Each one of us faces them every day of our lives. As soon as we wake up every day we’re confronted with decisions to make, some of them or trivial, like deciding what to have for breakfast, what tie to wear for work, if we want to walk that day or drive the car or maybe take the bus. We make decisions about what we want to eat, how we like to spend our money, what movies we want to go see, people we want to spend time with – over the course of the day we unfurl one decision after another.
However, there are some decisions that we take that are of the utmost importance. Decisions that are no less significant than life changing. Buying a home, a car, or making the decision to get married all impact our lives.
It is these decisions that cause us the most grief as we debate the potential consequences of our next step. Such is the importance of these decisions that we quite often spend quite a bit of time reflecting on these choices after the fact, debating whether we, in retrospect, did the right thing.
Sometimes we have these decisions thrust upon us, when faced with responsibilities and situations, we’re forced to make a decision, a choice that can quite often have wide ranging and unforeseen consequences for not only our own future, but for those around us.
Last week, Pavel Valentenko made such a decision; a choice that for him was the toughest of his young career, one that I’m sure he will ponder many times over the next few months.
Having just recently celebrated his 21st birthday, Pavel Valentenko was standing on the verge of his dream. A couple of years before Valentenko made the difficult decision to leave his Russian homeland and pursue his dream of becoming a player in the National Hockey League.
Drafted in the fifth round with the 159th overall draft pick in 2006, Valentenko had been making a steady rise through the Montreal Canadiens amateur ranks. Unlike many youngsters from North America, Russian players like Valentenko face much more than merely adjusting to a higher level of play. Sociological, linguistic, and cultural differences all must be confronted by many young Russians. For Valentenko, a young man who had never left the small confines of his hometown of Nizhnekamsk, the adjustment must have been that much tougher.
Like many similar picks in recent draft years, Canadiens draft guru Trevor Timmins went off the board in selecting Valentenko, a player unknown to many in North American draft circles.
Weeks after that draft in June of 2006, Timmins sat down with the Montreal Gazette’s Pat Hickey and in an article entitled “Habs Hoping Valentenko is Draft Sleeper,” professed that “some scouts had him rated as the best (1987) born defenseman in Europe.”
Timmins has rightfully earned a reputation for unearthing jewels in the late rounds. Current Habs like Jaroslav Halak and Sergei Kostitsyn are both products of Timmins acumen at picking future Habs long after the spotlight of the early draft rounds has subsided. With Pavel Valentenko the expectations were no less.
Valentenko’s hockey talents first came to public attention at the 2007 World Junior Championships, tallying three points in six games, including a goal in the gold medal game against Canada and future teammate Carey Price.
Ultimately, Russia lost that game to Price and co. 4-2 and had to settle for a silver medal.
That fall, Valentenko made the decision to join the Canadiens organization by signing a three-year entry contract and was assigned to the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League where it was hoped that along with some seasoning to his game he could become familiar with living his life in North America.
The 2007-08 season proved to be a banner year for Valentenko in Hamilton. In an organization deep in defensive prospects; Valentenko was able to thrust himself into prominence by playing a solid fundamental game that while limited offensively, saw him master the technique of making a smart first pass out of his own end to start the rush, in addition to taking care of business in his own end.
And while Valentenko was rewarded with the AHL’s hardest shot award, it was his ability to get under opponents’ skin that garnered Valentenko the most attention, and made him one of the most hated players in the AHL. However, unlike many players who find themselves hated by the opposition, Valentenko was able to back it up with his physical prowess.
Such was the success of Valentenko’s virgin season in Hamilton that he was named the team’s top rookie and was invited up to the Canadiens roster for the post season. And while he didn’t dress for the playoffs, he was able to be around the Habs, during the most pressure packed of times. In addition, by practicing with the team, Valentenko was able to find out where he stood against the professionals; finding himself sharing ice with Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev.
Months later, Pavel Valentenko found himself at the Montreal Canadiens training camp, surrounded by the weight of expectation.
“Pavel has some development left,” stressed Trevor Timmins to the Canadian Press at the onset of the camps opening, “but I really think he’ll see some NHL games this year. It’s up to him to have a good camp.”
Such was the expectations enveloping Valentenko that many outside the team suggested that he should already be a member of the Canadiens. For a team, generally viewed by both their supporters and detractors as lacking in the physical aspects of the game, Valentenko seemed like the ideal choice to fill this void.
“Pavel is a good old country boy,” Trevor Timmins told the Montreal Gazette’s Dave Stubbs on September 18th. “He’s big and strong, he has a passion for the game and he wants to play here. He’s got a heck of a shot. Last year, was a big learning step for him. It’s a different game here than it is in Russia or anywhere in Europe. It takes time to develop your game here, to change your game to play on a smaller rink at a faster pace.”
Timmins predicted that the future would be sooner, rather than later for Valentenko, whose English proficiency was constantly improving, telling Stubbs that “I think he’s ready (for a taste of Montreal this season) … He’s the type of guy whose game should get him to a position where he’s there and available to be recalled if we need him He’s close to being NHL ready,” expressed a confident Trevor Timmins, adding once again, “that’s he close to being NHL ready.”
Unfortunately, for Valentenko, instead of being a coming out party, the Canadiens training camp saw him struggle. Finding himself amongst half-a-dozen defensive prospects in the organization thought to have a professional future, Valentenko’s performance at camp could be termed at best to have been mediocre. Sadly, while Valentenko was having a middling camp, other blue line prospects like Yannick Weber and P.K. Subban shone.
Valentenko’s very ordinary training camp resulted in him being sent down to Hamilton in the Habs first set of cuts, while younger prospects like Weber saw their stock rise.
Six weeks later, Valentenko was on a plane to Russia.
At the time of this writing details of what happened during this time are very sketchy and largely unknown, and one has to wonder if the real story will ever come out.
Here is what is known. After playing four games for the Bulldogs, Valentenko requested and was given a temporary leave from the team to attend to family business back home in Russia. Almost immediately, after landing it was announced that Valentenko had signed a three-year with Dynamo Moscow of the Continental Hockey League, despite the fact that he was in the second year of his three-year entry deal with the Canadiens.
Many have speculated that Valentenko saw himself as increasingly isolated as the only Russian player on the Bulldogs roster. Some have reported that Valentenko’s father had already negotiated a contract with Dynamo before his son had even arrived home.
Valentenko’s Ottawa based agent Rolland Hedges has spoken out trying to clear up a situation that still poses more questions than answers.
According to Hedges, Valentenko did not want to return to Russia, but as his family’s sole supporter, his AHL yearly salary of $150,000 per season before taxes, could not compare with his new Russian salary, which would be substantially more – tax free.
“His goal was to play in the NHL,” explained Hedges, “but financially, playing in the AHL wasn’t cutting it. He was very upset at doing this. He came over to make the NHL. He didn’t just run home. He had to do it. He knows he shouldn’t have done what he did contractually, but he had to do.”
Hedges stressed that contrary to reports that the signing was not premeditated.
“We didn’t have a place for him here in the short-term,” said Montreal head-coach Guy Carbonneau expressing in many ways the surprise of the franchise at the situation. “But in the long term it was different.”
Subsequently, the Canadiens suspended Valentenko without pay. While Valentenko ply’s his trade in Russia, Montreal will continue to hold his NHL rights.
The future of Pavel Valentenko with the Montreal Canadiens is at present a cloudy one.
“Honestly, I just wanted to live closer to my family,” Valentenko told NHL.fanhouse.com this past week in a statement that instead of clarifying the situation achieved the opposite. “Montreal let me go without a problem, they were considerate. Perhaps I will be back there next year.”
Whether the door to playing for the Canadiens is forever closed or is still slightly open to Valentenko remains to be seen. Walking out on the team, no matter the reason, doesn’t give that team, once spurned, much belief that this situation won’t repeat itself.
In the past week Pavel Valentenko was forced to make a life-changing decision. As the families sole source of economic support since the age of fifteen, he was forced to make a most unfortunate decision, one that forced him to choose between his family’s welfare and his own dream of success in the NHL.
Sadly, it was a decision that no person should never be forced to make. Unfortunately, in today’s world it is a decision made all too frequently.