By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – After the Florida Everblades’ season opener last week, goalie Anton Khudobin skated off the ice and turned to a Blades official who was informing players that they had been selected as the stars of the game.
“Pick me,” Khudobin said.
It was another one of Khudobin’s jokes. The Kazakhstan native didn’t play in the game.
“Most players from Europe are quiet, shy and reserved but not Anton,” Florida coach Malcolm Cameron said. “He’s pretty funny, a real character.”
Khudobin, who is under contract with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, has mixed his outgoing personality with on-ice success. The 22-year-old was nearly unbeatable with ECHL Texas last season. He won the league’s Goaltender of the Year Award after going 20-1-4 with a 1.98 goals-against average.
Khudobin is the first former ECHL Goaltender of the Year to suit up for Florida in the franchise’s 11-year history.
“Me and Anton are kind of similar,” Blades forward Ross Carlson said. “We like to goof around and have fun but when it comes down to playing hockey, we’re serious.”
We’ll get to the hockey later. Let’s start with some tomfoolery.
Khudobin likes to end practice by playfully throwing down his goalie blocker, picking up a stick and shooting pucks with his teammates.
The goalie has a laser shot.
“He’s got a better wrist shot than half the kids on the team,” Carlson said.
Khudobin credits his father, Valeriy, for that wrist shot. Khudobin was a defenseman while growing up and his father worked tirelessly with him on his shot.
Defenseman didn’t work out for him for one simple reason.
“I tried to block shots and all the time it was a deflection from me into our net,” Khudobin said with a smile. “So my coach told me, ‘Do you want to be maybe goalie?’ “
The 5-foot-10, 187-pound Khudobin made the switch at age 12 and never looked back.
He and his parents moved to Magnitogorsk, Russia, when he was 13, but he still visits Kazakhstan every summer. His grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins live in the Central Asian nation (population: 15,340,533).
Khudobin said Kazakhstan isn’t like how it’s portrayed in the 2006 film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” Unlike the central figure in the movie, Khudobin said Kazakhstan residents don’t have cows in their living rooms.
“Kazakhstan is a different country,” Khudobin said. “Yes, there’s some bad things in there. There’s some good things in there. It’s the same as U.S.A., Canada and other countries. Anyone can say bad things about the U.S.A., too.
“But the movie was funny. It’s OK.”
Khudobin just laughs when people ask him if he’s friends with Borat. It’s just a joke, and he loves jokes.
“Tell him about the chicken Alfredo,” Cameron told Khudobin as he spoke to a reporter in Florida’s locker room.
Before every game, Khudobin goes to Olive Garden and wolfs down a plate of chicken Alfredo.
“He bathes in Alfredo,” Cameron said with a laugh.
Khudobin wasn’t always this gregarious. He had trouble learning English when he first moved to North America in 2005.
“We used to have to take the computer to his billet’s house because his billet spoke Russian,” said Saskatoon (Canada) Blades coach Lorne Molleken, who mentored Khudobin in the Western Hockey League in 2005-06. “So we took videos and explained everything there.”
After a while, Khudobin’s English improved and his personality began to shine.
“I remember our Christmas party. It was at a billiard hall and Anton was decked out in his white shoes,” Molleken said.
Khudobin’s mastery of English parallels his education in North American hockey, which is more physical than the European game.
Cameron believes Khudobin will play in the NHL. Cameron said Khudobin reminds him of one his former goalies, Jaroslav Halak. The Slovakian-born Halak is the Montreal Canadiens’ starting netminder.
“I see a lot of parallels between the two in terms of their work ethic, performance and abilities,” said Cameron, who noted that Khudobin lost 10 pounds in the offseason.