Mention Nik Antropov’s name to a Winnipeg Jets fan and chances are the first thing that comes to mind is Oct. 9, 2011.
The 6-6 centre from Kazakhstan scored the first goal in Jets 2.0 history, knocking a loose puck past Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price in front of a hockey-starved Winnipeg crowd. The end result of their first game back wasn’t pretty, with the Canadiens prevailing 5-1, but it was still an incredible moment to be a part of.
"It was awesome. It feels like yesterday," said Antropov, who was one of 13 NHL alumni in Winnipeg on Friday for the Hockey Helps the Homeless tournament at Seven Oaks Arena.
"I remember it was three or four days before (the game) and I was talking to my family and saying how badly I wanted to score that goal. When it actually happened, it was a surreal feeling. It was obviously too bad we lost that game, but it was unbelievable. The city came together as one. It was something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life."
Antropov suited up in 788 games during his 13-year NHL career. Drafted 10th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1998, Antropov spent nine seasons in the white and blue before being traded to the New York Rangers for the last half of the 2008-09 season. In the summer, Antropov signed a four-year, US$16.25-million deal with the Atlanta Thrashers, leading to him spending the final two years of his NHL career with the Jets.
"It was unbelievable. I have nothing bad to say about this city. I loved every minute that I spent here," said Antropov, who had 21 goals and 32 assists in 109 games with the Jets.
After two seasons in the KHL for Barys Astana, Antropov retired in 2015.
He now lives in Toronto and works for the Maple Leafs organization in a skills development role. He helps young eastern European players, mostly on the Toronto Marlies, who are trying to adjust to the North American lifestyle while figuring our their professional hockey careers.
"It definitely brought me back to my first three or four years in the NHL. I knew maybe five words in English. Trying to communicate with the guys or even basic things like getting groceries and stuff like that, it’s really hard," said Antropov, who represented Kazakhstan at several international events, including the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy.
"For me, I think we had four or five Russian guys on the team, so it was a little bit easier. Those guys coming over right now, most of them try to learn English now because they know they’re going to come over. But some of them, they don’t. So, you try to help them adjust as fast as possible. All I want them to do is focus on hockey and the rest will take care of itself."
Antropov said it was a "no-brainer" to accept the job offer. It was close to home and he always envisioned he’d do something to help players once his playing days were over.
"I think I have a lot to give. Since I was four years old, all I’ve known is hockey, right? I obviously can help some guys and if I can, it would be great. You can already see some progress from some of the guys I’ve worked with a little bit here and there. Hockey is what I have known all my life. I think I can give a couple of tips here and there."
The most important young hockey player in Antropov’s life is his son, Danil. The Oshawa Generals selected Danil sixth overall in the 2016 Ontario Hockey League draft. Danil spent 31/2 seasons in Oshawa before the team traded him to the Saginaw Spirit last week for draft picks. Danil, who has 13 points in 23 games this season, went undrafted in the 2019 NHL entry draft.
"He spent a pretty good three seasons in Oshawa. It was close to home. As a 15-year-old, I think that’s really important. Now, he’ll be 19 in two weeks, so he can go wherever and take care of himself. He’s in a good situation right now. He needed that reset, basically. His mind right now is all about hockey and helping his team win."
And how does Danil stack up against his pops?
"He’s definitely a better skater than me. That’s 100 per cent."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.