As it happens, he plays for Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals, reducing Semin at times to “the other Alex” status – the other sharpshooting winger from Russia who’s among the league leaders in goals.
Turns out Semin’s OK with that.
“I came here to play,” he said, “not to be the centre of attention.”
Reigning rookie of the year Ovechkin gets the attention now, but there’s another reason hockey fans might not know much yet about his pal Semin, who through Thursday was ninth in the NHL with 29 goals. Semin doesn’t speak a lot of English – or at least doesn’t mind that people think he doesn’t – which leads to scenes like this:
After Washington’s recent 7-3 victory over the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes, a game in which Semin scored two spectacular goals and added an assist, he wandered around the locker-room completely unencumbered. While other players were surrounded by TV cameras and reporters’ notepads, Semin was left alone.
In the visitor’s locker-room around the corner, Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward marvelled at Semin’s wrist shot: “Even if you’re anticipating it, he can blow it by you”. And centre Eric Staal’s praise was effusive, too: “He’s got so much skill and such a bullet of a shot, you have to be aware of him all the time on the ice”.
But no one knew what the most significant player in that game had to say about his performance.
“Why should they talk to me if I don’t speak English?” Semin said in an interview translated by a Russian-speaking AP reporter. “It doesn’t bother me. … If I spoke English and they didn’t come up to me, maybe I would get offended or upset, but now, no.”
Semin is 22, Ovechkin is 21, and together they give the rebuilding Capitals reason to believe they’ll be a playoff team soon.
“It’s really getting to the point where you really have to key on those two,” Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas said.
Entering Friday, they had combined for 62 goals, and only two pairs of teammates had scored more. They both had 13 power-play goals, tied for fifth in the league. Plus there’s this: Ovechkin and Semin rank 1-2 in goals by NHL players younger than 23.
“They help each other out. There’s less pressure on Ovechkin because Semin can score, and vice versa: If there’s too much coverage on Ovechkin, Semin should be having an easier time of it,” said Caps GM George McPhee. “It’s just nice that they seem to like one other, and they’re good for each other. We drafted both of them and would like to have them for a long time, have them spend their entire careers here.”
This is actually Semin’s second stint with the Capitals; a first-round draft pick in 2002, he scored 10 goals in 52 games as a teenager with Washington in 2003-04.
“He was probably too young,” McPhee said. “Now he’s a few years older and a young man instead of just a boy. There aren’t many kids who can handle it.”
When the Capitals wanted Semin to report to the minor leagues during the NHL lockout, he went to play in Russia instead. The Capitals filed a lawsuit, and eventually Semin agreed to return. He’s under contract through next season. The team can match any offer to Semin until 2011, and everyone insists there’s no ill will stemming from the dispute.
It’s also clear Semin’s not the same person or player he was last time.
“He got stronger. He comes up with so many more pucks right now. His shot is one of the better shots in the league,” centre Dainius Zubrus said. “All together, he just matured.”
Said coach Glen Hanlon: “He’s had four years to develop. Now he’s way more explosive, and he’s played in world championships. He’s just a better all-around player. And his understanding of English is way better, so in turn that allows him to understand our systems a lot better.”
There’s a bit of a mystery about just how good or bad Semin’s English actually is. He certainly knows enough to get by, putting together phrases such as, “What time practice?” Hanlon tries to communicate with Semin in Russian or asks Ovechkin to help get points across. But the coach also thinks Semin “understands English better than he’ll let on.”
As for Hanlon’s Russian, Semin noted: “He speaks it, but not well.”
Perhaps Semin is simply a man of few words. Even while conversing in Russian at the team’s practice facility this week, he spoke barely above a whisper, the volume rising mostly when he said something he found funny, punctuated with a chuckle.
He’s earning a reputation among the Capitals as a practical joker, another sign – along with his stats – that he’s more confident than during his first stay.
“I know how he can be if he feels comfortable,” said Ovechkin, who’s known Semin for a half-dozen years. “If he feels trust, he plays unbelievable – he’ll score goals, do whatever he wants.”
Semin said he thinks he can reach 50 goals this season, and he hopes that translates into victories.
“I’d like to score more, so the team would win more. That’s the most important thing,” he said, adding later: “I think everything will be fine. We’ve lost some, but we’re going to win.”