Vladimir Tarasenko says the quietness of St. Louis — and the passion of its hockey fans — have helped him, wife Yana, left, and their two sons feel at home.
CREVE COEUR, Mo. — Vladimir Tarasenko‘s house is 35 minutes from downtown St. Louis, in a leafy gated community where the streets are dotted by McMansions. When he opens the door to reveal pristine, tan-and-white decor, it’s clear that this is a no-shoes type of household.
“Would you like slippers?” he offers. In the living room, Tarasenko’s 11-year-old stepson, Mark, sits on the couch with impressive posture. Tarasenko’s wife, Yana, has their 18-month-old son, Aleksandr — a clone of his father, with blonde curls and piercing blue eyes — perched on her hip.
A faraway TV is tuned to CNN, though Tarasenko insists this is an anomaly. “We don’t watch TV, like, ever,” he says. “We are only monitoring Hurricane Irma.”
For the first 30 minutes, the Russian superstar winger is as he often appears: polite, if a bit cool. Serious, if a bit dry. He talks about the joys of being a first-time homeowner, and the pool he had installed in the backyard last summer. “And the basement!” he suddenly says, beaming. “We made the basement.”
“Is it a man cave?” I ask.
“No, no,” he says. “Would you like to see?”
The four Tarasenkos parade down the carpeted stairs, which reveal at the bottom an 18-foot-long mini rink, splattered with at least three dozen pucks. Mark could very well be the only peewee goalie who gets to face practice shots from a 40-goal NHL scorer.
“Now you should see the boys’ rooms,” Tarasenko says. The family marches upstairs. Tarasenko begins with Alexsandr’s room and makes a beeline for the closet. “I lose it when I look at this stuff, it’s just so cute,” Tarasenko says, sifting through baby shirts before picking out a tiny “Tarasenko” jersey and slipping it over his son’s head.
“And Mark’s room! We did that,” Tarasenko says. “It used to be kid’s room, but we now made it more adult. I love it.”
Tarasenko proudly opens the door to a space outfitted with retro, steel light fixtures and perhaps the entire catalog of St. Louis Blues paraphernalia. “Here is coaching lesson for the day,” Tarasenko says, pointing to a whiteboard where he has scribbled: HOCKEY = NO PARTYING. “Hey!” Mark says, as he tries to erase the word “NO,” and a playful scuffle for the marker breaks out.
“OK, you really need to see backyard,” Tarasenko decides, and once again the family is on the move. The deck, overlooking the pool, features a restaurant-quality Weber Grill. Last season, Tarasenko began learning to cook. While he was growing up in Russia, the men in his family stayed out of the kitchen, but Tarasenko has found joy in perusing the shelves of Whole Foods, telling Yana to relax with a glass of wine while whipping up an appetizing creation.
After the tour, we’re back on the couch, with Tarasenko and Yana hovering. They’re both scrolling through iPhone photos to show off Tarasenko dishes, then waving the evidence in my face.
“Oh, look at this!” Tarasenko says.
“No, this is better,” Yana protests.
He shows a beef carpaccio; she one-ups him with a red sauce featuring truffles.
He pauses, as if to consider how normal this scene is for any family, and how far off it is from the caricature often painted of Russian players in the NHL.
“You came [to our house] and you probably didn’t know what we’d be like,” Tarasenko says. “But you have four non-angry Russians, at least.” He pauses and corrects himself: “Three and a half non-angry Russians,” noting that Aleksandr was born in the U.S.
“We’re not drinking vodka, shooting bears at home. This is us.”
The Blues have been one of the peskiest teams in the Western Conference since Tarasenko’s debut in 2012. Despite juggling pieces — a rotating cast of centermen and a head-coaching change last season from Ken Hitchcock to Mike Yeo — Tarasenko remains the constant. He is the league’s most consistent scoring threat, yet, somehow, he still seems underrated.
St. Louis rewarded Tarasenko with an eight-year, $60 million contract in 2015 — which, at the time, redefined the market for ascending young stars. Since then, only Washington Capitals captain — and fellow Russian — Alex Ovechkin has more goals (136) than Tarasenko’s 116 over the past three seasons. The Blues winger’s 87 goals at even strength are tops in the NHL since 2014-15.
Tarasenko, a sturdy 6-foot, 219 pounds, has a whopping 842 shots in that span. Oh, and he is only 25 years old.
Off the ice, Tarasenko still chooses his words carefully. He is often lumped in with what one veteran executive describes as “the Russian stigma that unfortunately still exists.” That stigma suggests that Russian players are inherently draft risks because they can hold, as leverage, playing at home in the KHL for more money than they can earn on an entry-level contract in the NHL — a reason Tarasenko is believed to have slipped to the 16th overall pick in 2010. And there are clumsier stereotypes, too.
“Obviously, players stay in Russia, so [there is] reason to think like this,” Tarasenko says. “But some things are culture differences that [are] unfair.” He points to the NHL draft combine in Toronto and its infamous bike fitness test. The issue is that the Russians allegedly look like they’re not trying hard enough. “We don’t [want] to look tired,” Tarasenko says. “People say Russian players don’t give 100 percent because they don’t puke. But when I grew up, my coach taught me: Don’t look tired, that’s bad. If you get hit, you can’t lie on the ice. If you can walk, walk off the ice.”
In truth, the problem — perhaps further accentuated by our current political climate — is that when we discuss Russian hockey players, we often rush to point out discrepancies instead of looking for commonalities. Tarasenko brings up a Players’ Tribune article former NHL defenseman Ryan Whitney wrote about his stint playing in the KHL. Whitney’s culture shock was acute. He noted when he arrived at the airport in Sochi, “Everything’s in Russian. Like, everything.”
“I mean, if you came over from the U.S. to Sochi and you are grumpy because they don’t speak English … they don’t need to speak English. That’s not their language,” Tarasenko says. “That’s not the culture. I can’t go to Spain and expect people to speak Russian to me. I think sometimes with Russian players, fans don’t realize that we come from far away, we try to respect the culture here, and it’s hard for us. For me, it wasn’t painful because the team helped me. But there is other stuff. For example, I fall in love with a girl who can’t stay with me [in the U.S. because of visas], so she has to leave [and return to Russia] every few months. I have to work to make a life here and bring my family here. I worked very hard, and now this is home.”
Tarasenko grew up in the Siberian plains. Beginning at age 2, he was raised by his paternal grandparents. Tarasenko’s parents divorced, and his father, Andrei, was in the middle of a 21-year KHL career. Andrei, a former Russian Superleague scoring champion and member of the 1994 Russian Olympic team, now coaches in the KHL.
Hockey defined Tarasenko’s childhood. At age 9, he would wake up at 4:40 a.m., board a bus, then walk 15 minutes on shadowy winter mornings from the bus stop to the rink in time for 6 a.m. practice. He attended school from 8:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. — with a class full of hockey players.
“Can you imagine 23 hockey players, as a team, in one room?” he says. “From age 9 to 16 years old, we studied in the same class. The teacher who was with us, I feel bad for them. There would be teachers who came in and said, ‘You will never make me mad,’ then quit after one lesson.”
After classes, Tarasenko changed at the rink, bused to another rink — where they could get ice time — to practice and took the bus back to be home at 7 p.m. “And then repeat for six years,” he says.
By age 16, Tarasenko was playing in the KHL among men. Six of his teammates on Novosibirsk Sibir were more than double his age. His father was his coach. Even as one of the youngest players in the league, Tarasenko tallied 34 points in his first two seasons and captained Russia to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships. Tarasenko also led Russia with 26 points over a combined 14 games in the 2009 and 2010 World Junior Championships.
The Blues drafted Tarasenko in 2010, and he continued to play in the KHL for two more seasons. He says there was never a chance he wouldn’t sign with the Blues. Of course, he feels pride for his home country. Which is why the NHL not allowing its players to participate in the 2018 Olympics is “so disappointing,” he says. “It is something I always want to do. It is something I think a lot of players, from all countries, want to do.” But the opportunity to play among the best in the NHL was too important. Tarasenko finally signed a three-year, entry-level contract and arrived in St. Louis in 2012.
Tarasenko had learned some English in school, though he was far from fluent. The Blues initially assigned a translator.
“But he wasn’t like a real translator,” Tarasenko says. “He just translated what he wanted to say.” So the team tried again. Tarasenko wasn’t crazy about that arrangement, either. “She did pretty good. But she didn’t really know hockey. So you feel like you sound funny and uncomfortable [when] talking to the media.”
Tarasenko decided to ride solo — he wouldn’t use a translator as a crutch. “If I don’t try myself,” he says, “I [was] never going to learn.”
Around the team, Tarasenko assimilated fine. The Blues paired him with defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk on the road. They spent most nights talking. “We did not turn on TV, like, ever,” Tarasenko says.
He cites defenseman Barret Jackman as “the best teammate” he’s ever had. “Barrett showed me how to be a pro in this league,” Tarasenko says. “He took time to answer any questions.”
Tarasenko has returned the favor. One St. Louis scout explains how Tarasenko has become a mentor to the younger Russians on the team. During training camp this year, he often took extra time to help explain drills.
Outside of the confines of the job, Tarasenko found life in the U.S. more difficult. “You go to the grocery store and you just point to things,” he says. “But then you get stuck. For example, how would you say, ‘I need 10 slices of ham?'”
As a short-term fix, Tarasenko found prepackaged slices of ham. Eventually, he figured it out. He grew fond of the quietness of St. Louis, and how passionate the fans are about hockey, but knew it would never become home unless he had a family around him.
Novosibirsk — population 1.6 million — might be a big city, but Tarasenko insists everyone knows everyone there.
“Oh, I knew who he was,” Yana says.
He knew exactly who she was — a stunning brunette he wanted to know better. They had socialized among mutual friends, but in 2014, Tarasenko made his move.
“We met at a karaoke bar,” he says. “Nobody sang. I was too shy to talk to her, so needed to relax a little, so we go there.”
They began dating right away. From the start, Tarasenko also knew this about Yana Besedina: She had a son from a previous relationship. Three months into the courtship, Tarasenko wanted to take Yana on their first vacation together. So he flew her to Nice, France — and Mark, too.
“They went on a walk together on the beach,” Yana recalls. Mark, then 7, peppered Tarasenko with questions about how long he had been playing hockey and how he became a professional.
“When we got back we had a family meeting with Yana about our plans as a future,” Tarasenko says. And he and Mark informed her that they had decided: “Mark will be a goalie.”
Soon after, they planned the rest of their future together. Over the course of the next season, Yana commuted from Russia to St. Louis, every two to three months, to visit Tarasenko. “I didn’t have a visa so I always had to leave,” she says.
In July 2015, the couple wed in Novosibirsk. Soon, she — and Mark — came to live full time in the U.S.
“We worried at first if it would be hard for Mark to make friends,” Tarasenko says. “But we knew he just need to be patient.”
Tarasenko proudly talks about the many friends Mark has made in the neighborhood; it reminds him of his childhood, the kids playing in the street until dark. Which is good, because the Tarasenkos are home — a lot.
“I’m not unsocial,” Tarasenko says. “But I like the atmosphere of home.”
Last season, Edmonton Oilers 2012 first-overall pick Nail Yakupov played for the Blues. As a fellow Russian, Tarasenko wanted to mentor Yakupov, a single 23-year-old who was new to the city. Instead of taking him out to clubs or restaurants in town, Tarasenko opened up his home.
“He stayed here, a lot,” Tarasenko says. “A lot of times, he sleep over.”
Tarasenko still speaks to his grandparents and father multiple times a week by phone.
“Every year, we spend less time in Russia,” Tarasenko says. “Every time, we cut down our time there. It is hard to travel with kids, more than 12 hours, planes, time change. But also, I feel comfortable here.”
While his personal life is in order, Tarasenko admits that last season “was a hard year.”
“With the World Cup, then a coach change, really a lot of emotions,” he says. “There was a lot going on.”
The Blues had the league’s best winning percentage from Feb. 1, when Yeo replaced Hitchcock, until the end of the season, going 22-8-2. But they were eliminated in the second round by the Nashville Predators. Tarasenko played more than 20 minutes in four of the six games in that series, and afterward, there were murmurs he would need surgery on an undisclosed part of his body. When asked about that, it is clear Tarasenko is doing just fine without a translator, giving the perfect, vague, hockey-player response: “There is always one questionable spot for me. But not right now. It is fine.”
Last month, Tarasenko represented the Blues at the league’s annual media tour in New York. He brought Mark along.
“I try to be a father to him, but also try to be like big brother,” Tarasenko says. The two stayed up late in their hotel room playing video games.
“You know, the biggest cultural difference [between the U.S. and Russia] is probably not in hockey,” Tarasenko says. “But the smiling. And talking about it. [Here,] everyone says, ‘Hey, what’s up, how are you?’ Even people you don’t know. If you go out in Russia and you say, ‘Hey, what’s up,’ I would not answer to you. I don’t know you!”
Tarasenko smiles as he says this. It’s another thing he has learned how to do in his new home.