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From Russia, with Love
Michael Bamberger
March 20, 2000
Sabres rookie Maxim Afinogenov and his phenom sister, Katia, are a pair to watch
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March 20, 2000

From Russia, With Love

Sabres rookie Maxim Afinogenov and his phenom sister, Katia, are a pair to watch

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Early on a recent, bright weekday morning Katia was practicing, and Sergei, who is built like a bear, was sitting courtside, overwhelming his white plastic folding chair. He makes regular trips to Moscow to keep his hand in his business, which organizes trade exhibits. Mostly, though, he's in the U.S. On this morning he wore wraparound shades, a tight T-shirt, short shorts, sandals and white socks. He didn't seem to be at home. Occasionally, he would say something encouraging to his daughter.

"We came here for Katia," Sergei says in Russian. He doesn't speak English and is a man of few words in any language. Raisa speaks halting English. "If Katia wanted to return to Russia or stop tennis, she would," she says. "But she has a talent. She must test it."

In the afternoon Sergei and Katia headed back to the apartment. While Katia, a bright student who's familiar with the works of Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, prepared for a visit from her math tutor, Sergei popped a tape into a videocassette player. The tape showed Maxim scoring a goal against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Sergei loves hockey and pointed Maxim toward the sport as soon as he learned to walk. By his early teens Maxim was an accomplished player, although not the prodigy that Katia appears to be. While Maxim was playing for Moscow Dynamo, one of Russia's elite junior teams, his coaches were awed by his ability to get shots off but confused as to why so few went in. Only in his final year in junior hockey did the goals start finding the back of the net, and in the 1998 world junior championship Maxim had five points in seven games. Now that he's in the NHL, it's his defense that needs improvement.

When Sergei is in Florida, Raisa tries to visit Maxim in Buffalo. When she isn't there, Maxim speaks daily to his parents and sister by cell phone. One day last month he was sitting at a restaurant in Buffalo when his phone rang. "Excuse me," he said. He headed to an empty table to talk to Raisa.

At the peak of Raisa's running career, in 1976, she failed to make the Soviet Olympic team, a fact that she says shames her to this day. Raisa says she can purge that shame with her visions. She imagines her daughter playing in the Federation Cup for Russia and her son playing on the Russian Olympic team. "We say to our children, 'If you want to write, write. If you want to play music, play music,' " Raisa says. "It doesn't have to be sport. But whatever it is, do it on the highest level."

Their story is a work in progress. "I think it's going to conclude with two inductions into two Halls of Fame," says Diamond. He's thinking grand things. However, almost every high school has a wall of fame devoted to kids who were supposed to be world-beaters but who were just all-county. Dreams change, stories take unexpected turns. Sergei knows this.

"We'll see," he says with a casual shrug, speaking of his kids' future. "That's all. We'll see."

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