Sokolov an endearing and intriguing prospect

American Hockey League

Pierre Dorion was visibly giddy at the return of hockey to the Canadian Tire Centre.

Never mind that this was just Day 1 of a scaled-back development camp with fewer than 25 skaters and goalies on the ice and none of the NCAA prospects, who are already at school.

The Senators general manager walked clear across an empty section in the stands to greet a handful of media in section 107, where we were penned in behind yellow police tape, like the questionable suspects that we are.

COVID restrictions, still, but at least the staff and reporters, camera operators, could watch from ice level. Dorion, no doubt energized by his recent contract extension, turned playful: “Who was the best player on the ice?” he asked.

Unanimously, if not simultaneously, we answered: “No 75. Sokolov.”

(In retrospect we should have answered in unison: “Sharkalov!”)

“Absolutely,” Dorion replied, beaming. “And it wasn’t even close.”

Now, these weren’t the Tampa Bay Lightning that Egor Sokolov was dancing around. There will be bigger, more important tests for this intriguing 21-year-old as Dev Camp morphs into rookie camp and then main camp on Sept. 22. But keep in mind he was out on the ice with the likes of Shane Pinto and Ridly Greig and shooting on a highly regarded goaltending prospect in Mads Sogaard. And, to paraphrase Dorion, it wasn’t even close.

Sokolov took the most shots, scored the most goals, had the best hands and set up his two-on-two partners for tap-ins. When development coaches Shean Donovan and Jesse Winchester prematurely ended one of the two-on-two, small ice games, Sokolov was screaming in mock rage, gesticulating wildly: “You said FIVE!!!” In other words, the game was supposed to be up to five, not three or four. The kid’s not shy.

Donovan relented to the Shark attack. The game ensued. And guess who scored the game-winner, another low hard shot to the stick side, his bread-and-butter this day, before raising his arms to the sky?

“I was working hard for it,” Sokolov said following the first skate of camp. “I was a little bit hyped up, had some fun out there and tried to really establish myself out there, that I worked over the summer and have gotten better.”

Those summer workouts included precious ice time with Drake Batherson, Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand, Nathan MacKinnon and friends in Nova Scotia, perhaps Canada’s most famous summer hockey camp. If Sokolov was playing keep-away with Sid, Nate and the boys, it shows.

Back in Ottawa, for one day, at least, Sokolov turned the CTC ice into his own personal shark tank.

Fame precedes him

Get ready for Sharkalov Mania, should this dark-horse, longshot actually make the Senators out of camp. It’s less of a longshot if Dorion doesn’t acquire a veteran prior to camp to replace the departing Evgenii Dadonov on right wing. Even if Sokolov misses this time, he can go back to the AHL where he led the Belleville Senators in scoring, despite hardly touching the puck in his first four AHL games last season.

“I just wanted to score one goal,” said Sokolov, recalling the difficult transition, after the COVID-delayed start to the AHL season.

After making adjustments, including a lot of video time with Belleville assistant coach Ben Sexton, Sokolov came back with a vengeance, scoring 15 goals and 25 points in 35 games.

His online fan base in Ottawa howled with glee. How they love Egor and his scoring exploits — they follow his entertaining discourses on podcasts and the stories about him delivering groceries to shut-ins in Halifax (Sokolov’s billets, Ashley and Kyle Ryan, own a grocery store). It was with the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Eagles that Batherson, now a Senators teammate, took him under his wing, helped him learn English while team president Gerard Shaw taught Egor the importance of pro-level fitness. That 6-4, 240-something lug is now a svelte 210.

And yes, Gerard Shaw is the father of B-Sens captain Logan Shaw. Senators’ connections have the fingerprints of a guiding hand all over the Sokolov story.

How is it that this Russian-born late bloomer, passed over by every single NHL team at 18, and then again at 19, before being selected by Ottawa 61st overall in 2020, has become a cult figure and fan favourite before he has played a single game for the Senators?

Credit social media. And Egor himself.

In the Cold War era of politics and hockey, this “Sharkalov” personality could not have emerged. There was no Twitter during the 1972 Summit Series and we were told that Soviet players were like robots. Zombies. Devoid of personality and emotion.

It wasn’t until Russian players came to the NHL, excelled and showed their human side that North Americans came to appreciate the brilliance of Sergei Fedorov, the flash of Pavel Bure, the fun-loving boy in Alex Ovechkin and the cerebral insights of Igor Larianov.

I teasingly ask Sokolov how it is that he emits so much personality, in a second language, no less. Did he not get the memo that Russians are supposed to be inaccessible (a myth that dies hard)?

“I guess you can call me maybe half a Russian, half-Canadian,” he said. “I spent most of the last five years in Nova Scotia, so, being around Nova Scotia people — they’re pretty friendly, right? So I guess that is that side of me.”

Delivering groceries, doing school visits, posing for photos, signing autographs and doing podcasts “is part of our job,” Sokolov said.

“It’s something I love to do and I’m looking forward to being able to do it in the near future as we get a little bit of normal life back. I’m looking forward to interacting with fans and seeing them in the stands.”

In nearly 30 years of Senators hockey, a lot of impactful Russian players have come through Ottawa, from Alexei Yashin to Igor Kravchuk, Sergei Gonchar and Nikita Zaitsev among others. But who saw the day when two Russians would have a cult following in the community fan base: Artem Zub, who arrived from the KHL last season and won fans over with his rock-solid play and surprising offensive flair (cue the video of the breakaway deke on Frederik Andersen for his first NHL goal). And now Sokolov.

Ross Levitan, who co-hosts the Locked on Senators podcast with Brandon Piller, explained Sokolov’s popularity this way: “I think that even the most die-hard fan looks at Egor and feels he cares about the team as much as they do.”

“Egor’s awesome. From the first time he joined us right after the draft he was so appreciative of the Senators for taking a chance on him — he’s made it his life goal to make the organization look back proudly on that pick — I’m pretty sure he’s worn some form of Sens merch every day since, hahaha,” Levitan added.

“Then you look at what that off-ice commitment has translated to when it comes to addressing his biggest weakness on-ice (skating). It’s so impressive. Not to mention he’s such an engaging and likeable personality.”

At least one scouting report on Sokolov listed him as a “one-trick pony.” Although, it was quite a trick: a shot that came off the stick so fast, goalies could not react. Senators chief amateur scout Trent Mann admits the organization took a chance on Sokolov, third time through the draft, largely because he scored so many goals at the major junior level — 97 in three seasons.

Sokolov’s skating was rated sub-par. The same kind of reports that kept Mark Stone from being a high draft pick. Like Stone, Sokolov finds a way. And he’s driven to get better, whether it’s pestering coaches for insights or learning skating tips from Jill Plandowski in Halifax and Shelley Kettles and Donovan/Winchester in Ottawa.

“He was a kid who came over to North America because he wanted to play in the NHL,” Mann said. “And everyone sees his abilities … the puck skills and ability to shoot the puck, get pucks out quickly and break up plays. …

“It’s the other piece that makes him a bit special right now — in the fact he doesn’t let anything set him back. He hears something, you know, that constructive criticism, and then he pounds on it until it’s better. That’s what makes his development curve exciting.

“You kind of look at, why wasn’t he taken earlier? All kinds of scenarios play out, but sometimes it’s about proving yourself. And sometimes you have to prove yourself a bit more than the next guy. Is that fair? Maybe not, but that’s life. And the nice thing about Egor and his personality is that he doesn’t let anyone discourage him — he wants to be an NHL player and he’s going to continue working on that.”

Donovan, who could probably still outskate a lot of NHL prospects, loves the demeanour of Sokolov.

“Since Day 1 when he got here, he’s wanted to play so badly,” Donovan said. “He would call Jesse after every skate in camp last year and ask how he was doing. This summer, he got after it and you can see it. He dropped some weight, and he’s built himself into a real good body.

“He just reminds me, and you don’t want to make a comparison, but it’s just like when Mark Stone came in and it was like — ‘I’m here for a job.’ To me, that’s what Sokolov looks like.”

Oddly, Sokolov and hockey were not a love at first sight situation. He tells stories of how, at age five, he hated skating — his mother, a school teacher, had to push him off the boards, his fingers clinging to the edges of the boards in resistance. By seven or eight, he felt the improvement in his skating and knew he had found a calling. By 13, he moved away from his hometown of Yekaterinburg to pursue his hockey dream.

This summer, Sokolov was able to return home for the first time in two years. Suddenly, it was the Russian language he struggled with, after two-plus years of speaking and thinking in English.

But it was a welcome trip. He did a short video eating his dad’s homemade Borscht soup. He took shots on his kid brother, Max, who turned into a goalie because Egor was always ripping shots at him, needing a goalie to shoot on.

“It’s my mistake, and I regret it,” Sokolov said of the fact his little brother is not a sniper like him but a puck stopper. At one point, Max said to him: “You made me. What did you expect?”

Egor Sokolov made himself, too. And for that, Senators fans are both grateful and eager for their first in-person Sharkalov sighting.

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