For an 18-year-old hockey player with no grasp of the English language and minimal understanding of the culture around him, the rink can be a sanctuary. The simple task of ordering a meal at an American restaurant can be daunting if all you speak is Russian, so lacing up the skates and taking the ice should be the one thing that makes you feel connected to the world.
Yet there was 39-year-old Sergei Gonchar guiding Valeri Nichushkin around the ice during a practice earlier this season, showing him the proper lanes and positions to take on the smaller North American surface.
Nichushkin’s first season with the Dallas Stars is one adjustment after another, both off the ice and on it. There’s nothing he can take for granted.
“It’s one of those things he would probably figure out because he’s a talented guy,” Gonchar said. “But I wanted to make it a little easier for him.”
With the support of people inside and outside the Stars organization, Nichushkin is learning on the fly about what it takes to play in the NHL as a newcomer to the league and the United States.
The Stars are reaping the benefits from teams’ concerns about selecting a Russian with ties to the KHL after grabbing Nichushkin with the 10th pick in the 2013 draft. “If he was playing in North America, he’d have been top-five on everyone’s list,” Stars GM Jim Nill said. Nichushkin is eighth in rookie scoring with nine goals and 22 points in 47 games after he had zero goals and two assists in his first 12 games.
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Some young Russian players prefer the cozy confines of the KHL to the rigors of adjusting to the NHL. The decision comes down to whether a player is willing to leave his family and friends behind to live in a new culture with a new language, and the struggle for NHL teams is gauging a player’s willingness to make that difficult choice.
When Nichushkin was available at No. 10, Nill had no hesitation about calling his name at the draft.
“I saw him lots during the year and interviewed him before the draft and had real good discussions with him,” Nill said. “He was committed to coming over. You could tell when you talked to him that he wants to be in the NHL. He wants to be one of the best players in the world and he wants to play in the best league in the world.
“He made a commitment. He said, 'I’m coming.' With any player, there’s that risk. But right after we drafted him, he was on a flight to Dallas and spent the whole summer here.”
It’s been an especially impressive season for Nichushkin considering he has to do almost all of his communicating with teammates through Gonchar, who acted as a translator for this story.
“Hockey is the same,” Nichushkin said through Gonchar. “It’s the ice, a stick and a puck. It’s all the same. I love it.
“The only problems are the challenges of everyday life. I don’t have any idea what people are speaking about.”
Nichushkin arrived in Dallas with great expectations that have only grown during the first half of the season—Jaromir Jagr believes he will be the best player in the NHL at some point during his career—but he also brought along zero knowledge of the American culture and English language.
That’s where the Fletcher family came into play. Paul and Sandra Fletcher are friends with Stars president Jim Lites and immediately volunteered their help and home for Nichushkin, who needed a place to live upon arriving in Dallas in July. Paul had toyed with the idea of having a player board with his family over the years, but the father of two teenage daughters had a concern that had nothing to do with his inability to speak Russian.
“I wanted to wait until the girls get out before we do anything," Fletcher said, "because we don’t need a hormonal teenage boy in the house.”
The timing didn't work out exactly how he hoped. His oldest daughter, Zoe, is away at college, but Robin has yet to graduate high school. In a way, Nichushkin's temporary residence was a gift for their hockey-playing son, P.J., a 12-year-old who was raised in a house with two older sisters.
“My son has always been asking for a brother and my wife and I are done having kids," Fletcher said. “I always joked with my son, 'The only way you’re going to get a brother is if he tries out (for the Stars) and he’s from Russia or Canada.' I wanted a hockey player. Sure enough, we not only get a Russian, we get a good hockey player who makes the NHL.”
The Fletchers became surrogate parents to Nichushkin, helping him grow acclimated by constantly engaging him in English and taking him shopping for a car and suits. Nichushkin spent nearly six months with the Fletchers before moving into his own apartment, which he shared with his mother and sister for several weeks before he began officially living on his own.
Life with the Fletchers was a crash course in American living and a learning experience for all parties involved. Nichushkin's English improved during his stay and led to what Paul referred to as “Val-isms.”
“When he couldn’t understand what the hell we were saying, that’s a Val-ism,” Fletcher said. “ 'Normal.' 'No, it’s fine.' 'No, it’s OK.' Even when he’s gone, we still say the Val-isms like he would. 'It’s OK, no problem.' ”
“They helped me a lot,” said Nichushkin, who played his fair share of Xbox with P.J. “And not only with the language but living-wise. I was by myself and they did pretty much everything for me. If they weren’t there, it would have been much harder for me to adjust.”
Six months immersed with an American family helped, but there are still times when Nichushkin feels like an outsider with the Stars. It’s especially tough for him because, by all accounts, he’s a very outgoing person but has no one besides Gonchar with whom he can have conversations.
If Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are having a laugh in the locker room, Nichushkin can only guess what’s so funny. He is doing his best to learn the language and be part of the group, but he’s limited in that regard right now, which leaves him feeling unintentionally isolated at times.
“There is a bit of it because I want to be part of the conversation when someone says something,” Nichushkin said. “But I don’t have enough words I know so I can join in.”
Seguin is sympathetic to Nichushkin’s plight, having spent time in Switzerland during the most recent lockout surrounded by people who didn’t speak his language. Seguin had Patrick Kane as a teammate, but there were plenty of times he felt like the odd man out in the bilingual city (German/French) of Biel/Bienne.
“His English is really not good at all,” Seguin said. “He’s still learning. It’s tough for him. A lot of times we find him just sitting there. We try to help. I’ve been in his shoes before. When I played in Switzerland, I felt the same way at times, too.”
“He knows the hockey language,” Benn says, “but just normal conversations, he doesn’t really know what’s going on.”
Gonchar was in a similar position when he arrived in North America from Russia nearly 20 years ago, but he may have had it even worse. The first lockout that wiped out half of the 1994-95 season resulted in Gonchar playing for the Portland Pirates of the AHL. There was no one who could translate the language for him the way he has been helping Nichushkin. There were no apps on cell phones that could keep him in the loop.
“Down there, I had a Russian guy, but he didn’t speak English,” Gonchar said.
Gonchar acts as a translator on the ice during practice and in games. Nichushkin understands most of the hockey concepts, but sometimes Gonchar will have to relay instructions from coach Lindy Ruff or teammates from time to time. It’s not necessarily a burden at practice or during a break in play, but sometimes things happen so quickly that the language barrier can be an issue if Gonchar isn’t around.
Where should he go if the Stars win the faceoff? What if they lose the faceoff? Should he go to the net? Should he hang out a little higher in the attacking zone? Does he need to do a defensive switch? Which guy should he take?
Nichushkin knows how to work a power play, but sometimes the little things that need to be done quickly can be the bigger challenge.
“Especially in the heat of the game, when your partner tells you something on the ice right before the play to do this or that, and you have to understand right away, that’s pretty much the toughest part,” Gonchar said. “When you have more time and you’re not playing, you can think about it a little bit more. It’s a little easier, but the toughest part is during the game when you have to do it right away.”
But as the season has progressed, Nichushkin’s natural talent along with his desire to learn the language have made the transition as seamless as one could hope. Ruff decided to make Nichushkin a healthy scratch in two games last week in an effort to give him a mental and physical break in his first 82-game season.
The 6’4”, 213-pounder has played well enough to earn a spot on Team Russia for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, where he will become the second 18-year-old to represent his country from the NHL since the league began sending its players in 1998.
The only other player to do it was fellow Russian Ilya Kovalchuk in 2002.
Nichushkin's shortcomings with the language haven’t prevented him from speaking up when he doesn’t understand what’s happening either during a game or in practice. It’s an attribute that has helped him almost as much as his physical ones.
“For the most part, he’s pretty good now,” Ruff said. “He can understand, but when he doesn’t, he asks, which is good. A lot of times when I yell out a drill, he’ll ask Sergei right away because he doesn’t quite understand what we want out of him, which is good. I think some young guys are afraid to ask. He’s not afraid to ask. He wants to make sure he gets it right.”
Nichushkin said it’s the difference between night and day comparing what it was like for him when he first arrived in Dallas and today.
“I’m feeling more comfortable,” Nichushkin said. “My teammates are helping me. I’m more used to the system and the NHL. My comfort level is very high. It’s getting better now since I came here.
“Now when I go to the restaurant, I manage to know what I want and manage to order.”
“It’s amazing because I just had dinner with him Sunday after the game against the Islanders,” Fletcher said. “He can express himself. It’s coming. It’s slowly coming. It’s definitely progressed.”
If this is the type of season Nichushkin can have as an 18-year-old still learning about the NHL and North American lifestyle, maybe Jagr’s proclamation that Nichushkin will one day be the biggest star in the league isn’t so far-fetched, especially if he’s receiving this type of help from everyone in his life.
“It’s kind of cool because I know exactly where he’s been to a certain extent with the English and stuff,” Seguin said. “There’s a lot of growing pains. I’m trying to help him through it all. He has unbelievable talent and skill. He’s still learning the game and has to figure out a little bit more about the game. But he’s a heck of a hockey player.”
“We’re trying to show him the way and teach him how to play this game over here in North America,” Benn said. “He’s going to be a good player in this league for a long time.”
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.