When Andrei Nikolishin was just 19 years old, his teammates on Russian powerhouse Moscow Dynamo sat in a room, put pen to paper, and voted the teenager to captain the prestigious club. The team was loaded with veterans--men who were nearly twice as old as Nikolishin and future NHL stalwarts such as Alexander Karpovtsev, Viktor Kozlov and his Washington Capitals teammate Sergei Gonchar. All were part of something highly unusual.
"I was the youngest captain in Russian hockey history," said Nikolishin, smiling proudly. "When my teammates made the decision I was a little bit surprised because a lot of guys older than me were on the team. I know I didn't vote for me."
The Capitals' coaching staff believes that same sense of pride and leadership has helped Nikolishin, 26, play a pivotal role in the team's early success this season. He has been one of the top performers in all three games, doing things that often get overlooked but are essential to winning. When Nikolishin is wearing an "A" on his chest as one of two alternates to captain Adam Oates, he seems to be at his best.
"He's very underrated as a leader," Coach Ron Wilson said. "You put a letter on him and he loves that. He has a lot of experience in that role and he really cares about the team. He doesn't care about personal stats, just the team. That's the kind of guy he is. He leads by example."
That example is set in the weight room and on the ice. Wilson said the 6-foot, 214-pound Nikolishin is the strongest player on the team, and can look intimidating with his thick frame and shaved head. While he has great playmaking skills and once was the regular center for sniper Peter Bondra, Nikolishin is now thriving in a more blue-collar role.
As the third-line center, he is being asked to check the top offensive players on opposing teams, yet still provide timely offense. His wingers generally aren't the most gifted goal scorers and he exerts much energy killing penalties. In a season in which turnovers have abounded, Nikolishin has been a steadying presence with the puck and a dependable pivot on the power play, setting up game-tying goals in the opening-night loss to Florida and the first win of the season at Buffalo.
"He's not like Eric Lindros, he's not going to do fancy-schmancy stuff," Gonchar said. "But he's a guy who is always there for you and you can always count on. He's always on the ice in critical, last-minute situations and he always works hard. He has a lot of respect from his teammates and he's playing great at both ends of the ice."
Gonchar's respect formed seven years ago, when Nikolishin would approach veterans and prod them to give a better effort, willing to accept ridicule. For many of the older players, who realized the opportunity for a better life in North America had passed them by, motivation did not come easily. And when it did, the message wasn't so easy to take from the lips of a scruffy-faced teenager. Nikolishin still set the tone on the ice. He won over his teammates with his will. None of the lessons was forgotten.
"When you are 19 years old and captain of a team it's pretty tough," Nikolishin said. "But everybody respected me, I think, and they listened to what I said. I think it was a great experience. It goes to your mind. It helps you grow up quicker and you get smarter and make better decisions. It helps a lot.
"I can say that it still really means a lot to me to wear a letter. I love to wear the 'A' and in the NHL it's unusual for Europeans to do that. I try to do my best each game and be a leader on the ice and help people."
CAPTION: Ron Wilson says alternate captain Andrei Nikolishin "doesn't care about personal stats, just the team."
CAPTION: Andrei Nikolishin, right, was named captain of elite Russian hockey team, Moscow Dynamo, at age 19.