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Crossing the pond: Blue Jackets' European rookies get used to U.S.

Five players from overseas have made the transition to North American culture, hockey

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

When Vladislav Gavrikov first saw American soil, it likely wasn't the impression of the United States he got as a child hearing about such metropolises as New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. 

Instead, the Russia native and his Lokomotiv Yaroslavl teammates were dropped into rural Pennsylvania. 

The effort to rebuild the Yaroslavl team in the years after the devastating 2011 plane crash that left every member of the roster dead led to the establishment of an annual summer training camp in Manheim, Pa., just outside of Lancaster, as the franchise tried to find an edge to rebuild it for the rigors of the KHL season.

Outside of one three-day trip to New York City each year, the Yaroslavl players were treated to farmland and silos for a month at a time. 

"That's a long time," Gavrikov said. "We lived in like a village -- nothing around. We just practiced -- get in the car, go right to the rink, practice and that the car back. It was boring."

In other words, Columbus is practically a thrill to Gavrikov compared to his first exposure to the U.S. As it turns out, a city of Columbus' size is more his speed than a New York City, a much more livable alternative to one of the world's most populous cities. 

"For me, Columbus is better than New York to live," he said. "(NYC might) have more restaurants and things to do, maybe more fun, but to live I choose a city like Columbus because it's so close. It takes like 15 minutes at most to drive somewhere. It's also fun. It's really good. I can spend more time with my family if I want. It's really nice." 

Gavrikov's new experience in Ohio's capital city is one he shared with four of his teammates entering the season. The Blue Jackets opened the season with five rookies on the roster, and each member of the quintet -- Gavrikov, Elvis Merzlikins (Latvia), Alexandre Texier (France), and Emil Bemstrom and Jakob Lilja (Sweden) -- hailed from overseas.  

For all five of those players, starting the season with Columbus led to a transition to a new culture in some ways. 

For Merzlikins, the biggest one is food. The 25-year-old goaltender is both excited by and worried about the food situation in the United States, where his stomach enjoys many of our more iconic dishes -- perhaps a little more than it should. 

"The burgers are so good, and the chicken wings," Merzlikins said. "I really like tacos - really good. Those are things we don't have over there. Even the portions here are really big." 

And then there's the foods Merzlikins can't get that he could in his adopted hometown of Lugano, Switzerland. The city is in the southern region of Ticino, a Swiss peninsula that juts into Italy, and as such Italian customs are the norm in Lugano. 

That led him to lament a certain high-quality cheese he found with ease in Lugano but can't locate in Columbus. 

"It's not the same here as in Europe," he said. "The mozzarella -- I don't see yet from the stores, the fresh mozzarella as we have from Italy. Trust me, the taste is really different. It's not the same as you guys have. Maybe I am spoiled." 

Alexandre Texier, who grew up in Grenoble in southern France, agreed that finding a quality cheese can be a chore. Otherwise, the food is pretty similar to what he's used to, as France has access to the same types of food -- sushi and steak, for example -- that are the staples of a professional hockey player's diet. And if he wants a quality French meal, there are restaurants for that, too.  

For many of the players, the biggest adjustment has to do with the hockey itself. Yes, there are strategic differences in the way the game is played -- the European game is played on a rink 15 feet wider than the American rink, so everything happens faster in North America -- but there's also different customs to training and recovery. 

Bemstrom said that in Sweden, there are fewer games but more time is spent practicing, as the Blue Jackets might spend only an hour on the ice on a non-practice day and don't always have a morning skate before a game. 

"It's more free time than back home in Sweden," Bemstrom said. "You practice a lot more back in Sweden. There's more games here and you travel a lot. You have to take care of yourself." 

Texier also pointed to the travel as a point of interest. He spent last year playing in Finland, which is similar to Sweden and Switzerland in that a cross-country road trip doesn't mean a 3,000-mile flight from one coast to the other.  

"We travel a lot," he said of what surprised him about coming to America. "We have some travel in Finland, but we leave in the morning, you play and come back after the game. You can spend every night at home. Now we leave and it's different, but it's the best league in the world." 

It also helps each player that connections have been made upon arriving in the States full-time. Gavrikov and Merzlikins have forged a friendship, as have their significant others, while Texier has bonded with such teammates as Bemstrom -- the two were together throughout summer workouts in Columbus -- and fellow French speaker Pierre-Luc Dubois. Lilja and Bemstrom have an obvious connection as well having played together a year ago with Djurgårdens IF in Sweden. 

The players also admitted that for an American moving overseas, it might be a little more difficult, but the ubiquity of American culture has helped ease their transition coming this way. 

"You kind of knew what the U.S. is like," Lilja said. "You aren't surprised too much. It's a good country. Sweden is a pretty small country, so of course we know a lot about the U.S. You know what you're expecting when you come here." 

Merzlikins also spoke highly of the friendliness he's received from his new neighbors in the city of Columbus. 

"The people are really nice," he said. "Same as in Switzerland. When you walk the dog, they stop, they pet him, they ask how he's doing, how you are doing. They wish you a good day, so it's nothing different compared to Switzerland." 

Columbus has players who hail from nine different countries on the team, making it the most international squad in the NHL. It's always a transition for some of those players to get used to the oddities and peculiarities of America and its culture -- Texier, who debuted late last season, said it can take a month or two -- but playing at the highest level of hockey also provides the chance to see the world. 

"It's a new adventure for myself and for my wife," Gavrikov said. "It's something new every day. It's really fun." 

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