Chris Lomon - NHLPA.com
As far as road trips go, Nik Antropov can’t ever remember anything quite like this.
“For as long as I’ve played, here in North America or in Europe, I can’t recall ever being on the road this much,” Antropov told NHLPA.com, in the midst of a seven-game swing he and his Winnipeg Jets teammates are currently on. “But, so far, so good.”
Antropov, who has the distinction of scoring the first goal for the new Winnipeg Jets (the team relocated to Manitoba from Atlanta this year) on October 9 against the Montreal Canadiens, sees the extended travel as a great opportunity, not only on the ice, but away from the rink as well.
“This gives us a chance to pick up some points and develop some chemistry as a team,” said Antropov, who signed a four-year contract with the Atlanta Thrashers as a free agent on July 2, 2009. “But another big key is in developing a bond with one another, getting to know each other better. That’s what makes road trips like this a good thing.”
Growing up, the strapping forward, who hails from Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, didn’t have to journey far to hone his skills on a daily basis.
In fact, it was literally a stone’s throw from his home.
“Our apartment building was right across the street from an outdoor rink,” said Antropov, who has been huge for the Jets so far this season, playing at an almost point-per-game clip. “It was no more than a 30-second walk to get there. It didn’t matter how cold it was, we were always out there until it got too dark and we couldn’t see the puck or anything else.”
Antropov, who was four when his father first introduced him to hockey, didn’t initially give thought to the idea of playing in the NHL as his skills began to develop.
“No, not at all,” admitted Antropov, who stands 6’6” and weighs 245 pounds. “I didn’t know much about the NHL. I didn’t really know where hockey would take me.”
While Antropov didn’t take much notice of what was going on in North American hockey circles, there were plenty of NHL teams and scouts who set their sights on him, including the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Expected to be taken early in the second round, Antropov’s brilliant campaign with Kaztsink-Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk in the second tier of the Russian Superleague (RSL), including an international match against Iceland, in which he scored 11 goals and 26 points, led him to be the 10th overall pick of the Leafs in the 1998 NHL entry draft.
Before going overseas to play hockey in North America, Antropov also played in the RSL with Dynamo Moscow. His first NHL season, 1999-2000, saw him play in 66 games and record 30 points.
During the NHL lockout in 2004-05, he returned to the Russian league and played 36 games split between Ak Bars Kazan and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
Injuries caused Antropov to miss significant time in 2005-06, yet he still produced 12 goals and 19 assists for 31 points in 57 games. When he returned to the lineup, he added 15 points in the final 10 regular-season games and finished third on the team in even-strength scoring and also led the Leafs with a plus-13 rating.
In 2006-07, Antropov typically played alongside team captain Mats Sundin and Alexei Ponikarovsky on the top line.
“I was able to learn so much from Mats Sundin,” recalled Antropov, who would play one season, 2008-09, with the New York Rangers, where he scored his second career hat trick. “He had a great impact on my career. He was a great player and a great leader. To play with him, I was very lucky.”
Antropov, at just 31, is the second-oldest player (goaltender Chris Mason is 35) in the Jets’ lineup. And while he has to endure the odd jab from his younger teammates, he has fully embraced the veteran role.
“Playing with Mats, you watched and took a lot away from how he approached the game,” said Antropov, who represented Kazakhstan in the 1999 World Junior Championships (earning eight points in six games) and in the 2006 Winter Olympics, where he scored one goal, both times captaining the Kazakhstani squad. “The guys, they tease me about my age a bit, but it’s all good. If I can do anything for them, listen or offer some advice, I’m happy to do that.”
And Antropov knows the fans of Winnipeg are undoubtedly behind him and his teammates.
“Their love for hockey is big,” he said. “It was the same thing in Toronto. Everyone would recognize you and they have a huge passion for the game. People are great in Winnipeg. If they see you on the street, you know they want us to do well and are happy we are here.”
Antropov will be happy to be back there, too.
“It’s been a long road trip, but hopefully, we get a lot out of it.”