Dmitry Kulikov has regularly sacrificed his body for the good of his team during his 10 seasons as an NHLer.
This past spring, for instance, he put off back surgery for a chance to rehab himself into condition to play during the Winnipeg Jets’ playoff run.
Kulikov appeared in one game during the Western Conference final, and it was a triumph of will. Weeks later, he finally went under the knife to correct a problem that had plagued him since his lone season with the Buffalo Sabres in 2016-17.
"The decision not to get the surgery before the playoffs was all for that reason," Kulikov says. "Because I wanted to come back and help the team and play as many games as I can in the playoffs. Ended up playing just one, but that was all what I was working for."
The post-surgery rehab was long and brutal.
He was a healthy scratch early in the 2018-19, but by mid-season the 28-year-old Russian defenceman was a godsend for the Jets, joining Tyler Myers on an effective shutdown pair when Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey went down with long-term injuries.
"He’s a gamer, he truly is," Jets head coach Paul Maurice says. "He was willing to suffer through that pain just to play (this past season), and he knew it shortened his rehab window. And that’s what he wanted to do. He is a competitive guy."
On Thursday, the Winnipeg chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association recognized Kulikov’s determined effort to return to top form by voting him the Jets’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, an honour awarded annually to the player who demonstrates qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
The award honours Masterton, a Winnipegger and member of Minnesota North Stars, who died on Jan. 15, 1968, as the result of injuries sustained in a game. Each of the league’s 30 teams provide a candidate for the award, which was given to cancer survivor Brian Boyle of the New Jersey Devils in 2017-18.
Overcoming a career-threatening injury gave Kulikov, who will has a year remaining on his three-year, US$13-million contract, an insight into himself and the game he loves.
"It’s made me think that you have to work that much harder to get yourself ready and to stay in it," Kulikov says. "It made me realize that it doesn’t really come easy. You know, certain things can happen, injuries can throw you off your game. It’s not like only your talent can keep you in the league.
"You have to realize, or I had to realize, that I might have to change some things in my game, I might not be moving the same or working the same way in the gym, or things that I could do before I can’t do now. Just certain things that you have to be able to adjust to, it just made me realize it wasn’t going to be the same from now on."
He is one tough hombre.
"I think I’ve always had high pain tolerance," Kulikov says. "I just remember from when I was younger — never wanted to miss a game, never wanted to miss practice no matter what, whether hurt or sick or anything like that. It’s always been like that, I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It probably hurt me more times."
Maurice, who coached for one season in the KHL, believes Russian players have an intrinsic toughness unique to their upbringing, and that has nothing to do with pugilistic abilities.
"I left Russia with the idea that most of them can’t fight because they never learned to," Maurice says. "It’s not part of how they grow up. There was a time when everybody had to get one fight a year, right? Even the little guy had to get in one. Everybody knew the count — right? — in the room. But they are tough. Like what they will endure in terms of training sessions and injuries, I found really impressive."
After developing a reputation as an offence-first player early in his career, Kulikov’s approach has evolved. He seems unfazed that he has only six assists in 51 games this season.
"(You) just realize that sometimes coaches look at you as more of a shutdown guy," Kulikov says. "It’s also fun to shut down the other team’s top lines, it’s fun to play in that role. You feel like you’re helping the team, even though you’re not getting points. You may get a third assist, which doesn’t count, but you start the play and it develops after that. You might not get an assist, but you feel you’re still helping."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.