Google Chelyabinsk, Russia, and you’ll likely read about the meteor that exploded over the city in 2013. Read Wikipedia and you’ll find it’s named after the fortress of Chelyaba, which was founded in 1736 to protect trade routes.
But ask Vitaly Abramov about his hometown and you’ll find out one more important thing about Chelyabinsk.
“Hockey is like a religion in our town,” he says with his trademark smile. “We have a KHL team and so many players have played in the KHL and NHL from our town. Everybody follows hockey and it’s the biggest thing in the city.”
As one would expect, he makes an excellent point. Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL was founded in 1947 and won the league’s Continental Cup in 2012. Hockey players to hail from the city include the legendary winger Sergei Makarov – who scored in the Miracle on Ice game – and such recent notable players as Sergei Gonchar, Slava Voynov and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
When told the more than a million residents of his hometown have to happy to see him on the cusp of joining those stars in the NHL, Abramov couldn’t help but laugh.
“If I’m in the NHL, they’ll be more happy,” he said.
There’s no guarantee that will happen right off the bat, but it’s fair to say Abramov has a chance. He clearly stood out during the recent Traverse City Prospects Tournament, opening the tournament with a two-goal, five-point performance in a win against Dallas and finishing the event with a total of six points.
“The way he’s played, he’s definitely going to get a look, an opportunity during the preseason,” said John Madden, the Cleveland Monsters coach who led the team during the tournament. “It’s up to him.”
To this point, the résumé has been impressive. Abramov was named the MVP of the QMJHL, one of Canada’s top junior leagues, a season ago, following a 93-point season with 46 goals and 58 assists for 104 points in 66 games with the Gatineau Olympiques. He also had an impressive pro debut at the end of the season, tallying a goal and three assists in four games with the Monsters.
In Traverse City, the offensive talent was hard to miss. Not only is it clear he can make things happen via elite skill when the puck is on his stick, Abramov plays bigger than his 5-9, 170-pound frame. He’s not afraid to go into the tough areas – in the corners, along the wall and at the front of the net – to find the puck, and he has the strength to shield the puck with his body even against bigger opponents.
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In an NHL where a new generation of diminutive stars – Cam Atkinson included – have shown grit and skill can more than make up for any lack of height, Abramov could be the next in line to get the chance to light up scoreboards.
“It shows that he has the courage, and that’s what it takes,” said Madden, who compared Abramov to a dog going after a bone with the intensity of his play. “There are a lot of little guys in the NHL that go into those hard areas and aren’t afraid to cut across the middle. Obviously the rules have changed from when I played – someone could just grab you with their arm – but he’s figured out, ‘If I get a step on a guy, there’s not much they can do.’
“That’s a big step for him is figuring out how to play in each league. He figured out how to play in juniors, he is figuring out how to play here, and I’m sure he has enough smarts to figure out how to play in the NHL so it’s just a matter of time until he gets there.”
Someone who likely agrees is Pierre-Luc Dubois. The big center and 2016 first-round pick spent the past two years playing against Abramov in the QMJHL and has also worked with him since the two were chosen in the same draft last summer (Abramov was a third-round pick).
“It’s a lot better playing with him than playing against him,” Dubois said. “It’s been really fun. He and Calvin (Thurkauf) are really good linemates. That helps a lot.”
At just 19, it’s fair to say Abramov’s best hockey remains ahead of him. Still, he’s not using age as an excuse. With little left to prove in juniors and a potential move to Europe on the table, his stated goal is to play in the NHL this season, a step he came closer to with his impressive performance in Traverse City.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “There are a lot of scouts here, everybody is watching your game. All the guys on the team want to make Columbus. We work hard for this. It’s our goal for everybody, and especially for me too.”