Khristich is one of the most exciting players out of the Eastern Bloc.
Dimitri (Dima) Khristich perches on a bench following practice at Piney Orchard Ice Arena. He watches the Skipjacks take the ice and makes a few jokes in his steadily improving English. It is one year to the day since he joined the Washington Capitals.
Fresh off a flight from Kiev by way of Moscow, a bit jet-lagged and dazed, Dimitri arrived at the Capital Centre on December 11, 1990. He donned a Caps jersey and faced the press during the first intermission of a four to one win over the Flyers.
Introducing the youngest hockey player ever allowed to leave the Soviet Union, Jack Button, Capitals' Director of Player Personnel and Recruitment, said, "Dimitri Khristich is considered to be one of the most exciting young players in the Soviet Union."
At only 21 years of age, Dima was in the midst of his third season with Sokol Kiev of the Soviet Elite Hockey League. He also had considerable international experience by the time he arrived in Landover having been amember of Soviet Junior teams in 1988 (world silver medalist) and 1989 (gold medalist), as well as the gold medal winning 1990 Soviet National Team. In the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle, Dima scored the game-winning goal in a shootout to win the tournament.
Talk about exciting.
Fans at the Capital Centre soon discovered what alt the excitement was about as they watched Dima's outstanding skating and puck handling skills as well as his strength. And now this season, as he adjusts to the style of NHL play, the points are coming, too, at a point-per-game clip.
A lot has changed both here and at home in Kiev-now the capital of an independent Ukraine-over the past twelve months. Gossport, the Soviet Sports Federation is dead and the Soviet Olympic Hockey Team, like our own, must search for grants from businesses to fund its trip to Albertville. The teams of the Soviet Elite League, like Dima's Sokol Kiev, will soon be seeking investors as the formerly state supported enterprises move to private ownership.
What's different here this season?
"Time," said Dima. "I feel more comfortable here. I really like where I live. I know the other guys better and I'm comfortable with them."
His efforts to learn English also are paying off. Unlike some Soviet players who have come to the NHL, Dima wanted to start English lessons immediately.
"I took English in school," he said. "But when you study a language in school you think, I'll never need that.' Well, here I am."
A good indication of how well Dima is adjusting to his new life comes when you ask him what he likes to do in his spare time: "study American life," he replies emphatically.
So, the latest data on Dimitri Khristich: Favorite snack: pizza. Favorite dinner: chicken parmesan (not kiev). Favorite TV show: ÌÒÓ and Married with Children. Favorite music: all kinds. Absolute favorite music: hard rock. Favorite group: AC-DC.
As of New Year's Day, Dima's mother had been visiting for about a month and was enjoying her new life wrth no immediate plans to go home. They celebrated their first Christmas this year, which had not been a holiday in the former Soviet Union.
Dima was born and grew up in Kiev and played all his hockey there until coming to Washington. He began playing when he was eight but had skated for several years before that. An older brother played some hockey, but never seriously, according to Dima.
Dimitri made his mark playing in the Soviet Union.
This Khristich, though, got very serious and very good. Almost right away, when he was nine years old, he began special classes at school that were designed to accommodate young players' hockey schedules. "It was a normal school," said Khristich, "but a couple of classes were all hockey kids."
By the time he was 15 years old, he had joined atier two team comprised of much older players, some of whom were veterans of the Elite League. At 16, he moved up another level.
Caps Coach Terry Murray has been concerned about not overtaxing the young Khristich and giving him time to adjust to the rugged NHL schedule of 80 games and extensive travel. His Kiev team has some 50 games per year with much less time on the road. Judging by Dima's description of his training regimen in Kiev, however, it shouldn't take him long to get used to the lengthy season here.
By the time he was 16, Dima was practicing twice a day for three to four hours. In the off-season, there was no relaxing either.
"In the morning we'd wake up and go for a seven or eight kilometer run. Then we'd have breakfast, go back to sleep for an hour or so, then a tough off ice practice. Then we'd have lunch, sleep a little again, and back for another long practice that was not at all easy."
Soviet hockey players in general are encouraged to continue their education beyond the secondary level and coaches and team officials take an active part in making sure the opportunities are there. When Khristich finished high school, therefore, he began his studies in physical education at an Institute.
Hockey in the former Soviet Union has gone on despite the political turmoil. Even now the evening news (which can be seen nightly in the Washington area on C-SPAN II) carries highlights of games from around the Commonwealth.
Just before his seventeenth birthday, though, Dimitri remembers how an event in Ukraine affected his hockey team.
It was April 1986. "We were arriving back in Kiev from somewhere. I don't remember where. But we landed at the airport. And there were no buses to take us into the city. We all asked, 'where's the bus?' And someone said, 'All buses have gone to Chernobyl because something has happened there.'
"Two weeks later we still didn't know (the .extent of the world's worst nuclear accident.) Everyone was saying, 'well, it was nothing important. Everything is OK.'
Khristich beats Wings goalie Tim Cheveldae.
"But all of a sudden, the coach told us one morning, Tomorrow we go to the Black Sea for training.' We had never done anything like that before and the decision was made very suddenly. 'Pack your bags, tomorrow we go.' We stayed at the Black Sea for about six weeks."
While we in Washington learned the details of the incident and the West began providing assistance, the people of Kiev found out about the problem very slowly.
"Eventually a lot of people left Kiev." said Dima. "It was summertime and everyone especially wanted the children to leave."
Nonetheless, the season began as usual that year, and Khristich began to move from the ranks of the "hot prospects" to the "proven performers." The following season he gained international experience, catching the eye of the North American scouts.
But the Caps' Jack Button had made an evaluation of Khristich some time ago, and thus Washington took the unusual step of drafting a Soviet 18-year old in the 1988 Entry Draft (sixth round). No one thought at the time that the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation would ever let such a young player go.
However, a combination of remarkable persistence on the part of the Capitals and the Soviet Federation's growing need for funds created the happy circumstance of Khristich's arrival here.
Dima played both center and left wing for Kiev and he has done the same here. For the fans, though, he is most exciting on the left side of the "European line" centered by Michal Pivonka with Peter (Banzai) Bondra on the right side.
Few fans realize that, in addition to some tricky offensive maneuvers performed at breakneck speed, each shift is also a feat of linguistic aerobics.
"I communicate to Dima in Russian," said Peter Bondra, who was born in Lutsk, about 300 miles west of Kiev. "Michal speaks to Dima in English, and Michal and I in Czech or Slovak."
All this going on while you're racing up and down the ice? Don't you ever get confused? " No, never." said Peter.
Bondra, who is Dima's roomate on the road, has also become a good friend and co-traveller in the quest to learn about American life.
"Dima's a great guy," said Peter. "He likes to joke around, but he's also a tittle serious and a little quiet."
Bondra clearly has great admiration for Khristich's on-ice life. "He's very strong, and very smart, and always thinks how to move the puck to the net."
With his talents and success so far this season, fans should see the puck go in the net off Dima's stick many times in the months to come.