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Tsulygin Gets a Taste of Hockey, Southern California Style : Ducks: Second-round draft pick from Russia, a 6-4, 205-pound defenseman, visits The Pond and Disneyland.

May 28, 1994|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — The Mighty Ducks' present met the future one recent morning at The Pond.

"Too big," said Randy Ladouceur, 33, upon shaking hands with Nikolai Tsulygin, who turns 19 on Sunday.

"The kids are getting too big now."

Ladouceur, the Ducks' assistant captain, stands 6 feet 2 and weighs 220. Tsulygin, the Ducks' second-round draft pick in 1993, is 6-4, 205 and still growing.

In the seasons to come, the Ducks hope Tsulygin will be the man to replace Ladouceur, filling a role as an aggressive defenseman who adds a splash of offensive flair.

The Ducks aren't trying to trick anyone. They know it could take years for Tsulygin to develop. Besides, they haven't signed him to a contract yet. And they're not sure he'll be ready to play in the NHL immediately when he does sign.

But they were eager this past week to show Tsulygin The Pond, Disneyland, ESPN2 and all the comforts of playing hockey in Orange County.

After all, Anaheim is a long way from Tsulygin's hometown of Ufa, Russia.

"The main idea, whether he plays here or in San Diego next season, is to help him adapt to the North American culture," said Pierre Gauthier, assistant general manager. "He's playing in the better Russian pro league. It's not that big of a step for him (to move to the NHL).

"But he's a kid. He's got a ways to go. He's going to be a monster when he's an adult."

The Ducks are content to be patient with Tsulygin, determined to teach him English before showing him their neutral zone trap.

Gauthier isn't sure how Tsulygin will fit into the mix once training camp begins. He doesn't particularly care if Tsulygin keeps pace with the veterans right away. There is time.

"There are a number of different scenarios," Gauthier said. "It doesn't matter. In his prime, 22 to 28, he's going to be a good player. Hockey isn't like the other sports where guys are ready right away. We draft them before they're ready. They're all projects."

Gauthier scouted Tsulygin for the first time during the 1992-93 World Junior championships and recommended the Ducks draft him last June.

Tsulygin's game has improved dramatically since then, heightening the Ducks' interest. He has become a stronger skater, able to move better laterally, according to Gauthier.

Last season, Tsulygin played in power-play and penalty-killing situations for Salavat Yulayev Ufa, his Russian club team.

"He's one of the best junior players in the world," Gauthier said.

And the Ducks now want to take a longer look at this raw prospect.

Tsulygin (tsoo-LEE-gihn) began playing hockey when he was 7, tagging along with his older brother, Alexei. He became a defenseman because his brother, now 27, was a defenseman. He played for Salavat Yulayev because Alexei also played for the club.

His coach, Rafael Ishmatov, coached Alexander Semak of the New Jersey Devils and Igor Kravchuk of the Edmonton Oilers when they were young. In the junior ranks, Tsulygin played with and against Maxim Bets, another young Duck.

Tsulygin graduated to Salavat Yulayev's senior professional team in 1992-93, playing 42 games and scoring five goals with four assists. Last season, he played 45 games and scored two goals with 11 assists as Salavat Yulayev finished fourth in Russia's top pro league.

Several years ago, he began to think seriously about being drafted by an NHL team. Once a week, Russian TV airs NHL highlights and articles occasionally appear in newspapers, so he was well aware of North American hockey.

Tsulygin said he was "very, very happy" when the Ducks drafted him last June. After almost a year, Tsulygin, his wife, Elvira, and translator Ilya Moliver toured The Pond for the first time on Wednesday.

Speaking through Moliver, Tsulygin said he was impressed with the arena and can't wait to begin training camp.

"Compared to Russia, (The Pond) is much better than anything else I've seen," Tsulygin said.

Asked if he believes he can make the team, he said, "I'm confident, but I don't know yet. I'm one of the biggest players on my team. I've improved my play a lot this year. Every player has his strong suits. I've got to improve physically and become a better skater.

"I have a great desire to fit in on this team."

He got his first close-up look at NHL playoff action, attending Game 5 of the New York Rangers-New Jersey Devils series Monday at Madison Square Garden.

"It was very impressive," Tsulygin said. "I liked the way they played. It's more like European hockey with all the Russians and Europeans playing for the Rangers and Devils."

Reminded that the NHL tends to be far more physical than international hockey leagues, Tsulygin smiled.

"If it's necessary, I can do that," he said.

Just what the Ducks like to hear.

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