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Goalie may add word to local vocabulary

In the corner of the room, the goaltender from Russia was talking about the most foreign of concepts.

He was talking about success.

Nikolai Khabibulin sat at his locker, the large pads still on his legs, the sweat still streaming down the sharp features of his face. With just the trace of an accent, he spoke an ancient Russian word, delicate and descriptive in his sound.

It's pronounced "playoffs."

Say it with him now. Play offs.

If you trust the translation guide, it has something to do with games after the regular season.

If there is a reason to believe the Lightning has a chance to reach that strange and distant land known as the postseason, it is because of Khabibulin. In fact, if there is a reason to believe the Lighting has a chance against Toronto tonight, it is because of Khabibulin.

More than anyone else, he has restored hope to a franchise that has operated pretty much without it.

It is midday, and Khabibulin has just finished practice.

He is talking about perceptions and stereotypes, how people can live their whole lives believing in differences instead of similarities.

"Before the Cold War was over, everything was America is bad," Khabibulin remembers. "They would always show on the news how these poor people would stand in line to get some food; or how lucky we were to have apartments and don't have to stand in line; or how the capitalists all own something and the people work for them very cheap. When you hear something all your life, you start to believe it.

"Once the Cold War was over, it went from one extreme to the other. The United States was great. It was unbelievable the change that we had."

On this side of the world, we had our own perceptions. If you are an American of a certain age, you have spent much of your life building stereotypes of Russians. They were the reason we built bomb shelters, the reason we built space rockets. We watched Boris and Natasha, Dr. Zhivago, Illya Kuryakin and the Red October, and we blended them all together. Then there was the guy from Rocky IV.

"Ivan Drago," Khabibulin says, laughing softly.

"Sometimes, I see movies with the Russian mafia or even James Bond movies, and I think it's kind of funny. They're all mean and arrrrrrrgggh. Guys with gold teeth."

Hockey showed Khabibulin his perceptions were wrong. He began to play internationally at 15, and he remembers one trip to Germany and one to the United States. His eyes began to open.

"I went to Germany, and people are happy," Khabibulin said. "If you work, you live a decent life. People with families have two cars, decent places to live. What's so bad about it?

"The same year, I went to the United States, to Boston and then Lake Placid. I was amazed. It was great. So right then, I realized whatever we had been told for so long was just brainwash."

False perceptions are not simply a Russian product, however. Most of us had them. Sadly, a lot of people in hockey had them, too.

For a long time, NHL coaches looked differently at European players and wouldn't look at all at foreign goaltenders.

No one questioned the players' skills, only their motivation. It was a stereotype, of course, as untrue as most of them. But that doesn't mean careers weren't affected.

"It was even tougher for goalies," Khabibulin said. "It was as if we weren't tough-minded enough."

These days, thankfully, the NHL knows better. As Lightning coach John Tortorella said, there are athletes with more skill than fire in every country. Then there is an athlete such as Khabibulin, who has impressed the Lightning with both.

He might be the best trade the Lightning has made, and despite a $3.5-million salary, he might be the best bargain it has. Khabibulin will tell you there are still cobwebs from his holdout of almost two seasons in Phoenix.

Khabibulin says his game is at about 90 percent now, and Tortorella agrees his goaltender was better with the Coyotes than he has been so far.

On the other hand, the Lightning has been beaten badly in only one of Khabibulin's 14 starts, and he has a save percentage of .923.

If he gets any better, we in St. Petersburg will say our name used to be Leningrad, too, just to make him feel at home.

"I hope he can get 10 percent better," general manager Rick Dudley said. "Because he's been pretty darned good."

Khabibulin says his overall sharpness could be better. Goaltending coach Jeff Reese says Khabibulin still is adjusting to traffic.

"I think he's closer than 90 percent," Reese said. "Give this guy a couple more games, and he'll be top five."

Khabibulin's voice is small compared with the rest of the noise in the room. Someone keeps turning up the stereo, and other players keep shouting to be heard above it.

Then it happens. Just as Khabibulin is talking of Russia, an a cappella version of the Star Spangled Banner blares on the stereo.

He is different than you think. He has a sly sense of humor. He didn't speak English six years ago when he arrived in the NHL _ he said he felt stupid being unable to communicate _ but it is almost flawless now.

He describes himself as "easy going, a little bit funny guy, a little bit party guy."

And, like everyone else, he refers to himself as an intense competitor.

He is a man of three geographies _ Russia, the United States and the area in front of the net. His daughter, Alexandra, is 9 years old.

"In some ways, she's American, and in some ways, she's Russian," he said.

She also is a tennis player. You ask him what he would do if she turned out to be Anna Kournikova. Would he be proud of her finances, or would he send her to her room and tell her to put some different clothes on.

Khabibulin grins.

"I would be proud of her for being a good tennis player," he said. "But I would have problems with a lot of boys."

When hockey is done, Khabibulin said, it would be fine to have a house in his new country and one in his old. Each summer, he returns home. Still, he hears questions about America.

"Usually, they are from older people who were in the Soviet system for so long," he said. "It's different for them. They ask about the United States. "Do you really like it?' Or they just say, "It can't be that good.' "

He shrugs.

"We all have the same problems," he said. "You want to have a decent living. You want to raise your kids. You want them to have a decent living. We are not so different. Everyone wants to live a decent life."

You hand your note pad to Khabibulin. You ask him to translate a few words.

Lightning? "Molniya," he writes.

Bargain? "Horoshaya Tcena," he writes.

Hope? "Nadejda," he writes.

Playoffs? He shakes his head slightly and hands you your pad.

"Playoffs is playoffs," he said.

And the way he said it, it didn't sound like such a foreign word after all.

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