Sabres defenseman taking everything in stride
Nobody outside of the Kremlin knew how grave the situation was.
Alexei Zhitnik certainly hadn't a clue. He was only 13 years old,
sequestered in a Latvian hotel room long before CNN had permeated the
Zhitnik and his junior hockey teammates had finished a tournament but
were ordered to stay put for 10 days while Chernobyl smoldered a few
miles away from his family's Kiev home.
A nuclear reactor explosion in April 1986 released 100 times more
radiation into the air over northern Ukraine than did the atom bombs
dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Zhitnik never did go home that spring or summer. The school year was
cut short and, by his estimation, about 200,000 children were
directed to camps along the Black Sea. His parents and older sister
were allowed to stay in Kiev. He and twin brother Dimitri were
separated and assigned to different locales.
Zhitnik was alone amid regional chaos. It must've been terrifying.
"It was the best time," Zhitnik said between gulps from a bottle of
iced tea after a workout in the Amherst Pepsi Center. "School was
"We had no idea that it was really dangerous or that it was such a
bad situation. At first the government tried to hide it, and maybe
that was right. Panic in the big city . . . you can't stop panic once
it starts. So as kids it was nice."
When all seemed bleak in northern Ukraine, Zhitnik not only romped,
he also met his future wife. He and Luda now have a 7-year-old son
and a 5-year-old daughter.
Perhaps "summer camp," as Zhitnik called it, is what forged the c'est
la vie demeanor with which Buffalo Sabres fans have become familiar.
That carefree personality also seems to be what allowed the
unrestricted free agent defenseman to cast his hockey future to the
wind at the sport's most volatile juncture.
He chose to remain unemployed when the NHL lockout began, and he
doesn't know what the economic landscape will look like once it ends.
Players eventually will be allowed to return to their teams, but
Zhitnik will still have to find a home.
Yet this labor dispute, despite the catastrophic meltdown metaphors,
isn't quite Chernobyl.
"He's extremely easy going," said Zhitnik's agent, Mark Gandler. "He
knows he's going to have a job, and so far he hasn't lost a dime."
Over the summer Zhitnik turned down a reported four-year, $20 million
offer from the Sabres. He made $3.75 million last season.
He might not receive a proposal that attractive - from the Sabres or
any other club - after a new collective bargaining agreement is
reached. NHL player payrolls are expected to shrink whether there's a
salary cap, a luxury tax or some other solution.
"People say "What are you doing? That's a lot of money. Why you not
sign this deal?' " said Zhitnik. "But inside I wasn't comfortable. I
didn't want to be in a rush. I tried to make the right decision for
myself and make sure that when I sleep, I sleep good.
"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I had my choice. I don't know
if I did wrong or I did right. It was a decision I made. Nobody
pushed me. Nobody put a gun to my head and said "Don't do that.' If
it's a mistake, it's my mistake."
Michael Peca knows a thing or two about sticking to his guns at the
bargaining table. The New York Islanders captain, who also has been
skating in the Pepsi Center, can appreciate Zhitnik's decision.
"Whenever a guy stands up for what he believes in, you got to admire
that," Peca said. "He just believes there's going to be a market-
based system. I don't think any of these guys lives with regrets, but
it is a gamble."
Zhitnik, who turned 32 on Oct. 10, said he still has at least four
more years of NHL hockey in him. He led the Sabres in ice time last
season, averaging 25:01 a night. In 68 games he had four goals, 24
assists and a minus-13 rating.
Gandler noted three Eastern Conference playoff clubs inquired about
Zhitnik before the lockout. Teams are prohibited from negotiating
deals during the work stoppage.
"They were highly interested," said Gandler, who declined to name the
teams. "In unspoken words, they all made it clear "As soon as a new
collective bargaining agreement is in place, make sure you call us.
We want him.' "
Zhitnik hasn't ruled out a return to the Sabres, but he did decline
their generous offer. At workouts he has been wearing a blue and gold
Sabres jersey turned inside out to conceal the logo.
Gandler insisted the Sabres would be in the mix, but Zhitnik wasn't
quite so definitive.
"The last three years we haven't made the playoffs," Zhitnik
said. "Playoffs is my favorite hockey.
"My view is I want to win. Buffalo is a great team, one of the
youngest teams the last two years. My goal is to sign long-term with
a team that's not just going to make the playoffs, but a team that
can play for the Stanley Cup."
Said Gandler: "Buffalo can be that team."