When he finally felt ready to stomach his greatest fear, Stanislav Galiev slid the snake heart down his throat, gulped the homemade vodka mixed with cobra blood and smiled for the camera. It was this past summer at a Vietnam resort, where Galiev was vacationing with his wife, not long after signing a new contract with the Washington Capitals, which eased his nerves during restricted free agency. But Galiev held few reservations about sampling the island fare — crickets, crocodiles, scorpions, turtle soup in the shell. He had seen them on a travel TV show and made up his mind right there. If locals slurped cobra hearts like oysters, he would too.
“I thought it was an experience I might never have again,” he said.
Around this time last fall, Galiev was packing his bags at the team hotel across the street from Kettler Capitals Iceplex, facing a long drive back to the minor leagues after receiving his release and a critical season for his hockey career, too. Underwhelming through four seasons in the Capitals’ organization, Galiev recognized the crossroads he faced: Produce for the Hershey Bears and earn a new deal, or continue along his current path and find another home.
He succeeded, of course, leading the Washington affiliate with 25 goals and the entire American Hockey League with 15 on the power play, earning an early-April promotion to the Capitals, scoring in his NHL debut. It was a feel-good, underdog ending for the 23-year-old, who worked through injuries, healthy scratches and the burden of expectations to reach “where you dream of being at your whole life.”
Except while Galiev reflected inside the Capitals’ dressing room Wednesday afternoon, Coach Barry Trotz stepped behind the podium and put the Russian winger on blast. With further roster decisions looming, including at the depth forward spot for which Galiev has competed this preseason, Trotz firmly declared he needed more from Galiev. Time was running out, Trotz continued. Galiev needed a stronger effort during that night’s exhibition against Carolina. If not, he might again start the season in Hershey.
“There’s no question, he hasn’t stood out right now at all to me,” Trotz said. “He’s got to play better. . . . We’re pretty well out of time. We’ll make a decision on him very shortly.”
Still, that Galiev had inserted himself into this conversation was, in some ways, already impressive. He stumbled through October with the Bears last fall, getting scratched seven times by Coach Troy Mann in 10 games. Then, Mann called Galiev into his office and spread his assessments onto the table.
Mann told Galiev that he needed work in the defensive zone and along the boards, but would receive top-six ice time and top-unit power-play work to prove himself. Galiev told Mann that “he needed someone who believed in him.” He always appreciated when coaches made his mistakes clear.
“It was a heart-to-heart about where he was at,” Mann recalled. “Give the credit to the kid. He accomplished a lot of things.”
After that meeting, Galiev soared. He cranked five goals in four games last winter. He scored 10 more across January and February. Whenever Mann and Trotz talked on the telephone, Galiev’s name came up more and more. Finally, when the Capitals needed an emergency recall in April, Galiev’s telephone rang. And when it came time for pregame warmups, captain Alex Ovechkin asked Galiev to lead the Capitals onto the ice — a little practical joke, because no one followed.
“I look back, everyone’s standing back in the hallway,” Galiev said. “Good start.”
Then came summer, when the Capitals showed faith in Galiev’s growth by extending him a two-year deal, structured so that it switches to a one-way format in 2016-17. The implication was clear: By then, management expected Galiev to have become a full-time NHL player.
Even before Trotz’s comments Wednesday, the Capitals had an interesting calculus to consider with Galiev. Unlike other forwards competing for the open 13th spot — Zach Sill, Liam O’Brien and Sean Collins chief among the survivors now — Galiev would likely receive top-line action in Hershey. So would he be better off passing through waivers, skating 20 minutes per night and slapping one-timers on the power play anyway?
“I want to be here,” Galiev said. “I want to play in NHL. It doesn’t matter when you’re a rookie, what line you’re going to play. Obviously you want to play a lot, but if not, you’ve got to earn time. You’ve got to earn ice time, like what line you’re going to be, if you’re going to play power play or not. It’s all about you, how bad you want it, and you’ve got to impress coaches.”
Back to the snake heart, which despite Galiev’s Instagram post wasn’t actually still beating when it slid down his gullet. Fellow Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was drafted in the same year as Galiev and skated on the same line during the world junior championships, cringed at the mention of the video, which took its turn in the spotlight after hitting the Internet. But Galiev found delight in trying what he captioned “#exoticfood.” He wasn’t afraid, except maybe of an upset stomach. After a year of new on-ice experiences, one more wouldn’t hurt.
“Pretty much I’m proud of myself,” he said two months later. “I’m the only one in this locker room who ate a snake.”