Caps' Gonchar is speaking up

C Last year, then-rookie defenseman Sergei Gonchar managed to make it into the Washington Capitals' lineup and stay there, despite seldom understanding the directions of coach Jim Schoenfeld.

The 6-foot-2, 212-pounder simply didn't get it.


"Last year, sometimes, I just didn't know what was going on," said Gonchar, who came to the United States from his native Russia at the beginning of last season.

"I just didn't know what people were saying to me, what they were joking about, what the coach was saying," he said, his brown eyes widening. "But now, it is much, much easier."


As he works to improve his English, Gonchar, 21, is in the process of proving he is a player.

Saturday, he scored the Capitals' first goal in their 4-1 opening victory over the St. Louis Blues.

Defensively, he read the plays, made the hits and finished with a plus-two rating. The Caps wouldn't mind a repeat performance tomorrow night against the Flyers in Philadelphia.

"I played in over 100 games last year," he said. "After all that, you just play the game. You're not thinking about it. You just do it.

"But when I got called up to the Caps, I was nervous. It wasn't that I worried that I couldn't play, it was communications.

"I didn't know English before I came to the United States and when I got called up, I was still learning. It was difficult to understand what the coach was telling me. I didn't always understand, and that meant I couldn't always concentrate on playing because I didn't understand what Coach said to me and I'm thinking, thinking, 'What did he say to me?' "

It has been an unexpected benefit that the absence of Washington's Peter Bondra and Michal Pivonka, due to contract holdouts, has left Gonchar the only Russian-speaking player on the team.

"I've been alone like he is," said defenseman Calle Johansson. "There haven't been a lot of Swedes here. I think you only get stronger as a person if you're not too comfortable with your own language. You need to speak English and get involved with the English language.


"I know when I was in Buffalo my first year, there was a Swede there and we did everything together. So this is good for him," Johansson said. "As soon as you start, English comes quick. Just in the last couple weeks, you can see the improvement in his English."

Saturday, you also could see the improvement in his hockey.

"He came into the national league quicker than anyone thought he would," said Schoenfeld. "He's a very good skater and a good passer -- two immediate strengths -- and he sees the ice well, which makes him hard to beat one-on-one."

Gonchar's offense has been a pleasant surprise for the Capitals. Last year, in his 61 games in Portland, he had 42 points; in his previous two years in Russia, he had 15 points in 78 games.

Gonchar grew up in Chelyabinsk, Russia, and came up through the system. He didn't think much about coming to America and playing hockey. He had no idea that could happen, until Alexander Mogilny (1989), Sergei Fedorov (1990) and Pavel Bure (1991) made the move.

Until then, he was simply following directions with his club team in Moscow, practicing up to six hours a day and then returning to his dormitory-like room in the same building.


It was while he was playing for Dynamo Moscow that the Capitals spotted him. In 1992, they used one of those five first-round draft choices they had gotten from St. Louis for Scott Stevens in 1990 to make Gonchar their top pick.

Now, he lives in a house near Piney Orchard, searches out Russian restaurants in Baltimore for his favorite fish and pancakes, and enjoys the presence of his sister, Tanya, a student at Georgetown.

"The United States is now more home to me than Russia," said Gonchar, who last year learned from teammate Ken Klee what it means to celebrate Thanksgiving.

For the first time, he feels comfortable here, thanks in part to the constant teasing from players like Joe Reekie and Dale Hunter, and thanks, too, to experience.

"He's been here for a year now. He knows what to expect," said Hunter. "He knows how to get around the city, how the team is. And he plays good hockey.

"I really like the way he plays," Hunter said. "He jumps up into the play at the right time, he reads well and makes good passes. He can help us once in a while offensively and he doesn't hurt us defensively."


Such words are welcomed by Gonchar, who can understand more of them each passing day.