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Workouts, not holdout, the focus

Nikolai Khabibulin spends 40 minutes at Ice Palace stopping pucks, and doing drills, sprints.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

Nikolai Khabibulin went from post to post Sunday as he worked around the net at the Ice Palace.

The last thing anybody expected was to see him go down. But there he was, on his butt, sliding slowly into the end boards, the victim of a slip of the skates.

Goaltenders coach Jeff Reese, on the ice, directing Khabibulin's first workout for the Lightning, rolled his eyes and delivered the punch line.

"How much are we paying this guy?"

About $14.75-million over three-plus seasons. If he collects all his bonuses (including $1-million each year the Lightning makes the playoffs) and Tampa Bay picks up his option for a fourth season, that will jump to $22.25-million.

Not bad for someone who sat out almost two NHL seasons because of a contract dispute with the Coyotes before the team traded his rights to the Lightning March 5.

But propped against the boards after his fall and, later, lying on the ice after 40 minutes of stopping pucks, and doing drills and sprints, Khabibulin could legitimately say it wasn't about the money.

Right then, at that moment, it was all about catching his breath.

"I'm pretty tired, but it felt great," Khabibulin said while wiping the sweat from his face. "It was a good feeling; a good tired."

Khabibulin has been a goaltender since picking up the game at age 10 in the town of Ekaterinburg, in Russia's Ural Mountains.

There was a two-month stretch in which he played defense because he did not have goalie equipment. But with his idol, Vladislav Tretiak, leading the former Soviet Union to international glory, there was no doubt about Khabibulin's position.

"He inspired me," Khabibulin said. "I just wanted to be a goalie."

But not a Tretiak clone. In fact, the 28-year-old said he doesn't copy any goaltender.

"No people can be the same," he said. "The original is always better than a copy."

Khabibulin thrives on work. The more games he plays, the more pucks he sees, the better he likes it.

In four seasons as the starter for the Jets/Coyotes, the 6-foot-1, 196-pounder averaged 65 games and 30 victories.

But when an offer after the 1998-99 season of $3-million a year wasn't enough, Khabibulin began his holdout.

It was supposed to end when Wayne Gretzky and Steve Ellman bought the team. But delays in the sale, and the Coyotes' arena and financial problems, made Khabibulin a luxury the team couldn't afford.

Khabibulin played for Long Beach of the IHL last season, and was named the league's co-MVP. But agent Jay Grossman said his client will make more "in two games" playing for Tampa Bay than he made with Long Beach.

Khabibulin also found it difficult to explain the situation to his parents, Alexander and Valentina, who live in Ekaterinburg and did not quite understand turning down $3-million a year.

"For my parents, or any person for that matter in Russia, that amount of money is tremendous," Khabibulin said. "It was hard for them to understand how we could reject that, but at the same time, they were behind us the whole time.

"It was pretty tough, but I believe in my value. Obviously, there was a disagreement with the ownership group. We thought we were doing the right thing. We still think we did the right thing."

So what does the fashionable goaltender do during a holdout?

Khabibulin and free agents such as Claude Lemieux worked out on their own at the Coyotes' training facility until December, when all but Khabibulin had signed contracts. After that, Khabibulin went to a local gym four days a week.

Khabibulin's wife, Victoria, had her husband shuttling their 8-year-old daughter, Alexandra, to school and tennis lessons. The time off gave Khabibulin a chance to perfect his recipe for grilled salmon.

Victoria said she never pressured her husband to end his holdout.

"If he signs something and he doesn't like it, he will probably blame people and think he did something wrong," she said.

"Once you make a decision," Khabibulin said "I think you have to stick with it."

Khabibulin figures if he sticks with an aggressive practice schedule the next 10 days to two weeks, he could play a couple of Tampa Bay's final 10 games.

Sunday's solo workout was encouraging, as the machine that fired pucks at Khabibulin rarely beat him. A better gauge will come today, when the team returns from a day off and Khabibulin faces his first lives shots since December.

"We'll welcome him with open arms and make him as much a part of the team as we can and go from there," forward Ryan Johnson said.

Assuming Khabibulin can stay on his skates.

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