One of the players on the 1990-91 Sokol Kiev team was Todd Hartje. A Minnesota native, Harvard graduate and Winnipeg Jets draftee, Hartje thought it would be interesting to spend a season living and playing in the Soviet Union. His book about that will be out this winter.
Whether by accident or because Sokol Coach Anatoli Bogdanov knew Khristich's then marginal English was better than the rest, Hartje was given a locker near Khristich's. Hartje had not studied Russian, so the early conversations were tentative, at best, but Hartje and "Dimer" (or "Dima"), as he is called, slowly became good friends.
The players had to live in an apartment complex that both Hartje and Khristich found less than wonderful. To pass some time, Khristich and friend Alexander Godynyuk, who now plays for Toronto, would come to Hartje's room and ask him about the United States.
"Dimer knew the basics like, 'Hi, how are you?' How much?' from his travels and from school," Hartje said by phone from Moncton, New Brunswick, where he plays for the Jets' AHL team. "You could point to something and he knew: 'Stereo.'
"I thought they were conversations but When I look back they were basically, point at something, say one word and lookup three words in the dictionary and communicate that way. But Dimer seemed quick-minded and caught on pretty well. We tried to help each other learn the other's language. He would come to my room and we'd use the dictionaries. I compiled a list of vocabulary. I would have been lost to do it any other way. He would look over the list and he would pick up words that way too."
In what is looking like one of the best picks made by the Capitals' director of player personnel, Jack Button, the team drafted Khristich in 1988, still some time before anyone was sure Soviets would become as common as Swedes, Finns and Czechoslovaks in the NHL. The Capitals had contacted Khristich, but he had made it clear he did not want to defect. But by 1990, Soviet teams needed cash. So for $200,000, Sokol Kiev released Khristich to Washington.
"He was very loyal to the club," Hartje said. "So he didn't want to just take off and leave on a bad note. He wanted to make sure the team was well-provided for in his release fee. He's a deep thinker. He takes a lot of things in and tends to look at things from a lot of different ways.
"If something isn't going right, it will gnaw at him a bit. Right before he left, he was worried things might fall through...But that still didn't change his relationship with the team. He was still the same fun guy.
"He tried to keep everybody happy. Though he was pretty young, he had played on the national team and been at Sokol for a number of years already and he knew what helped make the season more bearable. He was having fun himself but also let everybody have a little escape from the season."
Khristich was not the first Soviet to join the Capitals. Tatarinov had arrived two months earlier.
"It's an area that organizationally we spent a lot of time on and gave a lot of effort to, whether it came to the housing or the language, all of those things," Capitals General Manager David Poile said of helping the foreigners adjust, "I don't think any of us knew if we were doing the right thing, if we were doing enough or, in some cases, if we were doing too much too soon."
Tatarinov's agent, Mark Gandler suggests the Capitals might have done too much. They provided an apartment (which Tatarinov thought was too small) and a snazzy red Toyota Supra. But Tatarinov's wife was skittish about coming over, Poile said. And their son had some health problems.
For whatever reason, Tatarinov did not make the effort the Capitals see in Khristich, either to mix with the players or to learn English. In June, he was traded to Quebec for a second-round draft choice.