February 27, 2022

(Three days after Russia's invasion  of Ukaine.) 

Remember Andrei Nikolishin?

In July 2003, the Avalanche acquired the veteran center from the Blackhawks for a fourth-round draft choice. He spent one season with Colorado before the scrubbed 2004-05 lockout season, getting 5 goals and 7 assists in 49 games. He played seven more seasons in the Russian League and the KHL. 

The most memorable moment in his Colorado stay was when he jumped in and tried to pin Todd Bertuzzi's arms and pull Bertuzzi off a prone Steve Moore during the third period of the notorious late-season game in Vancouver.      

The next morning in Vancouver after I tagged along with the team delegation to visit Moore in the hospital, Nikolishin told me, "I saw Bertuzzi grab him from behind and I just jumped in right away, and that was it. I saw blood spill out and spread out. I don't even want to talk about it. It's tough to see." 
About six weeks earlier, I had sat down with Nikolishin and mostly listened, transfixed, as we talked about his family background, which had been brought to my attention, as in, "You should ask Andrei about ..." He was born in Russia but only years later was told of his Ukraine-born father's courageous battles to survive a life after Nazi Germany invasion, plus in Soviet gulags and forced labor in coal mines. 

My story ran on January 13, 2004.

It provides a hint, just a hint, of Russian-Ukrainian background, but is a reminder of the complex mosaic that is the NHL's international cast.


Andrei Nikolishin with the Avalanche 

By Terry Frei
Avalanche center Andrei Nikolishin will make $1.75 million this season, his 10th in the NHL. The 30-year-old Russian is one of the best faceoff men in the league, a valuable penalty killer and the sort of specialist elite teams need.

When he desires a refresher on how fortunate he is, he reminds himself of his father's past, and of the obstacles he himself overcame. 


The story begins with Andrei's father, Vasily Nikolishin, in Ukraine, three decades before Andrei was born. It is a tale of war and hideous inhumanity; of forced resettlement, Soviet gulags and coal mines; and of a young boy named Andrei born and raised in the Arctic Circle, for years neither knowing nor understanding the test of will and survival his father had been through.


During World War II, the invading Germans targeted Ukrainians as "subhuman" and the region as valuable. Ukraine residents, Jewish and otherwise, were imprisoned, forced to work as slave laborers and often murdered.


Some Ukrainians collaborated with the Germans, whether because they believed the German invasion provided a means for Ukraine to achieve independence from the Soviet Union or out of sheer opportunism.


Many though, including Vasily, a teenager, scrambled to remain out of the Germans' clutches, surviving under horrible conditions.


Vasily's parents weren't wealthy, but were comfortable in their village of Vivney before the Germans plundered and pillaged.


Vasily dreamed, too, while hiding out from the Germans in the forests. Surely, when Adolf Hitler's forces were repulsed or defeated, life would improve.


After the Germans were gone, though, the nightmare continued.


Joseph Stalin's Soviet regime also subjected the Ukrainians--in theory citizens of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics--to abominable treatment.

Young and able-bodied Ukrainians were viewed as threats, plus as fodder for the gulag labor camp system for political prisoners and others caught in the Soviet yoke. Typically, they were charged with "anti-Soviet" activities, a blanket accusation used for just about anything.


Vasily Nikolishin was ensnared.


Soviet authorities shipped Vasily to Vorkuta, in northeast Russia, above the Arctic Circle. Vorkuta was founded as a gulag labor camp in 1932, and Nikolishin was forced to help build the newer adjacent town. Then imprisoned, Nikolishin was put to work in the area's coal mines. He survived appalling cold and working conditions and two cave-ins that briefly left him trapped under rocks and rubble.


"The whole town at first was basically like a jail," Andrei Nikolishin said in the Pepsi Center dressing room recently, as teammates around him spoke of an "important" game that night. "No roads, nothing. They built the railroad in the '60s. But at first, there wasn't anything there--except work. There was no way to get out, nowhere to go."


Officially, the labor camp portion of the settlement closed in 1962, and most prisoner sentences had expired by then. Like most of the involuntary residents, Vasily had no options and stayed. Even if the longtime prisoners at Vorkuta had the means to move, migration was impossible for most because of the paperwork tied to being considered "enemies of the state."


After the closing of the gulag, Vorkuta evolved into a more traditional city, with coal mining still the centerpiece of its economy.


Vasily married a younger Russian woman named Tamara, who had divorced her husband and moved to Vorkuta. It seemed an unlikely destination, but her geologist brother worked there and told Tamara she could find work. Tamara came with one son, Alexander, then she and Vasily started a family of their own.


Vasily was 48 when Andrei was born on March 25, 1973. A sister, Ludmilla, soon followed. Andrei isn't certain but believes his father worked in the mines until the late 1970s.


For a long time, Vasily didn't tell his children much about his work in the mines or how he had come to Vorkuta against his will. He couldn't. He couldn't because the Soviet authorities forbade it. And because he couldn't bear to.


Andrei's father made it out of the mines and began working in a brewery.


Andrei and the other children thought of life in Vorkuta, with a population of about 110,000, as normal. They caught only hints of the city's roots as a forced labor outpost and virtual prison.


In the winter, Vorkuta was dark nearly around the clock. One day in the mid-1980s, a young coach came to Andrei's school asking if any of the boys wanted to learn to play hockey on the town's outdoor rink. At 12, Andrei already was known as one of his age group's more talented athletes, including in soccer. He was one of those who said yes. Compared with most of his NHL contemporaries, who played the game from the first time they could stand on skates, that was a late start in hockey.


"We had like 125 kids start at the end of September," Andrei said. "By December, there were maybe 20 of us left. It was so cold! You would come to the rink and for the first two hours, you would clean the snow off it. For the next hour, you would ice it. Then it's minus-40 Celsius outside, so you would go out for 10 and 15 minutes. That's all you could stand. You'd go to the locker room, and it wasn't really a locker room. It was a basement in someone's apartment. You'd go there, warm up a little bit and then go back out on the ice. You'd have to clean it off again and then play.


"We didn't have any gear, nothing. You had to buy your own skates and sticks. That first year I had gloves, skates and sticks, nothing else. But we won the town tournament, so they gave us gear the next year."


When he was 14, Andrei was offered a tryout with the Dynamo Moscow program. He didn't understand that a kid with a Ukrainian father could be excused for not embracing the Soviet sports machine. His father, wanting a better life for his son, didn't stand in the way. Nikolishin ended up in Moscow, getting a chance in the Dynamo program.


Often in the early years of his hockey career in Russia, when Andrei filled out papers for travel, he ignored questions about whether any family members had been in prison. He didn't think of it that way. As the years went on and his father told him more, he began to understand.


The NHL's Hartford Whalers drafted Nikolishin in 1992, when he was 19. By the time he was 20, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Andrei was Dynamo's elite-team captain and a regular on Russian national teams. Officially, he served in the Russian army and the KGB, still notorious after the death of the Soviet system. That KGB reference, which appeared on his passport, has caused teammates to tease him and make dark references about not wanting to know too much, but he laughs when asked about what he did for the army and the KGB.


"Nothing," he said. "It was me and (Dynamo teammate and Lithuania native Darius) Kasparaitis. We were in the real army for three days. We just hung around, and they called us back and we started playing hockey. I was in the army on paper for three years. I got money from them. That's it."


Andrei was born in Russia, raised in Russia and is the son of a Russian mother. He said his father nonetheless was "a little upset" that Andrei didn't play for Ukraine, which became an independent nation in 1991, but Vasily got over it. "I feel like I'm Russian," Andrei said. "I can speak Ukrainian, but not like a native Ukrainian."


It wasn't until Nikolishin was one of Russia's top hockey players that Vasily started telling Andrei more about his Ukrainian roots, about how Vasily had come to Vorkuta involuntarily and about his perilous work in the coal mines.


"He told how tough his life was, but that he hadn't told me because he didn't want to make trouble for me," Andrei said.


Andrei joined the Whalers after the NHL lockout ended in 1995 and has carved out a solid career with Hartford, Washington, Chicago and -- after a trade last summer -- the Avalanche.


Because a new player isn't asked to stand on the trainer's table and tell his life story each time he joins a team, this isn't as surprising as it might seem: During the years, Nikolishin's multinational NHL teammates only vaguely know of his background -- if at all.


Because Nikolishin and Avalanche winger Steve Konowalchuk spent six seasons as Washington teammates, the Utah-born Konowalchuk knows the most of any Colorado player about his Russian teammate -- and even that is far from the entire story.


Konowalchuk said that when a teammate would toss a barb about Nikolishin being "a commie" during the common geo-political teasing of an NHL dressing room, a peeved Nikolishin would retort that the Soviets in fact had kidnapped his father.


"We used to say he was from Siberia," Konowalchuk said. "We knew it wasn't Siberia, but it was the same kind of thing. We knew he had a poor upbringing."


Does his background show at all in the way he plays?


"He comes to work every day, and I see him as a guy who's secure in what he does," Konowalchuk said. "It doesn't seem like a lot bugs him. He's confident in himself. Maybe that's because of the way he was brought up: He knows if he has a bad game, it's not the biggest thing in life. He's been through some tough times, and he's a real strong person."


When Vasily Nikolishin died in 1998, Andrei went back to Vorkuta. He had been paying for a comfortable Vorkuta apartment for his parents. His Washington teammates began to get a sense of what Vasily meant to Andrei.


The widowed Tamara has moved back to her native area of Russia.


Andrei helps sponsor local hockey in Vorkuta, with a current population of about 168,000. But Nikolishin lives in Moscow in the offseason, with his wife, Marina, and their three children -- Alex, Ivan and Maria.


He is a Russian playing in North America, but he understands his heritage.


The son of the Ukrainian miner knows how good he has it.