Nikita Meskin grew up around hockey, but the sport was almost taken away from him last summer.
Meskin was born in Samara, Russia, which is north of Moscow. He grew up in a hockey family, as his father was a former hockey referee in the Russian minor leagues.
"Everyone in my family loves watching it," Meskin said.
Although Meskin, didn't start playing hockey until he moved to the Pittsburgh area when he was 6 years old, he said he started skating at an even younger age in the hockey-crazy country.
"It's like football is here," Meskin said. "Kids start at an early age. There are ponds everywhere and you can go out and play all the time."
But as recently as this past September, Meskin's playing career was in jeopardy.
Toward the end of last season, Meskin, a student at Bishop Canevin High School who lives in the Greenfield section of Pittsburgh, often found himself having a heavy heartbeat following games and practices.
He finished out the season, which ended with a quarterfinal loss to Pine-Richland in the PIHL Class AA playoffs.
A few months passed and Meskin decided to have the issue checked out. In June, doctors found a problem.
"I had an irregular heartbeat," Meskin said. "They said I couldn't play hockey again until the problem was fixed."
After waiting to see if the problem would go away on its own, Meskin eventually opted to have surgery in early September. Doctors went in through one of the arteries around his heart and cut off the nerve endings to fix the problem.
Still, he wasn't sure if he could return to hockey.
"It was too late to sign on with an amateur team, but I still wanted to play high school hockey," Meskin said. "They told me I had to wait two weeks after surgery and then they would go back and make sure everything was OK."
So in mid-September, Meskin returned to the ice for the Crusaders. Despite not playing during the offseason, Meskin seemed to be in midseason form.
"You couldn't really tell he was rusty," Crusaders coach Kevin Zielmanski said. "We had a [preseason] game against Serra Catholic on Sept. 24, which is earlier than I usually like to play. [Nikita] asked if he could play and he played really well. I honestly could not tell you how he did it."
Meskin hasn't slowed down since then. A 6-foot-1 junior, he has been an integral part of Canevin's success, entering the week 8-1-1 this season with a league-leading .922 save percentage. He is second in Class AA with a 1.78 goals-against average.
Only twice has Meskin given up more than two goals in a game. One of those was against Chartiers Valley on Nov. 12, when the Colts scored four goals in the first 20 minutes before Canevin (13-1-2) rallied for a 6-5 win.
But in the rematch between the two Class AA Section 2 rivals Feb. 11, Meskin turned in his best performance of the season, stopping all 30 shots for his second shutout of the season.
It was also the first time Chartiers Valley had been shut out since Jan. 11, 2010.
"Except for maybe one game, he's been outstanding all season," Zielmanski said. "He was excellent against Chartiers Valley."
Meskin has gotten stronger as the season has gone along, winning his last four starts and allowing only four goals in that span.
His recent strong play may be connected to his offseason health scare. Because his future in hockey was unclear and he was unable to get on to an amateur team, he is playing a lot less often this season than he was in prior seasons. So now, he often has a few days off per week to rest so he is fresh for his next start.
"Last season, he was probably playing too much hockey," Zielmanski said. "One of the benefits of not playing with an amateur team is now, after our games on Thursday, he can rest a few days until we have practice Sunday night."
And most importantly, he has had no setbacks in his health.
"I've been fine ever since the surgery," Meskin said.