By Don Stewart
READING, Pa. – It’s a helpless feeling having to watch the trials and tribulations of your teammates from the seats. Back at the apartment, Shawn Germain often found his roommate glued to a game on TV, or stickhandling by himself in the hallway.
Victor Uchevatov couldn’t wait to get back.
“It’s always frustrating to watch a hockey game from the stands when you could be there on the ice,” said Uchevatov, who sat out 32 games this winter due to injuries. “I just missed hockey in general.”
And the Royals missed Uchevatov.
The 6-4, 226-pound Russian defenseman finally returned Feb. 20 against Elmira. It was just in time as injuries quickly dropped the Royals to four healthy defensemen. Despite the heavy doses of ice time, Uchevatov was plus-5 in his first five games back.
It’s almost as if Reading has traded for an elite ECHL-level blue-liner without having to give up anything.
“Vic’s a very good player at this level,” Royals coach Karl Taylor said. “If we can keep him healthy, he’s really going to help us win games and be kind of a shutdown guy come playoffs, hopefully. We missed him a lot.”
In 22 games, Uchevatov is plus-9 with four points and 33 penalty minutes. Wednesday at Johnstown, he scored his first goal since the 2004-05 season.
“He’s a good stay-at-home defender,” Taylor said. “He’s a big body, takes up a lot of space, has a good stick, takes a lot of pride in his defending. And he makes good plays. He’s got more offensive flair than he gets credit for, but we expect him to be a stay-at-home defender.”
Only 24, Uchevatov is the most experienced player on the roster. He’s in his seventh pro season, six of which were mostly spent in the AHL. Uchevatov also was on the Russian under-18 national team in 2000-01, and he spent some time in the Russian Superleague two years ago.
Last winter, Uchevatov skated for the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals under a two-way NHL-AHL deal with Nashville. Let go at the end of the season, he was working out last summer in south Florida with several members of the NHL’s Panthers, hoping to get another AHL deal.
When nothing materialized, partially due to his veteran status (which raises the minimum salary), Uchevatov wound up heading to camp with the Royals.
“I’m happy I’m here,” he said. “I’m looking forward to going to the playoffs. I’ve never been so excited to play in the playoffs in my life. I think we’ve got a good shot, a good opportunity and a good team.”
There’s a stereotype, especially at the NHL level, about Russian players being high maintenance. By all accounts, though, Uchevatov doesn’t fall into that hard-to-deal-with category.
“He fits right in,” Germain said. “Everyone on this team is really close, but you’d think a guy from a different country would be a little bit of an outsider. But not Victor. He’s right in the middle of everything.”
Last season, the Royals had a young Russian defenseman in Roman Teslyuk who wound up leaving the team in December to return to juniors.
“I don’t blame Roman; it just didn’t work out very well,” Taylor said. “With Victor, it’s been the complete opposite. Love him to death. Great guy, great teammate, wants to do well, treats it like it’s the National Hockey League, very professional.
“I have nothing but great things to say about him. He’s a great guy. We have no issues with Victor.”
Uchevatov is from Angarsk, an industrial city of roughly 250,000 people in southeastern Siberia. He said he only makes the 24-hour flight home once a year, and only gets to stay for a couple weeks.
“I’ve been living by myself since I was 14 years old,” said Uchevatov, who speaks better English than many Americans. “So by now, I would say it’s second nature (being away). But of course I miss all my family.”
And, of course, he also misses the AHL. But besides staying healthy, the biggest thing he needs to work on in order to return is something he can’t fix.
“Probably my veteran record,” he said, smiling. “It doesn’t help me too much. But there’s no way I can change that.”
So, unable to roll back the odometer, Uchevatov simply is focusing on doing what he couldn’t do for 32 games this season.
“Just play hockey in general and be better in every moment and every chance that I got,” he said. “That’s the path to success.”