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SIMMONS: Khudobin's long and unlikely road into the Stanley Cup spotlight

Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin celebrates an overtime series win against the Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020.
Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin celebrates an overtime series win against the Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020.

Lorne Molleken remembers the smell.

The kids would have their travel meals in lunch bags with them on the Saskatoon Blades, and then Anton Khudobin would get on the team bus and everyone would notice.

“And all you could smell was garlic,” said Molleken, the former junior and NHL coach and a long-time minor league goaltender himself.

“And it became a thing with our team. That smell of garlic. I don’t know what he was eating.

“I do know we got him a Russian billet family that season (2004). It’s not easy finding that in Saskatoon. And I used to go to their house to go over hockey things with Anton because he didn’t speak any English. I’d take the game tape with me and the parents would translate.

“All these years later, they still keep in touch. He was a special kind of kid, who left an impression. I’d say he was quite the character.

“For a while, he knew one word of English, sushi. So if anyone asked him what he wanted to eat, he always said sushi.”

Molleken remembers one of Khudobin’s first games with the Blades and they gave up something like 70 shots against.

“I knew then, this kid was something,” Molleken said. He just didn’t know what that something was.

Molleken played for nine pro seasons with initials all over his resume: IHL, AHL, NAHL, CHL.

Everything but NHL, where he later coached in Chicago, Pittsburgh and San Jose. He’s pretty clear about why he never made the NHL as a goalie.

“Alcohol was a big problem for me,” said Molleken. “I kept getting into trouble and it cost me. I had my contract terminated once by Los Angeles for an incident I was involved with. Another time, I broke my hand in a bar fight and I was about to get called up.”

Now, he’s been sober for the past 28 years — including when he coached Khubodin and, after that, Braden Holtby.

“Best goalie I’ve ever known was my goalie coach in Chicago (Vladislav Tretiak),” he said. “But those two, Holtby and Khudobin, were pretty special for me.”

It has been a long, winding and unexpected road that has taken Khudobin from Kazakhstan to Saskatoon to his unlikely place in the Stanley Cup final. He is 34 years old now, never an NHL starter in his career, having bounced to 13 different teams in four different leagues over his 14 seasons as a professional.

And now this moment in time. The spotlight on a goaltender who has never known spotlight before. The garlic is smell is long gone.

“He was a popular kid with our team,” said Molleken. “And I can see he’s a popular guy on that Dallas team. Listen to the way the players talk about him and you can tell just how the players react to him. They love this guy, the way we loved him.

“I remember, we had a deal with a taxi company in Saskatoon back then. And we tried to get Anton to go to school to learn his English. So the taxi company, instead of sending a taxi to get him, would send a limo. Just to get him excited about going to school.”

There was no limo for Khudobin when he backed up Tuukka Rask in Boston, or Cam Ward in Carolina, or played behind John Gibson and Frederik Andersen in Anaheim or Nicklas Backstrom or Jose Theodore in Minnesota.

Before this season, and the injury to Ben Bishop, he’d never started a Stanley Cup playoff game. Not one.

There was no story about him being in the wrong place at the wrong time or being misused.

He was what he was. A second-tier NHL goaltender who has found lightning in a bottle this summer with the surprising Dallas Stars.

Now the task is different than in any prior round. He faces Andrei Vasilevskiy, probably the best goaltender in hockey. The best today, the best yesterday, probably the best tomorrow.

It’s impossible for the Stars to win, but Khudobin has had an impossible run. And from afar, although Edmonton isn’t that far from Regina, his old coach is taking note.

“A few years ago, Anton came back to Saskatoon to visit his billet family,” Molleken said. “He called me and unfortunately, I was out of town and missed the chance to meet with them. That would have been nice.

“You have these kids in junior, you always hope the best for them. You hope they become something in hockey or in life.

“I can relate, in a different kind of way, to his journey. If people didn’t give me a second or a third chance in hockey, who knows where I would have ended up? You need those chances. In his case, he’s never had the chance to start on a team like this one. So right now, I’m cheering for him, I’m cheering for Rick Bowness, who’s been around forever. I’m cheering for the Dallas Stars.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of a story for a kid who came to the country knowing one word of English.

“And here he is, playing for the Stanley Cup.”

ssimmons@postmedia.com

twitter.com/simmonssteve

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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