'Bob' making believers out of Flyers fans

Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky , making a save against the Hurricanes' Jussi Jokinen, is among the NHL leaders in wins and goals-against average.
Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky , making a save against the Hurricanes' Jussi Jokinen, is among the NHL leaders in wins and goals-against average.
Posted: November 09, 2010

Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, the unflappable rookie from Russia, goes post to post and makes a sliding save, and now here comes the loud, squawking voice of actor Richard Dreyfuss.

Welcome to America, kid.

Dreyfuss' voice comes from a scene in the 1991 comedy What About Bob? Dreyfuss plays a psychiatrist gone mad after his patient, Bill Murray's Bob character, tracks him down during his family vacation. He sounds like a parrot in heat as he shouts at his friend:

"B-o-o-o-o-o-o-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b!!!"

The recording is played at the Wells Fargo Center after a big save by the Flyers' young goalie, and the fans take the cue and serenade him with "Bob . . . Bob . . . Bob" chants.

The easygoing, always smiling Bobrovsky has played in just 11 NHL games, but he already has become so popular that the fans - starving for the Missing Piece, a.k.a. a franchise goalie, for a few decades - also chant his name without Dreyfuss' urging.

Welcome to Philadelphia, kid.

"Of course I hear them. It's very pleasant to hear that," Bobrovsky, who recently turned 22 but could pass for 18, said through a Russian translator last week. "At first it's really great, but they are not going to like you if you don't play well and win."

So far, Bobrovsky, who has become one of the league's best early-season stories, hasn't disappointed. Entering Monday, he was tied for the NHL lead with eight wins, and he was among the league's top 10 in goals-against average (2.19, eighth) and save percentage (.926, eighth).

That's not bad for someone who was expected to spend the entire season in the minors.

The son of a man who is lifetime miner and a woman who works in a metal factory, Bobrovsky misses his girlfriend, who is stuck in Russia because of visa problems. Until she arrives, he plans to stay at a Voorhees hotel that has been his home for several months.

Other than the absence of his girlfriend, things have run smoothly for Bobrovsky despite his language barrier. When he arrived in the summer, he took English lessons, but he stopped them once the season started because of the Flyers' hectic schedule.

"I was taking lessons almost every day, but with the schedule now, I need time to recover after games and sleep and eat properly," he said. "I don't have much time for English lessons. Not right now, anyway."

He smiled.

"I'm only learning English in the locker room," he said.

Russian ties

Bobrovsky is able to converse in Russian with teammates Nik Zherdev and Oskars Bartulis. He also talks with his family and girlfriend through Skype. Bobrovsky becomes especially animated when he talks about his conversations with his 10-year-old sister, Yulia, who he proudly says is musically inclined.

"I can't believe how much she is growing every day!" he said.

Natalia Bragilevskaya, who serves as Bobrovsky's translator after most of the Flyers' home games, said that he is "very goal-oriented," that he "eats and sleeps" hockey, and that he talks about his girlfriend and his parents a lot. He doesn't do much else, she said, except prepare for the next game. He always played goalie as a kid, she said, because he preferred stopping shots to scoring goals.

Bragilevskaya works for the Russian newspaper Sovetsky Sport. Based in Philadelphia, she has been writing mostly about NHL players for the last eight years, and she volunteered to serve as Bobrovsky's translator when she was available.

Jeff Reese, the Flyers' goaltender coach, doesn't speak Russian but said he hasn't had a problem communicating with Bobrovsky.

"Not anymore," Reese said.

During the preseason, Slava Kouznetsova, the team's skating instructor, served as an interpreter and go-between for Reese and Bobrovsky.

"Bob got an idea what I wanted, and I got an idea what he likes," Reese said. "We had meetings that were very long because we went back and forth. Now he understands what I want. When I say certain words, he understands them, and I understand what he likes as well - like whether he likes to look at video before games and other things. We understand each other very well now and things are getting better all the time.

"I think the big thing now is the communication with the D, and that is going to get better and better as we go along."

Defenseman Kimmo Timonen said things will get easier for the blue-liners when Bobrovsky learns English and can better direct the defensemen with some orders. So far, though, it hasn't been much of a hardship.

Bobrovsky won six straight games before the Flyers dropped a 3-2 overtime decision in Washington on Sunday. Bobrovsky was outstanding, but he fell one win shy of the franchise record for consecutive wins by a rookie goalie - seven by Pelle Lindbergh in 1982-83.

Under Reese's tutelage, Bobrovsky has learned to come out of the net much more than he did in Russia's KHL in the previous two seasons.

"When you look over at Europe, the ice surfaces are so big, and they don't shoot the puck that much over there," Reese said. "They'll pass it around and wait for a real good scoring opportunity."

When goalie Michael Leighton arrived last year, Reese moved him back in the net. He did the opposite with Bobrovsky.

"He's not as big as [Leighton], and he plays different than [Leighton]," Reese said. "We want him out further because he's so quick, side to side, and if you're out a little further, there's a better chance to see the puck and [get] hit with it."

Flyers were afraid

Growing up, Bobrovsky had his eyes on the NHL.

"When I was younger, it was a dream," he said. "When I got older, it became a goal."

At 18, he was devastated when no NHL team drafted him.

"I took it hard," he said through Bragilevskaya. "But I got over it and realized the most important thing is to keep working hard and everything will come."

Bobrovsky played in the World Juniors for Russia in 2005-06, and some rated him ahead of his teammate, highly regarded goalie Semyon Varlamov, whom Washington selected in the first round (23d overall) in the 2006 draft.

The Flyers had three second-round picks that year and considered using one of them on Bobrovsky.

"It was just a case of being afraid," general manager Paul Holmgren said. "We're afraid to take Russian players. I don't think we're the only team because they're very hard to get signed."

But scout Ken Hoodikoff followed Bobrovsky in the Kontinental Hockey League and was high on his ability.

For two full seasons, Bobrovsky toiled in Russia's KHL - which Holmgren rates higher than the AHL. His two-year record was a dismal 16-42-5, but his other numbers - a 2.62 goals-against average and .923 save percentage - were very good, considering he played for the KHL's worst team.

Several NHL offers came, but Bobrovsky declined to name the teams. He said he wanted to keep the focus on his current employer.

"The Flyers had the most serious offer, and that included an offer to actually play," he said, adding that the offer ($5.25 million over three years) was "so appealing" he didn't consider any others.

When he was signed as a free agent May 6, he seemed destined to divide time in the AHL with promising Johan Backlund, who was third on the organization's goalie depth chart, behind Leighton and Brian Boucher.

But injuries to Leighton and Backlund gave Bobrovsky a chance to demonstrate his talent and eye-opening quickness in the preseason. He made the most of it. Cue the Richard Dreyfuss audio.

After each victory, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Bobrovsky goes out of his way to downplay his performance and praise teammates.

"I couldn't do it without them," said the youngest goalie in Flyers history to start a season-opening game. "I want them to get the credit."

With each game, Bobrovsky - who smiles broadly when he talks about the white Lexus he recently bought - seems to be getting more in sync with his surroundings.

"He's getting more confidence with the size of the rinks, with the shooters, and the way things move around here," said coach Peter Laviolette, who, like Reese, marvels at Bobrovsky's work ethic in practices. "He came in without any experience at all as far as the NHL and the travel and what goes on. I think the more comfortable he gets, the more comfortable he'll look in the net. With everything. With playing the puck, with our team, with the size of the rinks, [with the] style of play. Every day is an experience.

"It's not easy being dropped into a market like Philadelphia, when you come over and don't speak the language," added Laviolette, whose team, beset by injuries, dressed seven goalies last season. "But he's starting to get more and more comfortable."

He seems oblivious to the pressure of facing star-studded teams such as Washington, oblivious to the expectations he has created with his stunningly quick adaptation to the much-faster NHL, oblivious to having a chance to end the franchise's long goaltender carousel.

"At this point, he is not analyzing his success and how happy he is or any other emotional aspects," his translator said, relaying Bobrovsky's comments when he was asked whether he was surprised by his strong start. "He's just concentrating on what he can do for the team."

Is the wait over?

During a scene in What About Bob?, Dreyfuss' Dr. Leo Marvin character is fed up with his patient.

"You think he's gone? He's not gone," he proclaims. "That's the whole point! He's never gone!"

Flyers fans are the anti-Dr. Marvin. They want "Bob" to stay for as long as he wants, for as long as his athleticism allows him to keep the little black disk away from the goal. They have sat through too many frustrating games from Ken Wregget, Tommy Soderstrom, Antero Niittymaki, and others. They have longed for a goalie who could conjure memories of Bernie, Pelle or Hexy.

They know Leighton could return from a back injury in a few weeks and that he and Boucher helped carry the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals last season. But they also know Bobrovsky is much younger and has a better upside - and that Leighton's Finals performance has left them unconvinced he is the answer.

So, when they are asked who the Flyers' No. 1 goalie should be when Leighton is healthy, many of them ask rhetorically:

"What about Bob?"


Goalie Blast From the Past

Here are the Flyers goaltenders for the last 25 years with at least 25 starts:

Goaltender                Years   played               Record

Pelle Lindbergh          1981-85                   87-49-15

Bob Froese               1982-87                   92-29-12

Darren Jensen          1984-86                   15-10-1

Ron Hextall                1986-92/'94-99        240-172-58

Mark Laforest             1987-89                   10-16-4

Ken Wregget             1988-92                  42-47-9

Pete Peeters             1989-91                   85-57-20*

Dominic Roussel          1991-97                   62-49-14

Tommy Soderstrom       1992-94                   26-35-10

Garth Snow             1995-98                   40-25-16

Sean Burke             1997-98/2003-04          13-8-2

John Vanbiesbrouck      1998-2000                52-33-24

Brian Boucher             2000-02/'09-11            56-58-16

Roman Cechmanek       2000-03                   92-43-22

Robert Esche             2002-07                   60-40-16

Jeff Hackett             2003-04                   10-10-6

Antero Niittymaki          2003-09                  62-61-23

Martin Biron            2006-09                   65-47-16

Ray Emery                2009-10                   16-11-1

Michael Leighton          2006-07/'09-10          29-18-5

*Includes record from stint before 1985.

- Sam Carchidi


Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at 215-854-5181 or scarchidi@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BroadStBull.

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