.

Although one never got the feeling the Ukrainian wanted to pitch the whole enterprise and rush to Dulles for the next Aeroflot flight home, many in the Washington Capitals organization had come to the conclusion his pursuit of the great hockey dream would take time.

"Right now, I don't feel lonely, but I am looking forward to my mother coming here," Khristich said the other day in an interview at his apartment. The interview was in English, without an interpreter, and when Valentina Khristich gets off the plane on Thanksgiving day, her son's markedly improved command of the language will be but one example of how his life has changed.

His parents have never visited him here, although he speaks with them on the phone several times a month. "They know how I am. I am good. I feel good. But I think it's different, how I am here. If Mom comes and looks at how I am doing here, she can explain it to Father."

The Capitals are feeling good as an organization and Khristich is part of the reason why. Washington (15-4-0) is first in the Patrick Division and among the league leaders overall as it goes into tonight's 7:35 game against New Jersey in East Rutherford. Although others on the team have more points, Khristich is leading the Capitals in goals with 13, which happens to be what he had in the 40 games he played last season after joining the team on Dec. 11.

The adjustment wasn't as hard for Khristich as for his Soviet former teammate on the Capitals, Mikhail Tatarinov. Khristich began to be Americanized before he joined the Capitals. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound left wing-center had been good enough to play for Sokol Kiev of the Soviet Elite League at 16, and for junior national and national teams that toured the world. So, when Khristich made his Capitals debut at Chicago Stadium, it wasn't his first game at that wonderfully creaky old barn on West Madison.

One of the players on the 1990-91 Sokol Kiev team was Todd Hartje. A Minnesota native, Harvard graduate and Winnipeg Jets draftee, Hartje thought it would be interesting to spend a season living and playing in the Soviet Union. His book about that will be out this winter.

Whether by accident or because Sokol Coach Anatoli Bogdonov knew Khristich's then marginal English was better than the rest, Hartje was given a locker near Khristich's. Hartje had not studied Russian, so the early conversations were tentative, at best, but Hartje and "Dimer" (or "Dima"), as he is called, slowly became good friends.

The players had to live in an apartment complex that both Hartje and Khristich found less than wonderful. To pass some time, Khristich and friend Alexander Godynyuk, who now plays for Toronto, would come to Hartje's room and ask him about the United States.

"Dimer knew the basics like, `Hi, how are you?' How much?' from his travels and from school," Hartje said by phone from Moncton, New Brunswick, where he plays for the Jets' AHL team. "You could point to something and he knew: `Stereo.'

"I thought they were conversations but when I look back they were basically, point at something, say one word and look up three words in the dictionary and communicate that way. But Dimer seemed quick-minded and caught on pretty well. We tried to help each other learn the other's language. He would come to my room and we'd use the dictionaries. I compiled a list of vocabulary. I would have been lost to do it any other way. He would look over the list and he would pick up words that way too."

In what is looking like one of the best picks made by the Capitals' director of player personnel, Jack Button, the team drafted Khristich in 1988, still some time before anyone was sure Soviets would become as common as Swedes, Finns and Czechoslovaks in the NHL. The Capitals had contacted Khristich, but he had made it clear he did not want to defect. But by 1990, Soviet teams needed cash. So for $200,000, Sokol Kiev released Khristich to Washington.

"He was very loyal to the club," Hartje said. "So he didn't want to just take off and leave on a bad note. He wanted to make sure the team was well-provided for in his release fee. He's a deep thinker. He takes a lot of things in and tends to look at things from a lot of different ways.

"If something isn't going right, it will gnaw at him a bit. Right before he left, he was worried things might fall through. . . . But that still didn't change his relationship with the team. He was still the same fun guy.

"He tried to keep everybody happy. Though he was pretty young, he had played on the national team and been at Sokol for a number of years already and he knew what helped make the season more bearable. He was having fun himself but also let everybody have a little escape from the season."

Khristich was not the first Soviet to join the Capitals. Tatarinov had arrived two months earlier.

"It's an area that organizationally we spent a lot of time on and gave a lot of effort to, whether it came to the housing or the language, all of those things," Capitals General Manager David Poile said of helping the foreigners adjust. "I don't think any of us knew if we were doing the right thing, if we were doing enough or, in some cases, if we were doing too much too soon."

Tatarinov's agent, Mark Gandler suggests the Capitals might have done too much. They provided an apartment (which Tatarinov thought was too small) and a snazzy red Toyota Supra. But Tatarinov's wife was skittish about coming over, Poile said. And their son had some health problems.

For whatever reason, Tatarinov did not make the effort the Capitals see in Khristich, either to mix with the players or to learn English. In June, he was traded to Quebec for a second-round draft choice.

Willingness to Learn

"I think he was intimidated by the language," said John Chapin, whom the Capitals hired to interpret.

Khristich came with more English and a better attitude. Practical English workbooks lie near the couch in his apartment. A tutor comes, sometimes for 2 1/2-hour sessions.

"I think it was Mikhail that had to have John," Khristich said. "If I came and Mikhail wasn't here, I wouldn't need interpreter. But when John was here, it was better and it helped me."

And the Capitals got a glimpse of what Khristich could do on the ice. He scored seven of his 13 goals in the last 15 games as the team made a late rush for a playoff spot. But he and his teammates faded in the postseason. By then, Khristich had been working on a 10-month season, and Poile guesses he was tired physically and mentally. Which is why this summer was important.

First came the tan. Khristich and his friend Godynyuk spent most of a month at a house in San Bruno, Calif., partly owned by his agent, Vitali Shevchenko, a Kiev native who is a Canadian citizen. There was a swimming pool and time to relax and learn about life in America without hockey. There was San Francisco to explore and a trip to Lake Tahoe.

"It's not important to win money. I went to have fun," Khristich said, already sounding like a veteran loser at the blackjack table.

"I got this phone call and heard all these excited voices, going on and on real quickly," Hartje said. "I finally found out what they were excited about. They had just gone swimming in the ocean. It's little things like that he loves about the U.S."

Khristich went home to Kiev to visit his family and was invited to try out for the Soviets' Canada Cup team. That team was training in Finland when the coup occurred.

"Crazy," Khristich said of Moscow during the coup. "I saw tanks in Moscow, and I saw barricades."

Khristich was dropped from the Soviets' Canada Cup team at the last minute. His agent thinks it was for both political and economic reasons. Khristich didn't care. He and the Capitals were glad he would be here for all of training camp. They figured it would help the assimilation.

Minimalist Decor

Getting settled again became a priority. The Capitals are paying Khristich $215,000 this season. He is renting the red Toyota Tatarinov had until the team sells it, possibly to Khristich. The rest of his belongings he has bought or rented himself - with assistance from Tim Bergland and Peter Bondra, who got settled a year earlier with his wife, Luba.

Khristich chose his apartment for its view, its relative seclusion (he likes a nap before a game) and for its northern exposure.

"The bedroom was on the sunny side," he said of last season's apartment, "so it was too hot."

The apartment is decorated in Bachelor Minimalist style. The essentials are there. The living room, with bare walls and white wall-to-wall carpet, has a modern black couch and loveseat, a TV and VCR (Nintendo in the corner), one lamp and a dual-cassette boom box to play the heavy metal (American and Soviet) music Khristich favors.

Do you really need anything else?

"I can't decide on a table," he said, echoing a common problem for his age group. His mother will help with that decision, and he's moving to a two-bedroom apartment soon.

Team nutritionist Patricia Mann tends to fret most about the single players, who are neither nutritionally aware nor culinary-conscious. But a quick tour of the Khristich refrigerator might put her mind at ease where the Ukrainian is concerned. There was a case of beer, but it was of the low-calorie variety. Apples and kiwi fruit were there too, with meat and chicken in the freezer. Nothing green and fuzzy was apparent.

The instructions to the new microwave oven he had just bought were on the couch near autographs he was signing.

"Sometimes I like to cook," he said.

And there have been moments when Khristich has sizzled on the ice. He is a fine athlete, although some suggest he's now more inclined to work harder in the weight room than he was last season, and it is showing on the ice. Yves Racine's head might still be spinning from a move Khristich put on him before scoring against the Red Wings. Khristich has at least one point in 17 of his 19 games.

Although Bondra now rooms with Khristich on the road, Bergland has assumed the role as the American who gets most of Khristich's questions.

"He's not as afraid to talk and make mistakes in what he's saying," Bergland said. "I think before he was afraid people would laugh at him. But now, he knows what the guys are like and knows that everybody makes fools of themselves at some point. It just goes with getting acquainted with the team."

Keeps His Ears Open

Khristich is still a bit leery of being laughed at. Some players have good-naturedly suggested that, with his ears, he looks a little like Alfred E. Neumann of Mad magazine fame. Khristich says he thinks his ears are like everybody else's.

"It's like he's lived here his whole life," Alan May said. "He's a burgers-and-fries-and-Levi's kind of guy. He laughs at the same things and {has} the same sense of humor as everybody else.

"When he first came, the guys didn't know he could understand them as well as he could. They'd be joking around and all of a sudden one day he started talking and he knew some English. I don't know what he was like in school, but he's a sharp guy. He's shy a little to people not in the group. He won't talk a whole lot until he gets more confidence."

"He's getting better, though," said Al Iafrate. "I'm trying to teach him my slang and he's learning well. That's what Jeff Greenlaw and I did during the whole train ride home from New York. We were just teaching him good swear words to say to guys on other teams and stuff to talk to girls in a bar.

"But really, he's incredibly talented and going to be a star, I think. There's nowhere to go but up. When he learns the language better, it will be even more fun for him. We've got to get him a Harley, a theme song, an entourage - everything."

It's funny, but "everything" is what Khristich plans to show his mother when she arrives. She may stay a couple of weeks or a month, longer if she likes it.

"A little piece of everything," Khristich said when asked what he misses. "I don't miss politics in our country. I don't miss how hard it is to live. Here, it is better to live."

Khristich can go back to the Soviet Union anytime he wants. And it's not as if he doesn't appreciate his native land.

"He knew from the beginning that I was writing this book," Hartje said. "He'd come in and say you should put this or that in your book. One of the things he made sure I wrote down was that Russia is a crazy country but the people have big hearts. It shows what kind of good guy he is. He didn't want people here to get the impression that the Soviet people were not friendly or weren't treating me well."

Hartje thinks if Khristich's mother and father (Anatoli) could join him in America, he would stay. Shevchenko has considered the possibility of arranging to buy a small shop for Khristich's parents to work in. Poile said the team would discuss sponsoring Khristich for a green card, if he was inclined.

But then he hasn't been here a year yet and he just turned 22 in July. He has plenty of time to decide where to spend the rest of his life.

In the meantime, he wants to fit in.

"I am no different. I am like other people," he said. "Please write that I am not different. Only difference is that I play hockey."

With each passing day, it becomes more and more true.