Saturday, November 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy: 'Just hockey and family, that is my life'

TAMPA

Andrei Vasilevskiy might be the oldest 23-year-old you'll ever meet.

The Lightning goaltender loves classic rock; his favorite bands are Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Doors. Vasilevskiy settled down early; he was married by 19, a first-time father two years later. The Russian is a private guy, which is why he doesn't have a Twitter or Instagram account.

Vasilevskiy said he's either at the rink or his house in South Tampa, where he'll often walk the neighborhood with son Lukas, almost 2.

"There's probably guys my age like to go to bars or somewhere else, but not me," Vasilevskiy said. "I'm not that kind of person. I like to be at home. Just hockey and family, that is my life."

It's partly that maturity — and drive — that has the Lightning feeling confident handing the net to Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy enters his first full season as its No. 1 goalie. The truth is, this "dream job" is one Vasilevskiy was born to hold.

• • •

Vasilevskiy is a goalie's son. His father, Andrei Sr., played in Russia's second division.

Andrei Sr., now a coach in Russia, taught Vasilevskiy the position's technical aspects. Hockey is a family affair, with Vasilevskiy's older brother, Alexei, 24, a defenseman playing in the KHL.

The pedigree has paid off for Vasilevskiy. Former Russian national team goaltender Alexander Tyjnych, who backed up legendary Vladislav Tretiak, was impressed by how serious and skilled Vasilevskiy was at 15. Andrei Sr. was once Tyjnych's backup and asked his friend to be his son's agent.

"He was one of those guys who could eat hockey, sleep hockey, breathe hockey," Tyjnych said. "My first impression was he had the (guts). He had the drive to be the best goalie in the world."

Vasilevskiy's preparation and attention to detail are what reminded Tyjnych of Tretiak, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who is one of the best goaltenders of all time. "There are a lot of similarities," he said.

Vasilevskiy had a decorated junior career, earning a spot on the national team at 17. The Lightning took Vasilevskiy 19th overall in the 2012 draft, figuring the touted prospect could eventually be its answer in net. The next year, Vasilevskiy was a starter in the KHL, a Russia-based professional league, leading Ufa to the conference final. KHL teammate Brent Sopel, 40, a former NHL defenseman, could tell right away he was "legit."

"He was unbelievable," Sopel said. "There was a lot of pressure. He took it and handled it like he'd been doing it since he was 2 years old. The way he was calm and composed, you'd think he was 40 years old."

• • •

Vasilevskiy was composed, and apparently smooth.

He met his wife, Ksenia, eight years ago on a two-hour flight to Moscow. They were in the same row and hit it off. She lived in Moscow; he was playing for Ufa. Their courting began over social media.

"And now," Vasilevskiy says, smiling, "you know what happened."

The couple has been married four years, Ksenia following Vasilevskiy from the KHL to AHL Syracuse to the Lightning. Lukas arrived on New Year's Eve 2015, a few weeks early.

Vasilevskiy was with Syracuse, which was playing in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. After Vasilevskiy won his start, he was summoned to then-coach Rob Zettler's office. Vasilevskiy, who already knew he was getting called up by the Lightning, thought that was the news.

"I said, 'No, you're a new dad,' " Zettler recalled. "Even better news."

Vasilevskiy flew to Tampa to meet his son, then started Jan. 2 against the Wild in Tampa, winning in a shootout.

"Many, many, many emotions," Vasilevskiy said.

• • •

Vasilevskiy can be emotional, sometimes finding it hard to sleep after rough games, Tyjnych said.

But Vasilevskiy has managed those emotions in the most tense moments, which has shown the Lightning he has the makeup for the starting role.

"We're in good hands," defenseman Victor Hedman said.

There was Vasilevskiy's relief appearance in the 2015 Stanley Cup final against the Blackhawks when Ben Bishop got hurt.

"He was unfazed," said Kevin Weekes, an NHL Network analyst and former NHL goalie. "He was just cool, not jittery, not arrogant, (but) self-assured, like 'This is where I'm supposed to be.' "

Vasilevskiy took over for injured Bishop in the 2016 Eastern Conference final, taking the eventual Cup champion Penguins to seven games. And after Bishop was traded at the deadline last season, Vasilevskiy went 12-4-2, helping lead a remarkable run that brought Tampa Bay within a point of a playoff spot.

"When we didn't make it (to the playoffs), that was just embarrassing for us," Vasilevskiy said. "I feel bad for our fans. They deserve much better than just 82 games. We'll be ready this season. I'll be ready."

Vasilevskiy knows more responsibility comes with being the No. 1 over a full season. He needs consistency over 50 to 55 starts. "Maybe it's a little bit more pressure, but it's a good pressure," he said. "The right pressure."

But Vasilevskiy, in the first year of a three-year, $10.5 million contract extension, feels at home, in Tampa and in the net. Ksenia and Lukas are never far, their names painted on his mask. Hockey and family. Said Vasilevskiy: "I can't be happier about it."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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