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Colorado's Hockey Melting Pot

The Avalanche locker room features a blend of cultures and languages

by Ron Knabenbauer @RonKnab /

A version of the following story appeared in the 2018-19 third edition of AVALANCHE, the official game magazine of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club. For more feature stories, purchase a copy of the magazine during Avs home games at Pepsi Center. All proceeds from game-magazine sales support youth hockey associations in Colorado.

Ice hockey is a global game and the NHL is at the center of it internationally.

The best players in the world suit up for one of the league's 31 teams, making each a melting pot of cultures, languages and customs, and the Colorado Avalanche is no exception.

The Avalanche is a microcosm of the global reach of the sport with players from five European nations joining their teammates who learned the game in the United States and Canada. The Avs' 2018-19 squad includes representatives from four American states, six Canadian provinces and the countries of Finland, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland.

"Hockey is such a great sport. It can bring people from all over the world together in situations where you might not get to meet or be close with," says defenseman Tyson Barrie, who was born in Victoria, British Columbia, but also played in Germany, Florida and California as a kid while following his father's professional career.

For Mikko Rantanen of Nousiainen, Finland, his father didn't play pro hockey but his parents' love for the sport was passed down to him. Rantanen grew up going to games of TPS Turku in the Finnish pro league as a fan and eventually played at the pro level with TPS prior to being drafted by Colorado at No. 10 overall in 2015.

When Rantanen arrived in the U.S. for his first season with the Avalanche organization the ensuing fall, his experiences on and off the ice took an adjustment. He had only been to North America twice before, both times to Canada while playing tournaments with Finland's national team.

"I was here for eight months. It's a lot different than being here for two weeks," Rantanen says. "It was kind of eye opening the first year, for sure. You learn the way of life here and the things they do here."

Rantanen's experience of playing professional hockey before turning 18 years old with TPS isn't that uncommon for European players. Club teams outside of the United States and Canada are often part of a pro team's development organization. As players progress by age and skill, they often compete on older teams and can even play at the senior men's level as teenagers.

Defenseman Patrik Nemeth went through just that.

The Stockholm, Sweden, native played for the AIK organization as a youth and eventually skated in parts of three pro seasons with the men's team in the Swedish Hockey League before making the jump and skating for the Dallas Stars' American Hockey League club.

"That was the first time I moved from home," Nemeth said of traveling to Texas as a 20-year-old for the 2012-13 campaign. "It is just a different atmosphere. We had a good team when I played in Texas, so there was a lot of competition. It helps in the long run, but when you get there, it can be pretty tough. It's a challenge mentally."

Zurich, Switzerland, native Sven Andrighetto also played pro hockey in his native country's second-tier league, but he didn't immediately play against men when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Andrighetto competed at the major-junior level for two seasons with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey before the Montreal Canadiens selected him in the third round of the 2013 draft.

"It was always my dream to play in the NHL. I thought it was a better chance, more competition here than in Switzerland," says Andrighetto of playing junior in Canada. "Here, there is so much competition, so many more players, so many good players that have that same dream and goal. I wanted to come over here and measure myself and learn. Learn new things and just get better myself."

The move paid off for Andrighetto, but he notes that the route to the NHL for Europeans isn't one size fits all.

"There is a bunch of other guys that stayed in Europe, developed in Europe, got older and better in Europe and made the jump later," he says. "Then there are guys like me who decided to come over here earlier at 16, 17, 18, and then go from there. There is no right or wrong way. You have to find your own way."

Once in the United States or Canada, the biggest adjustment from an on-ice perspective might be getting used to the size of the ice.

Most Europeans grow up skating on international-sized sheets, which are roughly 15 feet wider than the NHL-sized ice that is employed in most arenas and local rinks in North America.

The larger ice surface means more space to work with, allowing teams to be more strategic when they maneuver the puck up the ice.

"It is a little different on how you play the game over there," Nemeth says of the bigger ice. "You're holding onto the puck. If you don't find a play, you can turn back. It's a little slower. So when you come over here, you want to play north, you want to play fast, so that can be a little bit of a transition sometimes if your team doesn't play that way in Sweden."

The North American game has developed into one of remarkable speed. The faster a club can get the puck out of its own zone and up the ice to create a scoring chance, the better.

Part of the reason for that style is because there is nowhere to hide or find space to reset like on international ice. Players either have to move the puck up or be forced to gather it from the back of their own net.

"The pace of play is way different here, it's quicker," says Rantanen. "Things happen faster here. I actually like it more with the small rink, but that was the thing for me, to get to know the playing style here. It's slower and more tactical in Finland."

Andrighetto also likes the smaller ice surface, but he also doesn't mind playing on the larger ones of his youth.

"Obviously with the smaller ice, it's a lot faster," Andrighetto says. "Which I like the fast game, but you also have less time with that in mind. On the other hand, it's a little slower on the bigger ice, but you have way more time with the puck. It's a little give and take, and I like both a lot and I like playing on both."

For Europeans, it's not only adjusting to a different playing style that comes with competing in North America but the language as well.

English is the primary form of communication at almost all levels of the sport in the United States and Canada. It's spoken on the ice by coaches, in meetings and often in the locker room among teammates.

The benefit for the European players is that most of them can speak more than one language, but outside of the United Kingdom, English isn't usually their first choice.

Switzerland is one of the most diverse countries in the world when it comes to its languages with its citizens often knowing English, French, Italian and Swiss German, the latter of which being the primary form of communication. Even though Andrighetto took a little English and French in school growing up, it wasn't until he played junior hockey with Rouyn-Noranda that he improved his use of the two tongues.

"My first year in Rouyn, I used the opportunity where other guys would go to school, I would go to two English classes," says Andrighetto of mastering the language. "That is how I learned English and obviously just talking the whole time and watching movies and things like that. My second year I went to a French school, so I picked up French."

That is not to say that everyone has as easy of a time learning English, and that is even the case for some of those that learned and played the game on the west edge of the Atlantic.

The province of Quebec is one of the most linguistically diverse places in North America and more people speak French than English throughout the province. Outside of Montreal, many people only speak French and that is the case in Roberval, the hometown of defenseman Samuel Girard.

Girard didn't know English until he began junior hockey with the Shawinigan Cataractes in 2014. Even though he was still playing in the province of Quebec, the practices were run in English and it forced Girard to learn a new language.

"I remember my first day in junior, I wasn't able to speak English. The only words I could say were yes and no," Girard recalls. "I was getting better every day in practice because all of the practices, all the meetings were in English. We got a couple guys too that only spoke English, so that helped me a lot."

More than four years later and with help from tutors and teammates, Girard is now comfortable with using the English language and fits in well in the Avs' diverse-speaking locker room.

"It's probably one of the most important languages in the world, and it's pretty fun right now to speak it," says Girard. "I'm not going to say right now my English is perfect, but I understand most things."

One language that everyone on the Avalanche speaks is the game of hockey.

"We're all from different corners of the world and we all had different upbringings, different family situations, different backgrounds, guys speak different languages, but we're all here working toward a common goal," says captain Gabriel Landeskog, who hails from Stockholm, Sweden. "That is what is awesome about it. We find common ground in the game that we love."

There are no easy routes to the NHL, and each player has had to battle their own kind of adversity to get there. That resilience breeds mutual respect for one another and builds a stronger unity among teammates.

"What I think is cool is everyone's journey," says Nemeth. "You look at how everyone got here, everyone has a different story. Some guys were really good when they were younger, went high in the draft. And there were other guys who were late bloomers and might not have been as good when they were young, but they grew into the players they are today."

They are now part of a special 23-man melting pot that few professional athletes on other sports teams get to experience, and what might make it truly unique is they've all come to Colorado with one goal in mind: to help win a championship.

"It's a special league to play in," says Barrie. "It is what we are all blessed and privileged to be playing in. It's nice that we can all come together, put aside any of our differences that you have and compete for one goal. Become one family and be best buddies with everybody, it's pretty cool."

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