At 10:15 this morning, Blues prospect Vladimir Tarasenko stepped onto the rink at the Ice Zone in Hazelwood, and the largest crowd of the team's summer practices gave the Russian forward a hearty round of applause.
"Half of the jerseys, you didn't even know what they said — they were all in Russian," Blues defenseman Ian Cole said. "It really kind of sends a jolt of excitement, an electric shot through the fan base. I think it's cool, especially with this lockout that may or may not happen, getting the fans focused on the light at the end of the tunnel, seeing (Tarasenko) play and getting the season started."
One of those fans wearing Tarasenko's Sibir jersey was Nick Sullivan, 24, of St. Charles. He ordered the jersey from Russia several weeks ago and received it in time to wear it to Tarasenko's first practice.
"I'm super excited," Sullivan said. "It's good to see him over here. I didn't expect him to come over, so it was awesome to actually see him out here in person. He looked a little bit tired, but he looks like he has great hands, looked like he had a great shot, a really hard shot. He's going to be good."
The summer practices are informal, and therefore the drills are fairly limited, but several of the players who were seeing Tarasenko skate for the first time were impressed with the 6-foot, 215-pound right winger.
"He's good sized," Blues forward Andy McDonald said. "He's pretty stocky and obviously that's a big factor in the NHL. You've got to be strong on your skates and you've also got to be fast. He's fast and he's big, so he's probably a complete package."
Added Cole: "I thought he looked good. We didn't really do all that much. We didn't do a lot of skill work. But just in the drills that we did do, it was pretty evident that he can score from almost anywhere on the ice, which is pretty cool to see. As far as his pure skillset, you saw him in the World Championships, the World Juniors, he was just unbelievable. Seeing that, it's exciting to get someone with that kind of skill level joining the rest of our guys."
But for Tarasenko, who won't be available to the media until Thursday's press conference, there will be a challenging transition period. For starters, the rink he stepped onto Tuesday is 200 feet by 85 feet, which is three feet longer and about 13 feet narrower than the European ice surface.
"That's a big adjustment," said Blues forward Patrik Berglund, who went through the same transition after playing on the international surface growing up in Sweden. "It's so much smaller, that's why there's so much more physical play. If it was bigger ice, no one would have the energy to skate around and hit and work hard every shift because there's just too much ice to cover. But you've got to keep your head up and when you get the puck, you've got to be ready to shoot it right away. You have to be ready for rebounds and all that...you have to make quicker decisions."
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Tarasenko, however, will be learning the language and the culture in North America. He speaks English but how well depends on who you ask.
"The transition part for him is going to be tough," McDonald said. "Not only is he coming into a different league, but there's a language barrier there. It's going to take some time to learn the language and get used to teammates. Everything is new for him, so we've got to be there for him. We've already said, he can't be afraid to speak up if he doesn't understand."
But will the Blues be able to understand Tarasenko? McDonald was asked how fluent he is Russian.
"Not so good," McDonald said, smiling. "I've got to start learning today. He'll be learning English and I'll be learning Russian."
McDonald said that the language barrier will be less important during the game than it will be in practice and in the film room.
"Most players have great instincts and you've just got to go with the flow of the game," he said. "For him, it will be learning the systems and the practices and being able to follow the coaches, and also his teammates, just being able to communicate away from the game. Once the game gets going, he's played it for so many years, that will be no problem for him."
There is a long way to go before the Blues start playing games - especially if there's a lockout - but everyone agreed that Tarasenko had a good first day with his new team.
"He looked happy, he looked pretty comfortable right away," Berglund said. "For him to play his best hockey, he has to feel comfortable and know that the guys have his back. That's what we're going to do for him. The most important thing is to know that you have to earn the respect. But when the guys ask you 'How are you doing?' they want to help you, and that's what we're going to do for him. That's what happened with (other young Blues' players), and I'm just going to pass the same message along."