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From Russia, with love

Igor Gratchev reclaimed his missing son, Maxim, 5, then fled to pursue an NHL dream

Maxim and Igor Gratchev will leave their Billerica home early tomorrow morning and head to Logan Airport, their flight plan scheduled to take them to Columbus, Ohio, their future -- once again -- uncharted.

"Whoever takes me, I'm fine with that," said Maxim, 18, pondering what team might select him in the NHL draft that begins tomorrow night -- a day he says he has anticipated his entire life. "I want to get my career started, work hard, get on a roster, and by the time I am 22 or 23 years old, I want to be an impact player in the NHL."

All in all, a typical teenage dream, one played out every June across North America and Europe, hundreds of kids eager to take their first giant stride toward an NHL career. To this point, their life has gone from learn to skate, to live to skate, to dream of one day skating for a living.

For the most part, that has been Maxim's tale, save for a very significant difference that began the day he was born in a Siberian hospital -- the same day his mother died.

"Every kid has a shot to make it in NHL," said Igor, 49, equally excited to see how the next couple of days play out for his only son, whom he has taught and coached since that day Maxim, holding on to a trash can for support, skated his first strides around Skate 3 rink in Tyngsborough. "It depends on character, and how hard they work . . . and parents, you know . . . they have to give a shot for their kid."

Igor was not in the Novosibirsk hospital when his wife, Helena, slipped into a coma in the midst of childbirth. A professional hockey player at the time, just when Russian-born players were finally starting to make their way to the NHL, he was out of town with his team that September day in 1988.

When word of complications reached him on the road, he hurried back to Novosibirsk, only to learn that Helena was already dead.

"Doctor mistake," said Igor, recalling that day earlier this week as he sat outside a suburban Boston skating rink, an early-morning sun offering the boundless optimism delivered on every summer's doorstep. "She lasted only eight hours."

In America, where we've grown accustomed to multimillion-dollar malpractice suits in such circumstances, similar trauma no doubt would have been followed by depositions and protracted legal wranglings. In Siberia, medical staff promptly handed Igor his newborn son and pointed him out the door.

"And they also gave me a scale -- you know, to weigh him -- and a few cartons of milk. That was all," said Igor. "Oh, and they also gave me a list of a few names . . . women who could help with biological milk."

Coming to America
Thus, the two Gratchev males, one wifeless and the other motherless, ventured into the world together. Maxim, obviously, was too young to know anything. Igor only knew the instinct to provide for his son, which was the same instinct that told him their life together would be somewhere other than Siberia.

For the first year, said Igor, he remained in Novosibirsk.

"I was around," he said, noting that his late wife's family was critical in Maxim's care. "I helped with all issues."

Maxim safe and provided for, Igor soon left for New York, with the idea that he one day would start a business teaching and coaching hockey, and ultimately return to bring his son to America.

"In New York, lots of jobs," recalled the elder Gratchev. "I worked for moving company, drove a limousine, and I worked for a hospital, as a [patient] transporter. I started to stable [sic] myself to save a few bucks."

In 3-4 years, said Igor, he saved enough money to bring Maxim to America. Prepared at this point to move to Boston, where he would start his hockey business (igorhockey.com), he returned to Novosibirsk, only to find his son . . . missing.

"My whole family had disappeared -- gone!" he recalled, soon discovering that his late wife's family had no intention of letting him reclaim his son. "They were thinking, 'You are a young guy, you won't take care of him.' He was gone. And they let me know, 'You won't find him.' "

The Russian legal system, said Igor, provided neither remedy nor relief. His trip to a Novosibirsk court, though, at least outlined a course of action.

"They told me, 'Look, there is nothing we can do, and in the end, you could spends lots of money . . . and have nothing,' " he said. "But they also said, 'He's your son, so you have all the rights to grab him and to take him wherever you want to go.' "

Not much in the way of tangible help, but it was at least a course of action.

Nonetheless, the question remained: Where was Maxim Gratchev? His father had no idea. In a city of 3.5 million, if that's indeed where Maxim still lived, the search could take forever.

"I find!" Igor pledged to himself.

For two months, the finding went for naught. No Maxim. Countless places to look, but no family to help.

"But I find a friend who helps me," said Igor. "And we find Max. He was in childcare, right in the city. He was 5 years old. I came to the place, and right away, he jump up in my hands. And that was it. We were gone -- right to the airport."

"I do remember that," said Maxim. "Funny, I was young . . . but I do remember it."

As could be expected, the itinerary had its agonizing interruptions. Gratchev planned to fly first from Novosibirsk to Moscow, then to the US. But according to Igor, Maxim's paperwork did not satisfy customs agents at the Siberian airport. One by one, as the four flights to Moscow departed that day, the elder Gratchev was left trying to sort out his son's documents.

"I was afraid," said Igor. "Without paperwork, they could grab him from me, and maybe I could never see him again."

Gratchev hurriedly made a series of calls to Moscow. The American consulate in the Russian capital, he said, was especially helpful. And an old hockey pal of Gratchev's from Voskresensk, a hockey hotbed outside Moscow, provided some critical financial support. The friend was Dmitri Kvartalnov, among the first Russian players drafted by the Bruins and a brief sensation on Causeway Street in 1992-93 when he played on a line with Adam Oates and Joe Juneau. Kvartalnov was among those on the ice in Tyngsborough that day when Maxim took his first skate.

"No way I can leave him!" the elder Gratchev recalled telling customs agents that day, ramp doors now having closed on three of the flights to Moscow. "It has to be me and him!"'

Finally, customs agents satisfied with word from Moscow, Igor and Maxim were allowed to board the fourth and final flight of the day.

"We walked on the plane," said Igor, aware the saga had played out for hours in front of passengers who came and went, "and people applauded."

Career day
Some 12 years later, there no doubt will be a smattering of applause inside Nationwide Arena, site of the draft, when Gratchev is claimed. Considered a crafty scorer who needs to improve his skating to make an impact in the NHL, the 5-foot-11-inch, 185-pounder is not expected to be among the picks in Round 1, which will be held tomorrow night.

The NHL's Central Scouting Bureau has Gratchev, a left winger, pegged as the 46th-best prospect available among North American skaters. Factoring in goalies or Europeans, he isn't likely to be claimed until the middle of the second round, and could fall to the third or fourth.

"But you could be surprised," said one local NHL scout, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "A team with multiple picks could take him higher, because yeah, his skating needs work, but he has that knack around the net."

Gratchev scored 35 goals and collected 77 points this season for Rimouski, his third year in the Quebec League. Prior to the Q, one of Canada's three top junior programs, he spent a year at Catholic Memorial and a year at Thayer Academy, his father planning that he would stay the academic course and play Division 1 NCAA hockey.

However, the Quebec Ramparts, operated by legendary NHL goalie Patrick Roy, claimed Gratchev in the league's 2004 draft, which abruptly brought father and son to divergent paths in the career route.

"Dad," said Maxim, following a visit to Quebec City, "I'm going to the Q."

What had it been, only 10 years before when Igor had to hustle his son aboard that flight in Siberia, one step ahead of a collapsed dream? Now here was that same boy, about to race after a dream of his own, his father the one left behind.

"Yes, that was hard," acknowledged Igor. "I gave him a month. He was saying he wanted to go, right away. But I said, 'No, I won't accept it. I am going to give you a month, and after a month, you give me your answer.' You know, for me, it's my first experience of my kid leaving the house, living somewhere else . . . a different culture, a different country. A very strange feeling. Bottom line, to be honest, I was worried about his lifestyle."

A month later, Maxim was back, his conviction the same. With his father's consent, he headed off to Quebec late that summer. Now, three seasons later, he's about to learn which one of the NHL's 30 cities could be his next destination.

"This has always been my goal," said Maxim, who dreams of one day emulating the daring rushes and scoring forays of Buffalo star Maxim Afinogenov. "After the draft, I'll be one step closer -- I want to be a great player in the NHL."

Sitting across a picnic table from his son outside the rink, the sun rising higher in the sky, Igor Gratchev stood for a moment and sought relief in the shade near the rink's front door. "Hot," said Igor. And as his son spoke, Igor stood for a moment in the shade and fidgeted with his shirt collar -- the way a man would on a hot summer's day, with life again about to take a turn.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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