Sunday, May 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning's Victor Hedman having "great experience" playing in Kazakhstan

If ever you are in Kazakhstan, Victor Hedman said, better not to order horse in a restaurant.

Yes, it is a delicacy there. But, really, "It's disgusting," Hedman said. "It was chewy. It's tough to explain what it tastes like."

It is a minor demerit.

The ultra-modern capital city of Astana, where the Lightning defenseman is playing during the NHL lockout, has plenty of top-notch restaurants that offer his favorite sushi.

Add that Hedman's team, Barys, is in the playoff hunt and he has blossomed into one of the top blue-liners in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, and the experience already has been worthwhile.

"A great experience," Hedman said by phone. "I've been playing a lot and developing my game. I'm very happy I chose to come here, and I'm very eager to get back to Tampa and prove I've gotten better as a player."

Hedman's 18 assists are tied for second among league defensemen and his 18 points in 21 games are sixth. He is averaging 21:51 of ice time and is plus-12.

But Hedman, 21, said he is most excited about his work on offense, especially on the power play where he wants to expand his role with Tampa Bay.

The big Swede last season had only four assists on the power play and averaged just 1:08 of ice time. Overall, he had five goals, 23 points in 61 games with an average 23:05 of ice time.

But Hedman said he now better understands how to meld offensive creativity with defensive positioning. His reaction time also has improved.

"The more time he can spend on (the power play) the more comfortable he will be," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "I know he has the ability to play on it, so it's a matter of getting the opportunity and he's getting that over there."

"You can definitely get better playing there," said Tampa Bay captain Vinny Lecavalier, who during the 2004-05 lockout played in Russia for Kazan. "It's a little different style of play, a little more free on the ice. It's not as structured. But it's not like you're playing 16-year-olds. It's the second-best league in the world."

As easily as it seems Hedman fit in, there were adjustments.

His coach speaks only Russian, which Hedman said requires the goaltenders coach, who was born in Russia but lives in Michigan, to translate into English. The 54-game regular season also allows for more practice time than the NHL's 82-game schedule.

"We might get one day off every three weeks," Hedman said. "I want to work hard every day. That's why it's good. Sometimes you wish there was more flow to the practices, but coach works a lot on the system. You just have to get used to it and accept it."

Much like accepting one will spend a lot of time indoors in Astana, considered one of the world's coldest capitals with winter temperatures as low as minus-50.

So, Hedman turns on his tablet to keep up with Homeland, his favorite television show, and emails from the Players' Association about the lockout.

As for his meals, he's "playing it safe," staying away from anything with horse meat.

"You have to try it once," Hedman said, "but never again."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]

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