Scherbak learns im­por­tant lessons as an Ice Cap

The Southern Gazette - - SPORTS - Ni­cholas Mercer BY BREN­DAN MCCARTHY SCORE­BOARD

When you were grow­ing up and mess­ing around with a bas­ket­ball in the back­yard — every­one has a hoop — what was the one thing every­one wanted to do?

That’s right. Every­one wanted to try and dunk a bas­ket­ball.

If you’re net was nailed to the front of a shed, chances are you hauled out any piece of equip­ment avail­able to you and tried to jump off that in an at­tempt to slam the ball through the net. Tires were pop­u­lar at my house partly be­cause my un­cle owns a truck­ing com­pany, but there were times we’d try jump­ing off each other’s back to try and fly for a cou­ple of brief sec­onds.

If some­one was lucky enough to have a net with an ad­justable hoop, dunk­ing was eas­ier. You’d just lower it to your height and get on with the 360 wind­mills.

Even with that abil­ity, you’d want to raise the net and try the ac­tual feat.

So, what is it about the at­trac­tion to the slam dunk?

We’re drawn to the slam dunk like moths to a flame. It has an al­lure that’s matched in North Amer­i­can sports only by bend­ing a soc­cer ball.

Even at the week­end war­rior level, a guy who can cram the ball through the hoop is revered for be­ing tall, hav­ing long arms and a bit of ath­letic abil­ity.

Play­ers are drawn to oth­ers who can dunk. Those guys, and ones who can shoot the lights out, are mag­nets for at­ten­tion.

It doesn’t mat­ter which level it hap­pens at. Dunk­ing is must watch.

Go to a high school game in St. John’s and watch for the guys who can throw it down. From the time they take a cou­ple of strides from the three-point line, rise up and cram it, eye­balls turn to them.

Peo­ple pay at­ten­tion when they have the ball in the lay-up line. Lit­tle kids scream ‘dunk’ when they start their ap­proach.

It’s like that at the MUN Field House and the Air Canada Cen­tre.

Pro­fes­sional ball play­ers more float than jump. Sure, the big­ger guys can get up there, but they don’t fly with ease some of their peers do.

It’s the clos­est hu­mans come to flight with­out the help of a para­chute or jump­ing from high el­e­va­tions.

The dunk is po­etry in mo­tion at the high­est de­gree. It’s like hav­ing an anti-grav­ity de­vice strapped around your waist.

The dunk is at­tain­able to only a few of us. That’s why it’s such an at­trac­tion. Just like not every­one can hit a soft­ball 450 feet or throw a foot­ball the length of the field.

Go­ing top cor­ner in hockey can be prac­ticed. So, can play­ing sec­ond base or drib­bling the ball.

You can’t prac­tice a slam dunk. You can ei­ther throw it down or you count. There’s no drill that al­lows you to jump higher.

It’s one of those sport­ing abil­i­ties that is a gift rather than one earned through hard work.

That’s what draws peo­ple to the slam dunk.

The idea that the de­vel­op­ment of a hockey player in­volves his men­tal makeup as much — per­haps more — than his phys­i­cal skills has been pretty ev­i­dent through the first four games of the St. John’s Ice Caps’ cur­rent home stand at Mile One Cen­tre. Just check out Ice Caps head coach Syl­vain Le­feb­vre as he adopted Liam Nee­son’s “Lego Movie” role of bad cop/good cop in his han­dling of top prospect Nikita Scherbak.

Ac­tu­ally it was more a case of good cop/bad cop.

Re­cently, dur­ing two games against the Prov­i­dence Bru­ins, Le­feb­vre seemed to take a pa­tient, benev­o­lent at­ti­tude with Scherbak, who had a litany of rough shifts, in­clud­ing one on Satur­day where he turned over a puck on the power play lead­ing to a short­handed goal that cued a Prov­i­dence come­back from a 3-0 deficit.

But Le­feb­vre showed for­bear­ance and stayed with the young Rus­sian, giv­ing him a reg­u­lar shift and us­ing him in the last minute of reg­u­la­tion, in over­time and in the shootout, where Scherbak re­paid his coach’s trust with a win­ning marker.

But af­ter Scherbak — and, mind you, most of the rest of his team­mates — pro­duced an ab­so­lute clunker Tues­day in a 6-2 loss to the Syra­cuse Crunch, Le­feb­vre did as that law-en­forc­ing Lego char­ac­ter would do, and changed from a smi­ley face to a stern one.

Scherbak was in the lineup for Wed­nes­day’s re­match with Syra­cuse, but he didn’t play a shift in the first pe­riod.

He didn’t like the bench­ing, ob­vi­ously, but once he hit the ice in the sec­ond pe­riod, Scherbak made the Crunch pay for what­ever dis­plea­sure he felt. He scored St. John’s first goal on a laser-pointer shot to the top cor­ner, and with time tick­ing down in the sec­ond frame, showed real tenac­ity, help­ing force a turnover in the Syra­cuse end and send­ing a deft pass to Mar­cus Eisen­schmid, who scored — as the video re­view would show — with a 10th of a sec­ond left be­fore the buzzer.

Wed­nes­day, af­ter what turned out be an­other shootout win for the Ice Caps, Scherbak of­fered a po­lite “I don’t re­ally have a com­ment on that,” when first asked what he was feel­ing dur­ing the first pe­riod.

But there’s no doubt the bench­ing hit him hard.

“It got me right in my mind, I guess, and right in my heart,” said Scherbak.

And there was no doubt Le­feb­vre was in­ter­ested in how Scherbak would re­act, but so was the player, es­pe­cially since he said he had never ex­pe­ri­enced so ob­vi­ous a pun­ish­ment be­fore.

“Like Sly (Le­feb­vre) said, you have to re­spond like a man and I think I did,” said Scherbak, who ac­tu­ally de­scribed it as “good ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“Now I know some­thing more about my­self, about what I can do in those sit­u­a­tions,” he said.

Whether Scherbak was be­ing used as an ex­am­ple af­ter a team-wide stinker Tues­day — he is af­ter all, the Ice Caps’ lead­ing score with 17 points on nine goals (also a team high) and eight as­sists — or the ob­ject of specif­i­cally di­rected penance, Le­feb­vre wouldn’t say.

He did say that while they had dis­cus­sions af­ter Tues­day’s game, Scherbak had no pre-knowl­edge that he would be benched for the first 20 min­utes Wed­nes­day.

“I don’t need top go over the details. It was some­thing be- tween Scherby and I,” said Le­feb­vre.

“I’m try­ing to find ways to make sure Scherby un­der­stands he’s a pro­fes­sional.

“But the thing every­one for­gets is that he’s still young. He hasn’t turned 20 yet. But with the work ethic and with the skills he has, he can do some dam­age and he won’t spend too much time here.”

Scherbak, who turns 21 later this month, cer­tainly had some vet­eran-like takes on the game Wed­nes­day, say­ing the win was by far the most im­por­tant thing, es­pe­cially against the first-place team in the di­vi­sion which had schooled them the night be­fore.

“It’s not about the per­sonal stuff — yeah, I got benched, but it was im­por­tant for us to get those points and we did it as a team,” he said. “It was good to be part of that, to have helped.”

Scherbak knows there will be dealt other knocks — just hope­fully, not the kind he ex­pe­ri­enced in the first part of Wed­nes­day’s game. What­ever they are, when­ever they come, he says he ex­pects to be able to re­act in a sim­i­lar way.

“It’s not in my char­ac­ter … to give up. I made a prom­ise to my­self and to my par­ents that I’m not go­ing to give up in my life,” he said.

“This is just a step to liv­ing up to that, just one step of many.”

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF ST. JOHN’S ICE CAPS

St. John’s Ice Caps winger Nikita Scherbak, shown in this file photo, was benched for the first pe­riod of Wed­nes­day’s 3-2 shootout win over Syra­cuse, but came back to have a hand in both of the IceCaps’ reg­u­la­tion-time goals.

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