When the NHL closed down for its holiday break on Saturday night, Anton Khudobin opted not for a warm Caribbean beach and a pina colada, but a comfy luxury hotel at New Hampshire’s Bretton Woods that promised a fireplace in his suite, and a glass or two of hot wine served outside by a blazing fire.
It’s a little bit like Siberia up there, the Bruins goalie likes to think, with its snow, its towering pines and mercury-crushing temps. It’s a home away from his off-season home in Krasnoyarsk, the picturesque Siberian city of a million-plus.
“I like the cold weather,’” mused the Kazakhstan-born Khudobin, a trace of a kid’s joy in his voice in the days leading up to his NHL hiatus. “I can’t wait for Christmas, to go there to see all the snow and stuff. For me, it’s hockey weather and I feel it inside.”
Known as “Doby” by his Black-and-Gold teammates, the gregarious 31-year-old backstop returns to Siberia at the end of every NHL season. He built a home there a few years ago, in part as a retirement place, if not a tribute, to his mother and father, Tatiana and Valeri. They once gave up virtually everything they owned, home and jobs included, so their son, then only 13 years old, could pursue his dream to play pro hockey.
“I really, really . . . I really don’t know how many words I can say to describe how much I appreciate what they’ve done for me,” he said. “I mean, to leave a country where you have an apartment, a car, a job . . . a place you have everything . . . and to leave that for another country. I was 13, right? I mean, who knows . . . ?”
The “Doby” story begins with an invitation in 1999, in his hometown of Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, only 300 miles from the Chinese border. The coach of his successful town team, Torpedo, had been courted to move to the Russian city of Magnitogorsk, some 1,300 miles away, an offer to take over a program of 13-year-olds.
The coach was all for it, but with one caveat: To swap his life in Kazakhstan, he insisted upon bringing his players with him. That included the round-faced, blue-eyed Khubdobin kid in net.
“There was a meeting, the coach with all the kids and their parents,” recalled Khudobin. “He told everyone there, ‘I only will go if I can take my two lines and a goalie.’ ”
The number was actually 11. Two forward lines, four defensemen, and one Khudobin.
The 39-year-old Valeri, a welder born and raised in Kazakhstan, would have to give up his job. Tatiana, 37, originally from Siberia, would have to leave her office job with a cosmetics distributor. They would also have to sell their apartment. A new life beckoned, with no Plan B to return.
“My parents asked me, was I willing to go?” recalled Khudobin, “And I was like, ‘Are you kidding, of course I will! What am I doing here without my coach?’ ”
Within weeks, the young Khudobin was living in Magnitogorsk, as were no fewer than 10 of his former Torpedo teammates. All 11 raised their hand. Team-wide, only two Torpedo players turned down the invite.
Magnitogorsk provided apartments for the families of the boys who needed them. The Khudobins were in need. They sold their flat in Kazakhstan for less than $4,000 (US funds) and couldn’t dream of buying a new home in Russia, where the price of the same apartment was nearly triple that of what they sold in Kazakhstan.
Valeri and Tatiana also didn’t have work. If Russia was going to be their land of opportunity, it was going to be through their son Anton. They had their savings from the sale of the apartment in Ust-Kamenogorsk to cover the cost of utilities in the new apartment. Beyond that, they had their son’s dream to keep them warm.
“I can tell you right now, without even thinking, so I guess I grew up faster than I was supposed to,” said Khudobin, who will have earned some $7 million over the last four years at the end of this NHL season. “I saw everything, I saw how hard it was [for them] to find a job, find an apartment, find money and all that stuff. I figured . . . if I didn’t do it, then who? I knew I had to play really, really good hockey to earn some money and to pay them back.”
In his early- and mid-teens while playing for Magnitogorsk, recalled Khudobin, he wasn’t fixated on making it to the NHL. That dream didn’t begin to crystallize until he played for the Russian national team in the 2004 World Juniors, a tournament that had goalies Tuukka Rask in net for Finland, Devan Dubnyk for Canada, and Cory Schneider for the Yanks.
“It was my draft year,” said Khudobin. “And right before the tournament, our coach calls a meeting and says, “Guys, I know you want to go to the NHL, everyone wants to go to the NHL . . . well, if you want to make the draft, then you have to make this tournament.’ We won. We beat Canada in the semis, and then we beat US in the final, 3-2.”
Some six months later, the Minnesota Wild chose Khudobin with the No. 206 pick in the NHL draft. He remained with Magnitogorsk for the 2004-05 season and then, at age 19, barely knowing a word of English, he headed to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to play a season of top-level Canadian junior hockey.
A local newspaper in Saskatoon, said Khudobin, heralded his imminent arrival with a headline that read, “From Russia With Glove.” To his good fortune, David and Anna Gersher, originally from Moldova, saw the story and fired off a note to Saskatoon Blades head coach Lorne Molleken. If the Russian boy needed a home, they said, the door to their home in Saskatoon was open.
“No disrespect to Canadians,” said Khudobin, noting that his then agent also found a Canadian family eager to billet him, “but I didn’t know any English. So of course I was going to stay with a Russian family. Just easier.”
By the end of the season in Saskatoon, he was fluent in his new language. If something didn’t make sense, he asked Blades teammates, including ex-Boston draft pick Wacey Rabbit, to write it down. He then would bring the word puzzle home to the Gershers, and David or Anna or one of their two daughters would help him decipher it.
Khudobin was a good student. In his years in Magnitogorsk, he said, he earned both an undergraduate and a master’s degree in coaching at the local university. He never had anything other than playing hockey in mind, but he knew it would be important to have the paper.
“I just wanted to do more,” he said. “The bigger degree you have, the better job you can get, pretty much.”
This is Khudobin’s second tour of duty with the Bruins. The first time around, he came here in a trade with the Wild, then-GM Peter Chiarelli picking him up at the February 2011 trade deadline for Mikko Lehtonen and Jeff Penner. He spent the entire 2011-12 season with AHL Providence, then parlayed his 14 games with the Bruins in 2012-13 into a free agent deal with Carolina that brought him the biggest deal yet of his NHL career (two years/$4.5 million total). Following a short stay with the Ducks at the end of that deal, he returned to the Hub in the summer of 2016, a two-year deal worth $2.4 million that will expire at the end of this season.
Tatiana Khudobin traveled from Siberia in October and has spent these past few months with her son at his apartment on Newbury Street. She went with her son, and two of his friends, to Bretton Woods over the holiday and expects to return to Krasnoyark late next month.
Valeri Khudobin remained home in Siberia, in part because of not wanting to leave a house empty when temperatures plummet to 30 and 40 below. They’re not living in that team-furnished apartment in Magnitgorsk anymore.
“My mother loves it here,” said Khudobin. “It’s a nice city, a lot like St. Petersburg in Russia. New York is like Moscow, Boston like St. Petersburg. We go for walks all the time in the park . . . you know in, how do you say it, the Boston Common?”
Routine shopping expeditions at the local market, with mom alongside, serve as a reminder, said Khudobin. Not so long ago, he didn’t know where any of this would lead. But he found his way, in a journey that was not only about him.
“Even these days right now, when my parents fly over here,” he said. “going to the store and the bank . . . if it’s quality meats or quality groceries, my mother will say, ‘Oh, maybe we will save on this or that.’ I tell them like, ‘No, I mean, you gave me everything you possibly could and even more than that.’ Right now, I don’t think of even to tell them no.”