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In a blow to Ottawa's white wine-sipping, Volvo-driving culturati, the keenly anticipated Pucks and Tux concert scheduled for last Friday at the Senators' home rink was postponed indefinitely on Jan. 20, reducing that night's entertainment choices to the La La La Human Steps dance troupe, a new David Hare play and Patch Adams (seven theaters). A marriage of serious music and the national game, the concert was to have featured National Arts Centre conductor Pinchas Zukerman and Ottawa Senators center Alexei Yashin, a 25-year-old Russian with an interest in shots on goal and Shostakovich. Alas, at eight o'clock, when the orchestra was supposed to have been swinging into The Skater's Waltz (or whatever), the only marrying going on was between the fried calamari and the marinara sauce at Capone's restaurant, where Yashin was dining in blue jeans
Yashin, the local hockey hero, last week found himself caught in a cat's cradle of charges and countercharges concerning what strings might, or might not, have been attached to his $1 million (Canadian) pledge to the National Arts Centre (NAC) last winter. His offer of $200,000 annually for five years, the largest donation by an individual in the organization's 29-year history, pleasantly surprised the arts community in his adopted city. The NAC's announcement on Jan. 19 that Yashin had decided to withdraw his support after the initial $200,000 installment—a withdrawal which prompted the postponement of Pucks and Tux—shocked the nation. Last Thursday, when Yashin offered his side of die dispute, 150 journalists attended and three television networks broadcast the press conference live. Reading a statement. Yashin said the NAC had made him "feel like a criminal" when they informed him that an amendment to the original deal, diverting up to $85,000 each year to his parents' Ottawa-based company, Tatiana Entertainment Inc., which had been set up to provide translation and other services for visiting Russian artists, might be illegal.
Yashin's agent, Mark Gandler, then disputed an allegation by the NAC that he had pressured the organization to prepare a phony receipt for services rendered by Tatiana Entertainment Inc. Gandler stated that during a Dec. 11 phone conversation with NAC interim director Elaine Calder, in which he supposedly requested that receipt, he had simply expressed Yashin's disappointment that few Russian artists had been recruited to perform during the past NAC season. Two hours later—in a classic case of life irritating art—Calder discreetly implied that Gandler's recollection was complete and utter bolshoi, or something to that effect
One story, two spins. Was Yashin trying to milk $1 million of goodwill from an investment that got him a hefty tax write-off and a nice subsidy for his parents? Or did arts apparatchiks bungle a sincere gift from a one-of-a-kind athlete who happens to know that Boris Godunov is not the sawed-off cartoon villain who keeps messing with Rocky and Bullwinkle? Either way, the spinning left Yashin dizzy.
"People get the idea I'm sitting in my house listening to classical music 24 hours a day," Yashin said on the afternoon of the stillborn Pucks and Tux. In the interest of full disclosure, yes, he has read War and Peace. He has seen Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard. (Maybe the NAC should have tried Checks and Chekhov.) He did put on a tie when his mother, Tatiana, an electrical engineer, dragged the family to this play or that concert back in Sverdlovsk—an industrial city of 1.5 million in the Urals now called Yekaterinburg. And yes, that is soprano Kathleen Battle next to him in the photo taken last fall.
There never has been a Russian player quite like this emerging star on an emerging team, one that is chasing the Toronto Maple Leafs for first place in the Northeast Division and one that former coach Rick Bowness predicts will win a Stanley Cup within three years if it finds the money to keep its players. Yashin's 22 goals and 56 points through Sunday ranked him sixth for points and 11th in goal scoring in the NHL, just behind more prominent names such as Teemu Selanne, Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic.
Yashin is 6'3" and 228 pounds, but he has the puck skills of a small man. Instead of playing the traditional Russian style of attack, based on speed and frequent circling, Yashin barges straight ahead, taking the shortest route to a scoring chance. He still holds on to the puck too long—he has the conceit of most great players, who assume they will make smarter decisions and better plays than their teammates—and Ottawa coach Jacques Martin thinks Yashin can expand his repertoire by using his quickness to the outside more, but these are quibbles in light of goals like the one he scored against the Carolina Hurricanes a week before Christmas. Yashin took a pass in the slot, pirouetted with defenseman Nolan Pratt riding his back and then, as Pratt hooked him to the ice, snapped a shot over goalie Arturs Irbe's shoulder
That goal was a masterpiece of strength, balance and flexibility, all the traits Yashin has nurtured during five years of training in combat martial arts. Yashin is a black belt, but he is more reluctant to discuss martial arts than performing arts. "I don't want to make a big deal about it," he said, "because it might be an insult to someone who does this as a professional. He might think they gave it to me just because I'm a hockey player." Yashin absolutely will not be cajoled into demonstrating kicks or punches. But then, stubbornness always has been his most enduring quality.
Yashin's first nickname in Ottawa was Yeah, But. He was just 19 and his English was embryonic, yet the first draft choice in Senators history, in 1992, had the audacity to routinely reply to a coach's instructions with "Yeah, but...."
"Alexei is very proud," says Bowness, now a Nashville Predators consultant. "He never meant it in a disrespectful way. He just wanted us to hear his opinion. At times, he was right. We were trying to roll our lines, get a tempo going, and he'd prolong his shift His thinking was that the player coming on wasn't as good as he was, so why couldn't he stay on the ice? It was tough to argue."