I think being a fan of Maxim Afinogenov is a lot like having a child. You hear about him a lot before you actually get to see him, and the expectations depend on who you talk to. He finally shows up and it takes some time getting used to, but you become attached nonetheless.
Soon enough he’s growing up right in front of your eyes. He goes from callup to “guy on the roster” to borderline star, and every once in a while he does something that completely and utterly amazes you.
All of a sudden he’s made the leap into adulthood, and making you proud in the ways you always hoped he would. He scored 73 points in 77 games in 2005-06, and 61 points in 56 games the next season. Max had gone to college on a full ride, graduated and started curing little babies of terrible diseases. Life was good.
But suddenly he has an accident. He slips and breaks his arm at the hospital. He starts taking pain medication and gets addicted. After that he’s never really the same. His hand is too shaky, and so he can’t be a doctor anymore. What’s worse, he doesn’t get another job and keeps spiraling downward.
He moves back in, starts getting into more trouble, and soon enough he’s on the streets, a homeless Russian with shaky hands and very limited skill set. Eventually he slips into a life of crime and goes to prison. You were at the first few trials and supported him, but eventually it became too much. Although you care about him and wish him well, you’re really hoping he stays in Chicago when he gets released from the halfway house he’s currently staying at.
For the record, we’re nearing the end of that story here. It’s not an exact replica, but it’s a good comparison when you think about it. We saw the rise and fall of a hockey player during his nine seasons in Buffalo, and I think a lot of us still don’t know what to make of it. Like a befuddled parent we look back on his career and wonder what happened? Where did it all go wrong?
A few days ago I had a short conversation about Afinogenov with twoeightnine that got me thinking about all this. He wondered how much Max’s “physical” wellbeing had affected his game, and by the time I responded to that suggestion he had already corrected his statement. He was talking about Max’s psychological state.
What that made me realize is that I have no idea what happened to this guy. I completely misunderstood what he was trying to say, but that conversation still makes sense. We haven’t even begun to narrow the conversation of “what happened to Maxim Afinogenov” down to a handful of potential answers, and I think it’s going to stay this way for a while.
All I know is that sometime in the last two years this player has gone from the most exciting player on the ice to dead man walking. Two years ago he brought fans to their feet just by playing the puck at center ice, and now we groan when he has it along the wall and whisper about a trip to the KHL.
Do you remember the trade deadline? Fans were clamoring for his departure. Cut him. Sell his contract. Trade him for something. Anything. Max himself said he wanted out, and ratted his coaches out by saying he was perfectly healthy and sitting on IR. So what happened?
Well, Darcy tries to trade him and didn’t get any takers. That’s right, Maxim Afinogenov was on the trading block for 29 other teams and no one wanted him. This is a league in which the Sabres traded Andy Delmore, but Max was untradable?
Since the deadline Max has come back and played surprisingly well. He has eight points in 12 games since returning from injury, and has played with a fire we haven’t seen in months. Murmors crop up from the HSBC Arena crowd when he gets the puck at center ice. The noise pales in comparison to what he once heard, but the sound is distinct: they remember.
We may never understand the whole story, but the truth is that we all know what’s happening to Max right now. Maxim Afinogenov’s contract ends on July 1, and he needs to play well enough to impress one of the other 29 NHL teams looking for free agents. The trade deadline gave him the answer he needed: no one is impressed with him anymore.
This means Max needs to start all over again, and he doesn’t have a lot of time to do it. I’m sure he’s still a good teammate and wants to make the playoffs as much as anyone (maybe even a bit more), but it’s pretty obvious the reason for his motivation. Max is playing on borrowed time, and he’s looking to impress before his time runs out.
I suppose this is a good thing, but it does mean that the end is coming. Maxim Afinogenov has a handful of games left as the longest tenured Sabre, and that means a lot when you consider what he’s seen. Max has played over 560 games as a Sabre. He arrived just after a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, lived through the down years and the bankruptcy. He was here for the post-lockout surge, and the downfall that has followed. Ownership change, color change, rules change; Max has lived through it alongside all of us, and it’s unusual to have that in a player these days.
I’m not going to be terribly distraught when Max goes, but it is interesting to note how significant his departure is. He’s the last remaining link to the good old (new) days, the last player left who might have hit the ice when it was called “Marine Midland Arena.” To be honest, that makes me feel a little old.
Tonight is what looks to be my last Sabres game of the year. Since I only wear hockey jerseys when I’m at a game, this is the last realistic chance I have of wearing my Afinogenov jersey before it hits the pickup rotation. As much as I want people to yell “Goose!” at me in the hallways, I think Max deserves a proper, if not personal, goodbye.
You have to admit, it’s been a long, strange ride.