Hockey, Chipotle provide respite for Mudbugs’ Russian star

FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE: After a tumultuous couple of years, Shreveport Mudbugs forward Timofei Khokhlachev (22), a Moscow, Russia product, hopes to end his junior career with a Robertson Cup championship.

By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports

Instead of throwing his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame around the ice and creating havoc for opponents, 10 months ago, Timofei Khokhlachev was forced to watch the Shreveport Mudbugs capture the North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup on a computer screen.

In Moscow, Russia.

At 3 a.m.

Amid an uncertain and unsettling time in the world.

It was a bittersweet moment for the 20-year-old who sacrificed blood, sweat and tears alongside many of the players who lifted the Cup in Blaine, Minnesota.

“Sometimes I wouldn’t sleep,” Khokhlachev, who played with the Mudbugs for two years before the pandemic derailed the 2019-20 season, told The Journal. “I missed hockey and I missed everything back home.”

“Home,” as in Shreveport.

The Moscow product, whose requests for a visa — required to join the fight with his teammates — were repeatedly denied at the American embassy, didn’t just miss playing the game he loved, he missed Northwest Louisiana.

“I missed the boys and going to the rink and battling for one another,” Khokhlachev said. “I missed the team. I missed the Shreveport weather.”

And Chipotle.

Twenty-five months after a pandemic sent him to isolation in Siberia, Khokhlachev gets his final opportunity to lead the Mudbugs to the promised land. Tonight, Shreveport begins a best-of-5 first-round playoff series against rival Lone Star in North Richland Hills, Texas.

“It’s important to finish my career in Shreveport strong,” said Khokhlachev, whose first stop after his return to the states was to eat at Chipotle. “Seeing the guys win was unbelievable, but of course I want to do it myself. I want to be a part of it.”

However, the obstacles in the life of “Koko” didn’t end with his return to America. Midway through this season, things at home turned upside down with the start of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.

“Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on in these kids’ personal lives,” Mudbugs head coach Jason Campbell said. “We all know what’s going on over there.”

Khokhlachev’s morning routine is even more important these days: Wake up, eat breakfast, practice, call his family.

“I talk to them as soon as I get off the ice,” he said.

Hockey is no longer just the fuel to the fire that burns inside Khokhlachev.

“It’s an escape,” he said. “I love showing up to the rink every day and getting my mind off a few things and focusing on putting the puck in the net. It’s huge for me.”

Khokhlachev can certainly put the puck in the net. He tied for third on the team with 15 goals in the regular season and is the franchise’s all-time NAHL leader in game-winning goals, despite the lost year.

“He knows what it’s all about here. He’s a great player,” teammate Austin Brimmer said. “It’s really rare for a guy that size to move as well as he does. He has skill, experience and size. In the (locker) room, he’s an unbelievable guy to have.”

Other locker rooms may have proven to be a challenge for Khokhlachev, especially in today’s political climate marked by tasteless hot takes.

But even when Shreveport boasted a professional team, coaches demanded recruits parlay talent and character in order to be considered for a Mudbugs sweater. Things haven’t changed under Campbell.

“We don’t worry about it at all,” Campbell said. “If something is said that hits a nerve, then somebody can respectfully step up and guys won’t get their feelings hurt. That’s where character comes in.”

Brimmer understands that sometimes Khokhlachev might just need an arm around his shoulders or a pat on the back.

“He knows we’re here for him,” Brimmer said. “He’s one of my best friends.”

Khokhlachev provides an unmistakable presence on the ice, and Campbell has seen no sign of No. 22 being distracted.

“The best thing is his work ethic,” Campbell said. “There is no off switch for him. He never stops. He works so hard and wants to improve all the time. He’s a pleasure to have around and he can lead by example.”

His high energy level actually worked against the powerful forward after a year away from the game.

“He plays so hard he puts himself out of position,” Campbell said. “He’s so full of energy that we were trying to calm him down.”

Khokhlachev had ice in Moscow, but he was limited to pick-up games with his brother, Alexander (a former NHL player), and other countrymen – some professionals, but most waiting for clearance to return to leagues around the world.

“The first couple of weeks (back with the Mudbugs) were tough,” Koko said. “I had to adjust to the speed. Some of the muscles weren’t working yet.”

He’s firing on all cylinders now.

Said Campbell: “He played a big role in the last playoffs we had him for (2019). It will be interesting to see. We’re going to lean on him.”

Khokhlachev turns 21 in June and is committed to play NCAA Division I hockey at American International College in Springfield, Mass. No matter how long the Mudbugs’ run toward a repeat lasts, he will always remember the chaotic end to his junior hockey career and how valuable Shreveport and its hockey franchise proved to be.

“It’s been really important,” he said. “There are multiple things going on in life. The boys have done an unbelievable job — not just taking care of me, but the rookies, the young guys — whatever they’re going through. You can go to anyone in the locker room and talk and they will be there for you. It’s priceless, amazing.”