There are sadder fates in sports than being a never-used backup goaltender on an Olympic champion, but it does have a certain pathos to it. When the Czech Republic’s 1998 Olympic hockey triumph was immortalized in the Prague National Theatre by means of an opera called Nagano, it was Milan Hnilicka – DominikHasek’s anonymous backup – who was chosen as the main character precisely because he was viewed as a perfect tragic figure. When the former Soviet national team won its last Olympic gold in 1992, the Russians – who, of course, will never be out-tragedied – went to the extent of not even letting their third goalie keep the medal at all. That goalie, by the way, was Nikolai Khabibulin, who, as you may have heard, wound up making a name for himself.
Igor Shestyorkin, who had the privilege of being on Russia’s 2018 Olympic team that broke the 26-year gold-less streak, isn’t too thrilled with his “achievement” either. “Those were complicated feelings,” said the 22-year-old netminder for SKA St. Petersburg. “I am an Olympic champion, but all I did was practise with the team.”
Shestyorkin isn’t new to these torments of the soul. The New York Rangers prospect was slowly eased into the SKA roster over the past two seasons, despite being one of the most exciting young Russian goalies to emerge in the past several years. Even a team-record 272-minute goal-less streak last season wasn’t enough to earn Shestyorkin more than one measly start in the KHL playoffs.
And after SKA parted ways with starter Mikko Koskinen in the summer, the KHL powerhouse still wasn’t ready to hand the net over to Shestyorkin. It was newcomer Magnus Hellberg who was named the starter in the beginning of the season, but after the Swedish stopper struggled out of the gate, the coaches decided to implement a two-game rotational system between the two netminders. And, so far, Shestyorkin has been lights-out, going 8-0-0 with a ludicrous .963 save percentage and 0.87 goals-against average (both marks were second-best in the league), with four shutouts, including three in a row. It’s the type of start that will surely make Rangers fans salivate over his eventual NHL arrival.
The SKA coaching staff, though, is still sticking with the rotation, not wanting to overwork its super-talented youngster. Shestyorkin, of course, is eager to prove himself, though in his case, learning to be patient is probably a good skill for his immediate future. After all, how quickly can he count on becoming an NHL regular, what with Henrik Lundqvist figuring to stick around in Manhattan for a couple more years?
But that’s assuming Shestyorkin hops over the Atlantic next season and doesn’t follow the example of fellow Olympian Ilya Sorokin, the Islanders prospect who chose the KHL over New York by signing a three-year extension last summer. Shestyorkin, however, is very much his own man. A slightly smaller goalie than the flashy and acrobatic Sorokin, Shestyorkin prefers to play the percentages and embraces a less aggressive, more positionally sound style. He is just as levelheaded and prudent off the ice.
Unlike, say, Tampa Bay Lightning star Andrei Vasilevskiy, Shestyorkin doesn’t come with a “hockey pedigree.” His father and grandfather played soccer and volleyball but never made it to the pros, and Shestyorkin only got introduced to hockey by chance, following his next-door neighbor to the rink. He was slated to play goal at the age of seven after not exhibiting enough hockey sense to play out. “I was always skating the wrong way, so the coach thought I should try goal,” Shestyorkin said. “At one time, the team was bad, and I wanted to play forward, but he convinced me to stick with goaltending.”
It seems not immediately getting what he wants is a bit of a pattern in the young goaltender’s life. But, if things keep progressing, rewards are sure to follow soon, and Rangers fans may see some hope in the team’s post-Lundqvist future.