Maxim Afinogenov was walking through the lobby at the Sabres' hotel in South Florida earlier this season when a young, petite blonde called his name with a high, soft voice. "Maaaxxx-imm," she said across the room. He turned around and smiled. The two spread their arms and embraced like long-lost lovers. They spoke briefly before she kissed him.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was huddled with his assistant coaches near the front desk at the time, a few hours before Afinogenov would play the Florida Panthers in his third NHL game. Ruff looked toward Mike Ramsey and Don Lever with a raised eyebrow. A few players glanced toward one another and shrugged their shoulders.
The unasked question was obvious: What, exactly, was the rookie right winger doing kissing a girl who looked more available for a game of hopscotch than a date with a grown man?
Afinogenov grabbed her hand and walked toward the coaching staff. Ruff didn't know what to expect. He appeared nervous. He wiggled in his seat. Finally, Afinogenov smiled and, in fractured English, said, "This is my sister." Ruff looked like a man who had just escaped the death penalty.
"I'll be totally honest," Ruff said. "I was thinking, 'I hope she's 16 at least.' If you want honesty, that's honesty. I found out it was his sister, and I was like, 'Whew.' "
Katia Afinogenov had come with her mother for a few precious moments in the hotel lobby and a quick lunch. The family traveled halfway around the world from Russia only to find themselves pursuing stardom in sports and a bite to eat on a sunny afternoon.
As the Sabres learned, Katia is a rising 12-year-old prodigy attending the prestigious Rick Macci Tennis Academy in nearby Fort Lauderdale. Macci helped develop Jennifer Capriati and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, among others. Macci believes Katia is the best athlete of the four at the same age. She has been at the school for three years and now is considered the best 12-year-old girls' player in the world.
She already has Nike and Fila pounding on her door for endorsements. Barring disaster, she will turn professional shortly after her 14th birthday and play an abbreviated schedule. She's an 85-pound fireball who, like her brother, possesses grace, speed and power in her game. It's difficult to imagine such potential neatly meshed with the innocence of her youth.
"Her nickname is Special K," Macci said by telephone last week. "Everyone will figure out why. The genes in that family are just frightening. She's a peanut, but she's a home run, the real deal, a can't-miss. . . . She's nice, but with a racket in her hand she's a killer. She'll cut your throat. She's one in a million. She going to be the Moscow Magician."
But there is so much more to the Afinogenov family. Maxim's mother, Raisa, was a seven-time Russian track champion in the 800 meters. She was expected to participate in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, but she missed the Summer Games because of a slight problem with her training schedule. She had a good excuse: She was pregnant with Maxim. We know now he's a rare athlete. Imagine, he's only the third-best in his own family.
"Frightening," Macci said.
Afinogenov (A-FINN-o-GHENN-ov) has been somewhat of an enigma since he joined the Sabres in September. He came from Moscow, unsure of the American culture and unable to speak English. His inability to communicate with his teammates has added to his mystery. The Sabres often wonder what he's thinking behind those icy-blue, European eyes.
The 20-year-old is seemingly shy around the rink, in contrast to his flashy style that draws so much attention on the ice. He's often among the last players on the ice after practice. He works hard on a game that he makes look effortless.
The more Afinogenov becomes comfortable around his teammates, the more his story unfolds. His father, Sergei, also was a track star who fiddled with hockey as a boy and became a successful businessman in Russia. Sergei and Maxim lived a middle-class lifestyle back home while Katia and Raisa committed themselves to Katia's tennis here.
Sergei moved to the United States three months ago when Maxim arrived for training camp with the Sabres. Sergei has been living in Florida with expenses paid under a 10-year agreement with Macci, who will work as Katia's manager after she turns pro. Without the agreement, paying for the academy and living expenses would run some $200,000 annually.
"This is where all the best people play," Katia said. "This is where the best tennis players are. This is where the best hockey players are. This is where we want to be."
And so they are. Team Afinogenov, destined for stardom in two sports. The family genes are frightening indeed.
Maxim could not have asked for a better start to his NHL career. He scored in his first game. His mother was visiting him in Rochester when he was promoted to Buffalo on Nov. 9 and watched in Marine Midland Arena as her son realized his dream. Chances are she will never see Rochester again.
Afinogenov also scored in his second game. He scored two goals in his fifth game and his popularity soared as the Sabres realized they had a star on their hands. He had eight goals and six assists in his first 19 contests with the Sabres and already has become their most dynamic player since his countryman, Alexander Mogilny, arrived 10 years ago.
"When you see a player like that, you just stare at him," Sabres winger Rob Ray said. "You're at the same (professional) level as them, but they do things on a totally different (skill) level. It's like, 'Wow.' It's the same way when you're watching Gretzky or Lemieux or somebody like that. You wonder, 'How do they do that?' "
People mostly look at Afinogenov and see Pavel Bure, the Panthers' star who had three goals and one assist against the Sabres in a 4-2 win Dec. 17. Their skating styles are similar and both seemingly can launch themselves from zero to 60 in three seconds. Both play right wing and shoot left. Bure is 5-foot-10, 190 pounds. Afinogenov is 5-11, 185. They could pass for brothers.
"His mannerisms remind me of Bure," Ruff said. "He has the same skating style, he has the explosiveness to his stride. I wouldn't put him in that class yet, but he's got potential. His skating is with the elite, and his stickhandling is with the elite. You combine that with the grit we've seen already, we're talking about a complete package. But he has to keep developing."
The Sabres' scouting staff stole him in the third round of the 1997 draft. It was the first draft under general manager Darcy Regier, but it was Don Luce, their player personnel director, and the scouting staff who made the choice. He was selected as the top forward in the 1999 World Junior Championships, signed a three-year contract with the Sabres in September and has been dazzling since his first day. And they say his sister is the Moscow Magician!
"Max pulls a lot of tricks out of his bag," Sabres winger Geoff Sanderson said. "You look around and you learn a little from every guy, and he's a guy you can learn a lot from. He's got the sweet hands and the sweet moves and he loves to dance. And he likes to beat guys more than once. He beats you once, and he comes back and beats you again. It's great to watch."
Everybody knew Afinogenov was destined for the NHL at some point after he electrified his teammates and Ruff during training camp. Captain Michael Peca openly lobbied for the Sabres to keep him. The one thing that needed polishing was Afinogenov's defense, so he was sent to Rochester to learn the North American game. He discovered the importance of backchecking and playing shorter shifts. He became a better team player.
He was promoted to Buffalo after leading all AHL rookies in scoring with six goals and 12 assists through the first 15 games. Looking back, it seemed he was in Rochester for about 15 minutes.
"All he ever talked about was going to the NHL," Amerks defenseman and fellow Russian Dimitri Kalinin said.
It's funny, the Sabres have been around Afinogenov for more than a month now, but they still know very little about him. He speaks better English today than he did yesterday, but grasping the language has been an arduous, gradual task. He learns mostly from watching television. The Sabres are looking for a tutor through the foreign language program at the University at Buffalo.
The language barrier has prevented the Sabres from knowing even his basic personality traits. Does he have a good sense of humor? What scares him? What makes him tick?
"Beats the hell out of me," defenseman Jason Woolley said. "He's a good kid. He's talented. That's about all I know."
"His real personality can't get out," Luce said. "I think he would like to express himself, but he can't. Until we get his English up, we're all in for a guessing game into what he's thinking."
Dixon Ward pulled Afinogenov aside a few weeks ago and started teaching him two words a day. The first two were "dime" and "nickel." They advanced to "wallet" and "keys" the next day.
Ruff often makes sure Afinogenov is sitting next to Alexei Zhitnik during the game, so the defenseman can quickly translate during play. Zhitnik, who experienced the same hardship in his first two seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, has been trying to avoid interpreting because he wants Afinogenov to learn by himself. Don't let the rookie fool you. He understands much more than he can speak.
"If I translate for him every time, he's not going to learn," Zhitnik said. "In some ways, you're like a dog. You understand everything people say, but you can't say it yourself.
"In regular life, it's not that bad. In hockey, little things mean a lot. If the coach tells you to take the puck deep and you think he's telling you to stop at the blue line, you're not on the same page. It's confusing. It takes time."
It will take time for Afinogenov to learn the language, but he obviously has had few other problems. He has been living in a hotel but cooking and cleaning on his own. He speaks almost daily with his parents and sister.
Quietly, he goes about his daily regimen knowing there is more to come. Imagine what will happen in two years, when he has a better hold of the language and the NHL. It will happen while Katia starts making a name for herself on the tennis circuit. Yes, it is frightening.
"I don't know Maxim, but I know deep down inside he feels he can be the best," Macci said. "I know that because their parents think that and his sister thinks that. They're not wearing it on their sleeve saying, 'We're the best,' but they know that's their goal. You watch. You're going to have a brother and sister in the upper echelon of their sports at the same time. And, you know, that's rare."