MINSK, Belarus - This world hockey championship is a showcase for Belarus and its brightest star Mikhail Grabovski.
Adored by sellout crowds at Minsk Arena, Grabovski is often the best player on the ice by miles.
"He's not making big bucks in the NHL for nothing," Belarusian goaltender Kevin Lalande said. "He's a world-class player."
Grabovski is proud to be playing for his home country in the biggest event it has ever hosted. But the 30-year-old pending unrestricted free agent doesn't see this tournament as an opportunity to impress NHL teams.
"I don't worry about it," Grabovski said. "For me personally it's just time for make myself a better player in big arenas, big ice. But people who know me in NHL, they already know me. It doesn't matter here."
Grabovski is right that the game is different on the wider, international-sized rinks that give him more space to make plays that dazzle fans and teammates. Through five games, he has three goals and four assists.
Coach Glen Hanlon has known Grabovski since the 2005 world championship in Vienna when the centre was 21 years old and already worth watching. Hanlon has been coaching in Europe exclusively since being fired by the Washington Capitals in 2007 and didn't really get a chance to see Grabovski blossom into a top-six player in the NHL.
"I don't know if he's like in this NHL or if it's the big ice surface or what it is. But he's a very dynamic player, my goodness," Hanlon said. "You can't tell me that teams in the NHL can't use a player like that. It's unbelievable. His skill on the power play, his skill to find his wingers is pretty good."
Grabovski has been masterful while playing with captain Alexei Kalyuzhny and Andrei Stepanov. In the NHL, he can produce even more offence with the benefit of better linemates.
Where he'll be producing next season remains to be seen. Grabovski spent last season with the Capitals after being bought out by the Toronto Maple Leafs, putting up 13 goals and 22 assists in 58 games.
Grabovski and the Capitals have discussed a new deal, but without a general manager in place, his future is cloudy. One of Grabovski's best friends on the team, Joel Ward, said Washington missed him when he was out with an ankle injury.
"We hope he comes back," said Ward, who's playing for Team Canada at the world championship. "We needed him down the stretch. He came back towards the end, but we definitely missed him this year. There's no secret; he was a beneficial, positive (player) for our squad."
Grabovski played on a US$3-million, one-year contract and is still collecting paycheques from the Leafs. With the salary cap set to go up to roughly $70 million, he has the chance to cash in on a long-term deal when free agency starts in July.
But at the world championship, Grabovski is focused on the task at hand, which is trying to help Belarus reach the quarter-finals. It's a realistic possibility in large part because he has been one of the tournament's best players.
But this environment, with the home crowd chanting like soccer fans and waving flags, is an entirely different animal than anything he has experienced in the NHL or anywhere else.
"You feel inside you a little bit nervous," Grabovski said. "I play in NHL how many years? Like seven years. (Here) you play for your family."
Hanlon knows that Grabovski, who is in his seventh world championship, loves playing for his country and raises his level of game in these situations. Ward knows that Grabovski is feeling "a little bit of pressure" with so many fans watching his every move.
Grabovski said the nerves of playing in front of Belarusian fans can be good because they're "pushing you forward."
If nothing else, they're pushing Grabovski to be at his best and soak up the atmosphere.
"Yeah I have fun," he said. "That's more important and why I come here: just enjoy."
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