A Strange World for Rookie : Kings: Ukrainian Zhitnik adapting to U.S. culture, sometimes entertainingly.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Making the move from a Lada to a Lexus was a symbolic one for Alexei Zhitnik and every word the salesperson spoke was making his wallet that much lighter.

A special stereo system?

Yes.

A car phone?

Yes.

How about a special voice-activated car phone?

That seemed too much, even for a wealthy young hockey player, who was learning his first few words of English. The warning alarm went off in agent Ron Salcer's head. He turned to his client and urged caution.

"Alex, you're a young guy," Salcer said. "You deserve this. But the phone? Who are you going to call?"

Zhitnik looked at Salcer and said, "Now, I call nobody. One year from now, I call many people."

The phone stayed and Zhitnik drove off the lot, trailing teammate Darryl Sydor.

Sydor said, "Follow me," and Zhitnik took him literally, following Sydor through four-way stops.

It was typical Zhitnik. Ever since he stepped into the dressing room during training camp, his abundant talent as an all-around defenseman has drawn raves from his teammates, his coaches and from opposing players. But his even greater talent for saying and doing the hilarious has kept the Kings as upbeat as possible during this schizophrenic season.

Welcome to Moscow on Manchester.

For every story the Kings have to tell about him delivering a crushing hip check, there is one about the zany Zhitnik's headfirst jump into American culture. Zhitnik, 20, is as unflappable and calm on the ice as he is off it.

His favorite saying, borrowed from teammate Marty McSorley, is, "You can't do that."

Zhitnik applies it to nearly every situation, but he can and will do anything. He drove the Lexus without a license before finally taking his written test in Russian. He had a car, so why shouldn't he drive it?

"There were 70 questions," Zhitnik said of the test. "The first time, I had maybe 10 mistakes. Next time seven and last time three."

Said Sydor: "When he first came over, he was a very scary driver. He's OK now. I think he just picked it up from driving with us."

Zhitnik also has modified his diet. Initially, he was on a pace to put away every piece of chocolate cake in Southern California. But after gaining 10 pounds, and feeling sluggish on the ice, Zhitnik changed his eating habits and lost the extra weight. Several days in a New Jersey hospital with flu helped in that regard.

Asked about his fondness for chocolate cake, Zhitnik shook his head, saying: "Not now. First few months, it was every day, a couple times. Cake, muffins. Now, little pieces."

Reported defenseman Rob Blake: "He watches what other people eat. He likes airline peanuts. He was mad there were no peanuts on TWA when we were coming home from St. Louis. His thing now is angel hair pasta and Caesar salad. Oh, and Sprite with no ice."

Zhitnik, who makes his living on the ice, has a certain hang-up about ice.

"He thinks he gets sick from ice in his drink," said Corey Millen.

As if on cue, Zhitnik coughed.

Everyone laughed.

That's the way it has been all season. The Kings try to top one another with Alex stories.

There was the time at Blake's house when Zhitnik needed a cab to go home. Blake told Zhitnik to run upstairs to grab a phone book.

"It's too big," Zhitnik yelled from upstairs.

"Just grab it and bring it down," Blake repeated.

Still nothing. Blake finally went upstairs and found Zhitnik on his way down with the cumbersome fax-phone in his arms.

"I started laughing," Blake said. "When I told him what I wanted, he started laughing, too."

Zhitnik once even tried to play a joke on Blake. Earlier in the season, Blake, Millen and Warren Rychel were on the radio, dispensing advice on KROQ's "Love Line." With his cover as "Serge from Manhattan Beach," Zhitnik called in and asked, "Why does Rob get all the girls?"

Several days later, the topic came up again when the Kings were playing the Edmonton Oilers. Zhitnik scored on a wicked slap shot, blowing it past Oiler goaltender Bill Ranford. Zhitnik skated back to the bench and sat down.

"Hey, Serge," yelled a teammate. "That's how you meet the girls."

Sometimes, King Coach Barry Melrose and assistant Cap Raeder have to sprint back to their office, so they don't start laughing in front of the team.

"He's a great kid," Melrose said, laughing. "We just love him. He loses his ties all the time. The big thing is ties. I'll bet you he's lost four ties this year."

Zhitnik, from the beginning, was protected and accepted by his teammates. That meant, though, that he had to endure the usual taunting any rookie gets, although he didn't understand much of it. On a trip to Vancouver and San Jose in November, Zhitnik took a toothbrush. Nothing else.

When they got back, McSorley noticed that Zhitnik had no luggage and teased him all the way to the parking lot. Soon, with help from Sydor, Zhitnik enlarged his wardrobe.

"They went out shopping and now they wear each other's clothes," Melrose said. "They have the purple suit. They have the maroon suit. Syd and Alex are the same size."

Zhitnik and Sydor have developed a special relationship. They are the same age and have been thrust into larger roles with the Kings by necessity. Since the Paul Coffey trade, Zhitnik and Sydor have been averaging 18-22 minutes a game. Zhitnik, who had seven goals and 26 assists in 63 games before Tuesday night's game, has been playing the point on the power play.

Both joined the Kings as teen-agers. At 19, Sydor played in 18 games with the Kings but spent a good part of last season in juniors at Kamloops, Canada. Zhitnik, who turned 20 last October, is from Kiev, Ukraine, and had quickly matured playing for the Red Army national team and then the CIS Olympic team at Albertville, France, last winter.

The dictatorial Soviet coach, Viktor Tikonov, took a liking to the baby-faced defenseman and put him in advanced settings, playing with the likes of Pavel Bure at the World Junior Championships and against all the world's elite players at the Canada Cup and World Championships. By the time the Kings were able to sign him in September, Zhitnik wasn't a typical teen-age defenseman.

His assimilation moved along much more quickly when the Kings decided to have him live in Manhattan Beach with Sydor and another young defenseman, 22-year-old Brent Thompson. Blake, all of 23, lived nearby and took on the role of older brother.

"We've got a pretty good friendship," Sydor said. "It's fun. I learn a lot from him. I don't know if he learns a lot from me. I ask him a lot of questions about what it's like back home and when he got sent to the army. One of the good things is that I'm Ukrainian, too. I don't speak too much Ukrainian."

Zhitnik interrupted, saying, "His parents speak very good."

Sydor said: "We went to Edmonton once and I took him home for dinner. It was kind of like a good home-cooked Ukrainian meal."

Zhitnik generally shows more animation and expression off the ice. The trademark of the Soviet system was composure in all situations. When Zhitnik scores or sets up a goal, his teammates show more excitement than he does. Now, he has reached the stage of putting an arm in the air. In one recent game, Raeder was stunned to hear Zhitnik swear in English and make an angry gesture on the bench.

Melrose likes what he has seen.

"This isn't fair to Alex, but he skates like (Bobby) Orr," Melrose said. "We watch films of Orr all the time and he moves like Orr, that kind of bow-legged way. They're the same size.

"Alex will be great if he ever learns to keep that shot of his below three feet in the air."

Ever since the Kings were blitzed twice in one week by Washington late last month, Melrose hasn't stopped talking about the Capitals' strong defense. Melrose sees people talking the same way about Blake, Sydor, Zhitnik and Thompson. As a former NHL defenseman, he relishes watching Zhitnik take a hit from Chicago's Jocelyn Lemieux and then sneaking up and leveling him with a decisive check minutes later.

"Cap and I love him," Melrose said. "I love the way he plays. He's a '90s defenseman, mobile. He's strong, has a big shot and sees the ice very well. He can play both ends of the rink. The days of the guys who can only play one end of the rink are over."

The ups and downs of his rookie season and his entry into the strange world of the United States have hardly fazed Zhitnik.

He watches everyone else, keeps learning and then picks his spots, as he does on the ice.

"I always remember when someone hits me," he said.

And he knows when to retaliate.

"Not right away, always," he said. "Maybe after five, six minutes. Because maybe right away he's ready."

Zhitnik doesn't need to do everything right away. But he is prepared, as he is ready to eventually make all those phone calls from his Lexus.

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