PHOENIX — Let’s start by dispensing with the notion that Artemi Panarin is some wide-eyed, overwhelmed kid wandering the streets of Chicago, alone and confused.
He’s a grown man, 24 years old, self-sufficient, with a rapidly improving understanding of English. He has friends in town, he buys his own groceries, and he even spent Christmas break catching up with some friends in Miami.
“He’s good,” said Panarin’s closest friend and former teammate/chaperone, Viktor Tikhonov. “Even while I was there, he was already kind of doing everything independently. He’s a grown-up guy. He can handle himself anywhere. I think probably without me, he’ll learn English a little faster, too. It’s one less Russian to talk to.”
That said, Tikhonov’s departure — he was claimed off waivers by the Arizona Coyotes on Dec. 6 — was a tough blow for Panarin. The two were all but a package deal, linemates in the KHL before signing with the Hawks. Tikhonov was Panarin’s guide to America, his liaison to his new teammates and his interpreter with the press.
That social crutch is no longer there for Panarin. It hurt, but it wasn’t a crippling blow to the blossoming rookie.
“My real life didn’t change, but I was a little bit upset,” Panarin said through his new interpreter, Stan Stiopkin. “My best friend left.”
The two still are frequently in touch, though the Hawks’ travel woes on Monday night — they didn’t get into Phoenix until after 1 a.m. — prevented them from getting dinner together. Panarin still has a countryman to lean on, though. These days, Panarin is almost always sitting next to fellow Russian Artem Anisimov in the dressing room, the two chatting away in their native tongue. But there are frequent, if brief, interactions with his English-speaking teammates, too.
In nearly every city the Hawks travel to, Patrick Kane is asked about playing alongside Panarin. And Kane, who says he often has lengthy “conversations” with Panarin, will sometimes start playfully chirping his protégé. In Calgary last month, Kane pointed at him through the throng of reporters and said, “You no good! You no play good!” Panarin laughed and shot back in Russian.
He might not speak the language well. But he understands more and more every day.
“If people talk not so fast, and don’t use slang, I understand,” Panarin said.
Of course, during a fiery intermission speech by the quick-talking, jargon-heavy Joel Quenneville, Panarin’s eyes glaze over a bit. That’s when he leans to his right and asks for a little help.
“Artem, he helps me through it,” Panarin said, smiling.
On the ice, Panarin’s game has translated beautifully. He leads all rookies with 21 assists and 32 points, the clear front-runner for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top first-year player. He’s enjoyed instant chemistry with Kane from the first drop of the puck, and with Anisimov doing all the dirty work for his two flashy wingers, the line has carried the Hawks through most of the season. Panarin even looks like Kane on the ice — the small stature, the dirty-blond mop of hair, the daring puck-handling, the endless creativity.
As Kane put it, they’re both fluent in “the language of hockey.”
“We play practically the same kind of game — the same style and skill set,” Panarin said. “This is why it’s easy to understand each other.”
So sure, Panarin misses his buddy, Tikhonov. But he doesn’t need him, either. In three short months, Panarin has already proven he can handle himself — on and off the ice.
“He’s a real good kid in a lot of ways,” Quenneville said. “He enjoys being around [his teammates]. He’s adapted well to the city, and I think he’s he’s continuing to get better in the language, and adapting daily to the culture. Being one of the teammates hasn’t been an issue. He’s been a real part of the team right from the outset.”
NOTE: The Hawks assigned David Rundblad to Rockford on Wednesday after he cleared waivers on Tuesday.