TORONTO - It was four years ago this month that Mikhail Grabovski stalked off the Bell Centre ice in grand fashion, flailing his arms in the Richard Nixon vein, fiery as could be after another circus event with the Kostitsyn brothers in Montreal.
How times have changed.
The once long, wild and often unkempt hair is shorter today. Now 28 and a father of two, Grabovski enters year five in Toronto with considerably less noise than when he arrived, an almost forgotten figure at Leafs training camp, a steady presence whose spunkier days appear behind him.
The 150th overall pick in the 2004 draft, Grabovski posted the third 20-goal campaign of his career last season, adding 28 assists for a 51-point campaign, third in team scoring behind Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Over the course of four seasons in Toronto, he has gradually evolved into the Leafs best all-around forward and is now also the highest-paid, entering year one of a pact that will see him earn $5.5 million annually through the 2016-2017 season.
"Be better every time," Grabovski said simply of his goals for the coming year. "Be better every practice. Be better every game."
The Leafs second-line pivot landed in Russia for much of the recent NHL lockout, playing alongside one of his active idols, Pavel Datsyuk, for the Red Army squad in Moscow. Sharing the same agent, Gary Greenstin, the two have formed a friendship over time; Grabovski even spent a month living with Datsyuk in Detroit years back, his first attempt to pepper the brain of the Red Wings star.
"Right now it's better because that [at] time I'm a little bit young," he noted slyly of those early days alongside Datsyuk.
Suiting up in 29 games with CSKA Moscow - most recently on a line with Datsyuk and Alexander Radulov, the former Predators winger - Grabovski scored 12 times and added 12 assists. He did so while soaking up as much wisdom as he could from his mentor, the two-time Cup champion. "I don't want to give you secrets," Grabovski grinned, "but what he said is you need to work hard every day. I'm looking at him, how he worked; he worked two times before practice, after practice. If you want to be better, you need to work hard." Datsyuk also stressed that "if you want to win something, be closer to your teammates", a lesson that seemed to evade the younger disciple as a Montreal Canadien, but has engrained itself with age in Toronto.
Grabovski has long modeled his game and work ethic after the three-time Selke Trophy winner - often watching game-tape for pointers - committing his efforts toward becoming a stronger two-way force. He quickly earned a fan in former Leafs coach Ron Wilson for such dedication and is likely to gain another follower in Randy Carlyle. "All coaches like when players give everything on the ice," said Grabovski. "We don't have that result with our team so I need to do something much better than I did before."
Many question marks surround the Maple Leafs on the eve of the regular season opener against Montreal, none involving the veteran Belarusian. He is more or less a proven commodity, his feisty reputation and commitment in both ends to be expected.
Sporting a retro grey Cassius Clay t-shirt, Grabovski is anxious to leave the team practice facility on this January afternoon. His wife and family are waiting.