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This article was published 8/10/2017 (1239 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
CALGARY — Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dmitry Kulikov didn’t grow up dreaming one day he’d lace up the blades, pull on a pro jersey and step onto the ice of an NHL arena.
Kulikov, a former first-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers now beginning his ninth NHL season, hated spending time on the local rink in his home town of Lipetsk, Russia, and he’d kick up a fuss each time his parents got him and his twin sister, Alina, ready for their figure-skating lesson.
His father, Vladimir, had played hockey and wanted his four-year-old kids to fall in love with cutting up the ice just as he had when he was a youngster.
But no such luck with Dmitry.
"Hockey wasn’t taking kids my age, yet, so I started with my twin sister in figure skating for maybe a year," he recalled, during a chat Saturday following the Jets’ morning skate. "I don’t remember how it happened, but they tell me I fell and it hurt a lot, and I didn’t want to do that anymore. I didn’t like it."
'...they tell me I fell and it hurt a lot, and I didn't want to do that anymore. I didn't like it'‐ Jets defenceman Dmitry Kulikov, on his figure-skating days
That could have been it as far as a career on blades goes for the now-26-year-old blue-liner, who played his second game as a member of the Jets on Saturday night in Calgary and is beginning his ninth NHL campaign.
But dad wouldn’t give up, and about 18 months later, Kulikov slung a hockey bag over his shoulder and happily raced into the rink to practise with other kids, many of whom were seven or eight years old.
"I started skating with a group that was older. As I remember, the figure skating helped a lot," Kulikov said. "When I got to hockey, I was already skating better than some of them who had been playing for a while already."
Lipetsk is a steel city, located about 450 kilometres southeast of Moscow. Vladimir Kulikov and his wife, Irina, both worked at the factory, but wanted more for their children.
Dmitry Kulikov said by the time he was nine or 10, he was already one of the best young hockey players in the city of 700,000, while his sister was developing into a talented figure skater. By the time the twins were 12, they moved away separately to live, train and attend school.
He said while it was difficult to leave, Lipetsk wasn’t much of a sports community — its pro hockey team competed in a third-tier Russian league — and his parents and coaches believed growing his game meant a change of scenery.
He tried out for a team in Yaroslavl, about 265 kilometres north of Moscow, comprising kids born in 1990 and cracked the roster as a centre. Lodging and schooling were provided. "I loved it. It was like being in camp. We had school in the mornings and training in the afternoon. On Sundays, we played our games."
He played parts of two seasons there and then moved to Moscow, fantasizing that one day he’d be a big shot in the KHL.
Kulikov said as a young teen, the NHL wasn’t on his radar.
"I looked up to the player from our Super League team or ones in the KHL. I knew nothing about the NHL," he said. "I looked at some pictures and stuff, but it looked like a faraway land that I would never get to."
After a couple of years in Moscow, Kulikov, who was encouraged to convert to defence because of his size and puck-moving ability, played one season as a 16-year-old with the farm club of Yaroslavl Lokomotiv of the KHL and was convinced by his agent and parents to sign with Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
One tremendous season (2008-09) with the Voltigeurs changed his life. He racked up 12 goals and 62 points and was named the QMJHL’s defenceman of the year. He also learned to speak English.
"We had English in school in Russia, but I never paid attention to it because I never thought I would need it," he said. "In my junior year, when I was 17 in Quebec, I started realizing that I might make it to the NHL because the scouts were at every game and I was showing up on the scouting reports."
The Panthers chose him 14th overall in the 2009 NHL draft and he played 68 games as a rookie the following season, scoring three goals and chipping in 13 assists.
The 6-1, 205-pound defenceman played seven seasons in Florida and met his wife, Emelie, there. The couple has a five-month-old son, Maxton.
Kulikov’s thick left forearm bears a tattoo of a male lion protecting his cub — "It’s for my son," he said — and a clock denoting the date and time the infant was born.
His time in south Florida came to an abrupt end when he was traded to Buffalo prior to the 2016-17 season — but things did not go well with the Sabres. The left-shooting blue-liner was checked into an open bench door and suffered a deep back bruise that ached for much of the season and forced him out of the lineup three times. When he did play, he struggled defensively and added little to the club’s offensive punch, scoring only twice and adding three assists in 47 contests.
Kulikov signed a three-year, US$13-million contract on July 1 with Winnipeg. He’s hoping to kick-start his career with the Jets and believes his skating and physical play can complement a defensive core that includes Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey and Tyler Myers.
Trouba, who was paired with Kulikov on Saturday in Calgary, said the new Jet is fitting in nicely.
"He’s been really good. I got to skate with him a lot over the summer, so I think I know a little bit of his tendencies and I think I know him a little better than a lot of guys early on. He’s a good guy, a lot of fun," he said.
Kulikov said he’s feeling right at home in his new surroundings and wants to make his mark as a hard-nosed defender who throws a scare into forwards when they cross his path.
"My dad always tells me things, not just about my game but about life in general. He said if you want to be remembered, you gotta do something that no one else does," he said. "I like hitting. I enjoyed it in junior and the NHL and I always implement that part into my game."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).