Mike Komisarek and Chris Higgins know all about making sacrifices to enhance their ice hockey careers. The respective 2001 and 2002 first-round draft picks of the Montreal Canadiens had to leave Long Island in high school in order to garner the attention of top college and professional scouts.
“Those guys had to leave the area when they were 16 or 17 to get the exposure. But not anymore,” said Ron Kinnear, the director of hockey operations for the New York Bobcats, a Junior ‘C’ ice hockey team training out of The Rinx in Hauppauge that is fast becoming a national power. “Now players are getting the recognition here and can finish high school at their local high school.”
Komisarek, who like Higgins spent most of his high school years playing hockey for a prep school in Connecticut, wishes he had that option. “I was never half as good as the guys on that [Bobcats] team now,” said Komisarek, the seventh overall pick in 2001 who saw his first NHL postseason action last spring, “and I wish I had a team like that with a coach like Aleksey on a daily basis.”
NIKIFOROV KNOWS HOCKEY
Komisarek was referring to Aleksey Nikiforov, a former Russian pro for the Dinamo Riga who has fine-tuned NHL players like himself, Higgins, Alexei Yashin, Darius Kasparaitis, Bryan McCabe, Danius Zubris, Vladimir Malakhov and Uwe Krupp, not to mention dozens of other Long Islanders who have earned scholarships to play collegiate hockey. Nikiforov, who came to the United States in 1991 and is now an American citizen, is a world-renowned coach who has turned down offers to work in the NHL so he could instruct his son Vladimir and all the other members of the Bobcats. That’s because he considers the rest of his players his sons, too.
“So far I have 100 kids—my students,” said Nikiforov, the head hockey instructor at The Rinx in Hauppauge (where the Bobcats train) since 1992 who has become a second father to his players in more ways than one. “If I would leave, who would do this stuff? It’s easier when you pick up real players. But when you make great players from scratch, that’s what it’s all about.”
The New York Junior Bobcats are all about becoming a complete player. That includes more practices than games—a philosophy foreign to many North American coaches—and intense off-ice training starting at a young age. Most importantly, however, Nikiforov focuses on skills.
“All my other coaches were game coaches. Aleksey is skill, skill, skill,” said Nick Grasso, a student at Kings Park High School who along with James Marcou (Smithtown) and Vladimir Nikiforov (Hauppauge) has already committed to play for Hockey East power UMass. “The little things he teaches us are things everyone else thinks are nothing… but in the end you can see you make so much improvement because of the little things he does.”
“Other coaches like to skate, skate, skate when you do something wrong. We do it over and over until we get it right,” said Marcou, the first of the three aforementioned Bobcats to be courted by UMass, a member of the United States Development Team program and the nation’s top-ranked center in his age group (16) despite standing only 5-6, 135 pounds. “It’s repetitive. Everything is skills.”
And for good reason. According to The Rinx owner Gerry Hart, Nikiforov conducts “some of the most productive practices that I’ve seen for this age level anywhere. As a former professional hockey player, I think Aleksey is the best pure-skills skating instructor that I’ve ever seen,” said Hart.
The longtime pro, who played 13 years for the NHL’s Red Wings, Islanders, Nordiques and Blues, further explained. “Aleksey is very specific on the type of training and the focus on how he wants his players to develop. And it’s more than just practicing. It’s a complete, 12-month approach to being a better hockey player. And these kids, they skate better for a reason because they’ve developed their lower-body muscles in a way that allow them to be stronger, more proficient on the ice,” said Hart, whose son Jordan learned under Nikiforov and is now playing on scholarship at Merrimack. “They handle the puck better, they see the ice better, they pass the puck better because of the drills that he does and the emphasis that he puts on the skill part of the game. And I think it’s heads and shoulders above the North American philosophy of playing five games a week and practicing once. Aleksey’s philosophy is five practices for every game, if not more.”
BOBCATS, SUFFOLK PAL JOIN FORCES
But Aleksey isn’t the only key cog in the Bobcats coaching staff. Bobcats management recently hired former Russian national team player Boris Bykovski—who played on the world champion junior national team with Sergei Federov, Alexander Mogilny, Pavel Bure and Sergei Zubov in 1989—as Nikiforov’s assistant. And don’t forget Head of Player Development Dan Marshall, the head coach of the Suffolk PAL team that now works in conjunction with the Bobcats. According to Kinnear, the new bond between the Bobcats and Suffolk PAL has turned the two rival programs into one powerhouse.
“On the national level we were struggling because [Marshall] would have half the good players and I would have half the good players. Now, instead of competing at every level, we have made this pyramid… where players will be working together rather than against each other,” said Kinnear, noting that those who don’t make the Bobcats will play at the appropriate level for the Suffolk PAL program. “At the end of the day we have the best players at the level they belong, and it makes our team stronger.”
DEDICATED TO ACHIEVING DREAM
The strength of Bobcats program comes in numbers. That is, each and every player understands the importance of dedicating himself to hockey. After all, the dedication Nikiforov expects from his players—who usually practice every day both before and after school—is the same kind of dedication they get from him.
“You always want to do well in your own father’s eyes,” said Higgins, “and he’s like a second father to me as far as being on the ice.”
“We’re like his second sons,” said Marcou, “so you don’t want to let him down. You want to go out there and just show him what he taught you, make him proud of you.”
Nikiforov has plenty to be proud about. First off, two of his protégés in Komisarek (who is 22) and Higgins (who is 21) have already made it to the NHL. “Long Island never had that kind of recognition before,” Hart said, “and they’re both products of Aleksey.” Furthermore, Marcou, Vladimir Nikiforov, Nick Grasso and many more Bobcat players will soon be skating for top college programs… that is, as long as Nikiforov and the New York Junior Bobcats are around to groom them.
Don’t expect either to go away anytime soon. “It’s my consideration that if I go to the NHL, today you’re there and tomorrow they might kick you out,” said Nikiforov, noting how quickly NHL coaching staffs come and go. “I more enjoy working with the kids and making them better as a person.”
In the process, Nikiforov has helped make a better team.