Cougars’ Mikhalchuk having breakout season
In only his second season in the Western Hockey League, Vladislav Mikhalchuk is marching along on a fast track to becoming a dominant player.
If not for a sudden twist of fate this past summer, he might well be marching to a military drum.
But he’s back in Prince George, keeping the Cougars in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Heading into tonight’s game in Langley against the Western Conference-leading Vancouver Giants, Mikhalchuk is the Cats’ leading point-getter, with three goals and 10 assists though 17 games.
That might not have been possible for the 19-year-old from Minsk, Belarus, had he not received help from an outside source who helped him clear a paperwork hurdle which threatened to block his return to Prince George.
Facing 18 months of mandatory military duty, Mikhalchuk reached out to Evgeni Konobri, a former Kontinental Hockey League goalie, who helped him through the process.
“When you turn 18 in Europe you have to join the army and they said ‘Let’s join,’ and I said ‘I can’t, I’m a hockey player,’ and they said ‘We don’t care,’ and that’s why I left Belarus, but I didn’t have a visa,” Mikhalchuk explained.
“I had a Canadian visa, but it was with my old passport and I got a new passport and went to Moscow to switch my visa to my new passport. But I didn’t have any friends in Moscow where I could live for two weeks and it’s too expensive for two weeks. So (Konobri) texted me on Instagram and I texted him to explain my problem and he said to come to live with him for two weeks. I was so scared, but I came to him and he was a hockey player too.”
Given the chance to pick up where he left off with the Cougars after scoring 14 goals and 33 points in 60 games in his rookie season, Mikhalchuk has thrived. His quick release and hard shot is a nightmare for goalies to try to stop. His knack for threading pinpoint passes to teammates and his ability to leave defenders fishing for the puck while he blows past them is earning points with NHL scouts compiling their prospect lists. Mikhalchuk has played well in the first two months of the season and he’s certainly in the mix to hear his name called at the NHL draft next June in Vancouver.
“He’s starting to open eyes – he’s skilled, he can skate, he can shoot. He’s a 200-foot player and I really
He’s starting to open eyes – he’s skilled, he can skate, he can shoot. He’s a 200-foot player and I really like him.
— Richard Matvichuk
like him,” said Cougars head coach Richard Matvichuk. “Since he’s been here he’s been great. When Vlad turns on the work ethic he’s a very good hockey player and now that he’s getting used to the North American side of it, not just the hockey but hanging out with friends here and making different relationships, it’s making him a better player.”
Mikhalchuk has been playing the right side on a line with left winger Jackson Leppard and Brendan Boyle and Matvichuk likes the chemistry they’re showing on the ice. Mikhalchuk’s increased understanding of the language they speak on the ice has helped immeasurably.
“His English is getting way better – he’s working on it on a daily basis and it’s translating into a better game for him,” said Matvichuk. “He’s willing to learn. He wants to watch video, he wants to get better and it’s great to see the difference now that he’s growing into Vlad Mikhalchuk. He’s becoming a hockey player.”
Playing on one of the youngest, fastest teams in the WHL, Mikhalchuk’s icetime has increased exponentially this season and he’s seeing the results. In the first Seattle game last weekend, a 4-1 win at CN Centre on Friday, he had a goal and an assist paired with Josh Maser and Matej Toman and that line was in on all four goals.
“The coaches believe in me, like, I’m playing power play, and they give me a lot of time on the ice,” said Mikhalchuk, who had two breakaways last Saturday in the Cougars’ 2-0 win over Seattle.
“I’ve had to improve my defence play. I know where I have to be.”
Mikhalchuk patterns himself after Alex Ovechkin, whom he once saw play live in the KHL for Moscow Dynamo.
“When he played in the KHL he wasn’t very good because it was a big (rink) area and he felt different,” Mikhalchuk said. “He’s better in NHL rinks.”
Mikhalchuk made the decision two years ago to leave Belarus and through an agent submitted his name for the 2017 CHL import draft and the Cougars picked him in the first round, 54th overall. Prior to that he played for the under-18 national team in Belarus and was a member of the U-17 team that won the Mac’s Midget Tournament in 2016. He figured the major junior route gave him the best chance of making it to the NHL and so far the WHL has lived up to his expectations.
“Here in Canada, hockey is much faster than in Europe and the rink is smaller and the players are more aggressive,” Mikhalchuk said. “All my life I wanted to play in Canada, it’s like a dream.
“I got a shock when I got drafted. My English wasn’t really good but I played last year and my English improved a lot. Second year, I know everybody (on the team) and it’s way easier.”
Mikhalchuk’s was billeted last season with UNBC men’s basketball coach Sergey Shchepotkin and his wife Alla, who are both Russian-born, and they lived together with Cougars teammate Pavel Azghirei, also a Russianspeaking native of Belarus. This year, Mikhalchuk requested billet parents who don’t speak Russian, just so he can practice his English. He now lives with Sharon and Elmer Stafford.
His parents are home in Minsk, a city of about two million, and he has one brother, 10-year-old Leon, who also plays hockey. They don’t get to see him play in person due to the cost of travel, unlike most family members of the Cougars based in Western Canada, but they faithfully watch the internet game webcasts.
Mikhalchuk turned down the offer to play at the IIHF world junior tournament. Belarus was relegated from the top division and is now part of Group A, which will play Dec. 9-15 in Fussen, Germany. He was with the world junior team in Buffalo last year but didn’t get to play and said he doesn’t want miss time with the Cougars.
“It’s starting right now and they asked me to join but I don’t want to,” he said. “Last season I didn’t play a lot, I spent the time on the bench and I missed 12 games here.”
He’s looking forward to visiting the Edmonton Oil Kings on Jan. 27 and he’s hoping for a chance to play against his best friend, 18-year-old right winger Andrei Pavlenko, who also hails from Minsk.
The Cougars (7-7-1-2) will have their hands full this weekend against the Giants (12-3-2-0), who have just two regulation losses in their last 10 games.
“They’re a four-line balanced team and I know they have some injuries but they’ve got some scoring power, no doubt,” said Matvichuk. “We feel the two games against Seattle were a springboard for us and I thought we played well in both games. We have enough talent up front to score with our hard work so it’s a matter of keeping the puck out of our net. The huge thing was we eliminated turnovers in the high-risk areas and that was the difference.”
Defenceman Cameron MacPhee is still out with an upper-body injury but the Cougars are otherwise healthy. Centres Illijah Colina and Ethan Browne and right winger Mike Maclean are back from injuries and should be in the lineup tonight (7 p.m. puck drop). The rematch is set for Sunday (2 p.m.).