When Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart and Vladimir Tarasenko awoke Christmas morning, they were in three cities miles apart.
Following the Blues’ game against Calgary on Monday, Shattenkirk and Stewart headed home to New York and Toronto, respectively, and Tarasenko went to Chicago for the holiday break.
“Christmas is kind of ‘Do your own thing,’” Shattenkirk said. “It’s one of the only chances that guys get to see their family.”
But for three players who spend nearly every waking minute together during the NHL season, who have bonded like brothers in short order in St. Louis, “We’ll stay together mentally,” Tarasenko said in his thick Russian accent, cracking up the other two.
There are several circles of companionship in the Blues’ locker room, but one brought upon by a bold move up in the NHL draft in 2010 and a blockbuster trade between the Blues and Colorado in 2011 has created one of the most improbable.
The Blues traded into the first round to select Tarasenko No. 16 overall, after which Shattenkirk and Stewart arrived here from Denver in a deal for Erik Johnson.
They finally became teammates when Tarasenko came over from Russia, and in the last 1½ years — whether it be dining together, turning the lights out at the team hotel or busting dance moves at a hip-hop club — the three may lead the league in laughs.
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The friendship began to form last year when Shattenkirk elected to be roommates on the road with Tarasenko, and because Shattenkirk was already close with Stewart, the group was rarely seen without one of its members.
“That’s how it all started,” Shattenkirk said. “Vladi was a little shy at first, but he started to open up, not having so many guys around. It was cool to be in that situation, helping him out, and he adjusted pretty quickly. It was a pretty quick jump to all of us being good friends.”
The Blues were just coming out of the NHL lockout, a period in which Stewart was playing hockey in Germany and the Czech Republic. He returned to St. Louis and was introduced to the player fans were fawning over, a player he learned went by the nickname of “Vova.”
“I saw one practice from Vova and I’m like. ‘This kid is going to take my job ... I better be his friend here,’” Stewart said. “All jokes aside, I think me playing in Europe, you don’t really understand how hard it is with the language barrier, and I experienced it first hand.
“You kind of see life through a different perspective. You’re over there and nothing is in English. You’re watching video and you don’t even know what they’re talking about. You feel alone. I just tried to make him comfortable and be a good friend to him.”
At the time, Tarasenko knew very little English, so comprehending Blues coach Ken Hitchcock’s practice plan on the fly was difficult. Fortunately for Tarasenko, the team’s forward combinations are divided into different jerseys — red, blue, white and gold — so one way of following instructions is to follow your linemates.
“Hitch’s drills are easy when you know them,” Tarasenko said. “But when I came, all the guys were on the team before, not their first year. Hitch said a couple of words about a drill and everybody goes in the corner. I was like ‘What? Ok, I go where my color’s going?’”
When practice was over and the three went out for meals, Tarasenko claimed that he was just as clueless choosing off the menu.
“He’d tell us what he’s going to order,” Shattenkirk said, “and then when the waitress comes ...”
“He says, ‘Can you order for me?’” Stewart said. “He knew more than he was letting on.”
Tarasenko contended that he was still a bit uneasy after once requesting the wrong breakfast.
“I was here alone first 10 days and then my girlfriend came,” he said. “We go for breakfast and I want something with eggs. So I say, ‘I want eggplant.’ My girlfriend orders omelet. They bring omelet for her and it looks nice. Then they bring mine and I’m like, ‘No, I ordered eggplant.’ They told me, ‘This is eggplant.’ I’m like, ‘Ohh.’”
Dinner, however, has become an easier routine because Shattenkirk, Stewart and Tarasenko are among three Blues who prefer beef the night before a game.
“Different guys like different things,” Stewart said. “A lot of guys do sushi, but we like to have our steak.”
Afterwards, Shattenkirk and Tarasenko would retreat to their room for some sleep. But the two quickly discovered that they had different ways of winding down.
Shattenkirk likes to watch TV and Tarasenko doesn’t.
“I’d have it on low volume and he’d turn around and say, ‘Can you turn off the TV, please?’” Shattenkirk remembers.
Shattenkirk obliged, but would then play some soft music on the side of his bed, opposite of Tarasenko.
Once on a road trip in Vancouver, Tarasenko couldn’t pinpoint where the tunes were originating.
“We had little balconies (off the room), with doors that opened up,” Shattenkirk said. “He thought someone was playing music outside the door and he was so (ticked). He’s looking around yelling, ‘Who’s playing the music?’ I didn’t tell him it was me until the next morning.”
Tarasenko said: “I was so mad. Still mad, probably.”
Making matters worse, Shattenkirk liked to have the thermostat in the room set at 65 degrees.
“I like cold too,” Tarasenko said, “but when AC (vent) is right at my bed, it’s no good.”
Shattenkirk rolled his eyes.
“Everything has to be perfect for him, otherwise he’s tossing around, huffing and puffing,” he said.
The relationship among the three really began to blossom around the time of the Blues’ rookie party in Whistler, British Columbia, last March.
“Vova was so nervous because he thought he was going to have to sing or wear something,” Stewart said.
Instead, the Blues veterans just wanted him to tell a joke. But he was even apprehensive about that.
“You can chirp in Russia, but you can’t chirp about family, somebody’s wife, kids or girlfriend,” Tarasenko said. “If you tell these jokes at a Russian team dinner, it’s a fight for sure.”
Tarasenko stood to tell his joke. The room grew silent.
“Knock, knock,” he said.
“Who’s there?” teammates responded.
“Boo,” he said.
“Boo-who?” they answered.
“Stop crying, Perry!” he quipped.
The punchline, a poke at former teammate David Perron, brought down the house.
“Here in U.S., they say, ‘It’s OK, just tell it,’” Tarasenko said. “I’m pretty surprised by the whole culture here. It’s so different, how the guys do it in the locker room.”
Another difference in the locker room is the music.
“In Russia, we have players that are DJs and I was DJ for four years,” Tarasenko said. “I played club music and new songs. Here, Christmas music or country.”
Asked if he liked country, Tarasenko nodded off like he was sleeping.
Stewart then asked Tarasenko what kind of genre of music he was learning to like.
“How is the style called, rap?” Tarasenko answered, earning Stewart’s approval.
Recently, when the Blues were on the road in Tampa Bay, the three went to a hip-hop club with a few other teammates.
“You could tell when Vova walked in that he had never been to a place that was a predominantly hip-hop culture,” Stewart said. “It was like 100 percent hip-hop.”
“No, it was like 105 percent hip-hop,” Tarasenko said tartly.
But Tarasenko played along, asking how he should dance. Blues enforcer Ryan Reaves told him to raise his fist in the air and twist it.
“I did this for three or four minutes and then I asked Reever, ‘What’s maybe something else?’” Tarasenko said. “He said, ‘Now do two hands!”
Stewart called the moment “priceless.”
This season, Tarasenko no longer rooms with Shattenkirk. He has his own quarters and Tarasenko now bunks up with Jaden Schwartz.
But the three hang out as much as ever, and they are as comfortable as can be.
“It took Vova a little while to break out of his shell, but now he orders dinner for me,” Stewart said.
At this year’s rookie party, they couldn’t get Tarasenko to stop telling jokes.
“He was telling them like every two minutes,” Shattenkirk said.
The memories remind Shattenkirk of how his friendship with Stewart developed in Colorado.
Former Avalanche player Brandon Yip played with Shattenkirk at Boston University before he joined the Avs. Yip turned pro first and became friends with Stewart, and then when Shattenkirk arrived, all three became close.
“It was kind of the same process,” Shattenkirk said. “For the most part, everyone has buddies on different teams. But to have that connection where you have a buddy from Toronto or Russia, you probably wouldn’t have that opportunity in most professions.”
Added Tarasenko: “That’s why hockey is unbelievable. You can be from everywhere in the world, you can meet on the same team and be friends with everybody. It doesn’t matter what religion are you, how much money you make or where you’re living. You just look at how a guy is with you.”