There are go-to guys in every National Hockey League dressing room. Players who attract a crowd of reporters after practices, not necessarily because of what they do during the games, or in between them, but because of what they say.
Go-to guys are good talkers. They speak in complete sentences, seldom drop into cliche, give context, possess a good sense of humour and provide the writers and the television types with the coveted quotes they need to build a story.
Nikolai Kulemin is not a go-to guy. He is more like a medieval fortress surrounded by a moat full of Russian-speaking crocodiles with a taste for tape recorders. Few journalists will venture over to Kulemin's stall in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room, and when they do, there are no easy sound bites to be had - unless they speak Russian. Kulemin is Nikolai the Unknowable, unless you happen to be the Leaf sitting next to him.
"He has really come out of his shell with me," says Tyler Bozak. "We have gotten pretty close by playing together, and by sitting together in the dressing room. He is a great guy. He is really a lot of fun to joke around with."
Kulemin appeared at that moment, and with some uncanny comic timing - and no obvious cue - yanked Bozak's baseball cap down over his eyes.
Kulemin knows all about flying blind. When he landed in Toronto as a rookie last season, just about the only things he knew how to say in English were
"Hello" and "I need a translator."
"When I got here my first year, I didn't know anything in English," he says.
"The game style was different, and life was different. And it was a hard time for life. You need to change everything in your life, and it was hard to start playing well right away. This year, I feel more comfortable. I know the game style. It is faster here, and I was ready to play this year."
He is also ready to talk. Turns out Nikolai the Unknowable has a lot to say.
For instance: Kulemin wears number 41 with the Leafs, but he wore number 14 in Russia. Not because his hero wore number 14, but because his birthday is July 14. One of his actual heroes is his father, Vlademir, a firefighter in Magnitogorsk. Some of the others include Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov.
The 23-year-old is also married, has a one-year-old son, and if he ever invites you to have dinner at his place with his Russian wife, Nataly, he would serve his favourite dish - "Russian soup" - made from authentic Russian ingredients.
"I can't say what they are in English," Kulemin says. "There is a big Russian area in Toronto at Bathurst and Finch. Russian shops, Russian grocery stores, but no Russian restaurants."