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Viktor Tikhonov embraces off-ice role as Artemi Panarin’s guide

SAN JOSE, Calif. — An empty SAP Center still feels like home to Blackhawks forward Viktor Tikhonov. It was here, back when it was known simply as San Jose Arena, that Tikhonov first developed his hockey skills.

Ice rinks were scarce in Silicon Valley back in the early 1990s, when Tikhonov first moved here from Latvia as a 4-year-old to follow his father, Vasily, a Sharks goaltending coach. So after the Sharks practiced, Tikhonov and his sister, Tatjana, took to the ice by themselves. After Vasily was done with his meetings and video sessions, he’d join the kids and put them through drills. After that, Mom, also named Tatjana, would join in and they’d play 2-on-2.

“Almost every day the Sharks were here, we’d have two-and-a-half hours of ice time,” Tikhonov said with a smile. “I’ve been back here a couple times now. The coolest feeling is always just stepping on the ice. It’s really cool to see it when there’s no one in the stands, because that’s how I remember it.”

Unfortunately for Tikhonov, he likely won’t play Wednesday night in front of a full SAP Center when the Hawks face his hometown Sharks. He’s slated to be a healthy scratch, as he has been for exactly half of the Hawks’ games this season. Tikhonov has proven to be a capable winger, effective as a top liner and in a checking role. But whether he’s playing or not, the 27-year-old Soviet-born Cali dude with the famous name has played an invaluable role as rookie phenom Artemi Panarin’s translator, chaperone and pal.

Panarin and Tikhonov played together for St. Petersburg SKA of Russia’s KHL for the last three seasons. And while they weren’t necessarily a package deal, Tikhonov’s signing has greatly eased the transition for Panarin, a 24-year-old who didn’t speak a lick of English when he arrived.

“He’s been very valuable,” fellow Russian Artem Anisimov said of Tikhonov. “He’s helped him a lot. They’re roommates on the road, and he teaches him some English.”

When Anisimov first came to the United States in 2007 with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford, he didn’t speak the language, either. But longtime NHL veteran Darius Kasparaitis was on the roster, and Anisimov clung to his countryman for three weeks.

Then Kasparaitis left for Russia, his North American career over after four games with the Wolfpack.

“I was alone, and it was a tough time for me,” Anisimov said. “He had been helping me, and explaining everything to me. Then he was gone.”

Tikhonov knows the feeling. He was 4 when he followed his dad from Latvia to the San Jose area, where he still lives in the offseason. When he was 12, he moved to Finland for two years, then to Switzerland for a year, then to Russia for a year, before returning to Northern California at age 17. Tikhonov said eventually the culture shock wore off, largely because he had family with him every step of the way.

For Panarin, that family is Tikhonov.

“I think he’s helped him,” Joel Quenneville said. “Teek’s been good — he fits in with his teammates. He’s a good guy, and the experience of being around North America has helped him, as well. We’re at the stage now where I start talking to Bread Man (Panarin{ a little bit more individually without those guys around. At the end of it, though, I still need them around. But there’s definitely progress there.”

Indeed, Panarin is understanding more English every day. He takes lessons via Skype, and simply hanging around the dressing room, and having Tikhonov by his side away from the rink, helps. But it’s a long process. Andrew Shaw said Anisimov still stops people and asks what a word means from time to time, so he’ll know the next time. Anisimov said it took about a year for him to feel comfortable in the United States, about two years before he understood everything in English, and another year before he was confident conversing in English.

Of course, everyone’s different. It can take less time, it can take more time. Thanks to Tikhonov, Panarin — the front-runner for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year — is fitting in quickly. It’s not Tikhonov’s primary role; he was a first-round draft pick in 2008 and a fairly prolific scorer in the KHL, after all. But it’s a critical one for the Hawks, and one the affable, well-traveled veteran has embraced.

“When you’re speaking another language, you have to think differently, too,” Anisimov said. “You’re thinking in a Russian mind, and trying to speak English. People aren’t going to understand everything. But [Panarin] is doing good. He’s already a grown man. But having Viktor helps a lot.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus