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An Assist for the Goalie

by Hannah Becker / Boston Bruins

BOSTON – When Anton Khudobin came to North America to further his hockey career, the Russian-raised goaltender didn’t speak a word of English. Now, over six years later, the 24-year-old speaks the language with little hesitation.

Khudobin was born in Kazakhstan, but raised in Russia, where he started his hockey journey playing for the Magnitogorsk Metallurg. He first moved across the Atlantic when he joined the Saskatoon Blade of the Western Hockey League for the 2005-06 junior hockey season.

At just 19-years-old, Khudobin moved from Russia to Canada. The move required an adjustment period for the young hockey player, who said having a supportive Russian-speaking family around him was only helpful.

However, upon joining Saskatoon, Khudobin began to realize that learning the English language would be essential to his development as a hockey player. Determined to better understand the team systems and the coach’s teaching words, Khudobin developed his own techniques to learn the language.

“If I would be around the guys for something and they would ask me something and I didn’t understand… I had a small book, like a black book, and I just told them, ‘just put in there’ and as soon as I came home, [the family] would explain it to me and I would know what they asked me next time,” Khudobin remembered.

“And if I couldn’t ask something, I would just write it down in Russian and I would ask my Russian family.

“So that’s how I learned English.”

A resolute Khudobin was intent on grasping the language, but despite support from the family and teammates, sometimes felt he was a bit of a nuisance to those helping him learn. 

“When I talked to the guys I was bothering them sometimes, and they [couldn’t] just explain to me and I would say, ‘What are you trying to explain to me?’ he said.

“I wasn’t close to talking English. Even if I would talk, if I wouldn’t understand or something like that, I just tried to tell them, ‘guys can you explain or talk a little bit slower for me so I can understand better?’”

Now 24-years-old and with his second NHL organization, Khudobin has become a role model and leader for his younger teammates—especially Russian-raised defenseman Yury Alexandrov.

Alexandrov was born in Cherepovets, Russia and played five seasons with the Severstal Cherepovets before venturing to Providence, R.I. where he joined the Bruins organization prior to the 2010-11 campaign.

Having never had to read or speak English in Russia, the 22-year-old Alexandrov came to the United States with little understanding of the language, but ever since Khudobin joined the Providence Bruins well into the second portion of the season, the two have developed a mentor/mentee relationship.

“We talk in Russian language at home and off the rink,” explained Khudobin. “But on the rink when some guy is asking him a question or something like that, or he asks me, ‘Can you explain to them something’, I just told him, ‘If you want to learn English, just try to talk and I’ll help you with a hard sentence or what he can’t really explain.

“So I just made him talk English everyday—just a little bit—and told him if he can answer it, just answer it. If you can’t I’ll help you.”

Many players can relate to the situation in which Alexandrov finds himself.

Quebec native Patrice Bergeron spoke little English before joining the Bruins, and Czech Republic-born David Krejci picked up the language after he came to the United States to play junior hockey.

Thankfully, Alexandrov is in the unique position of having Khudobin as a teammate who can directly empathize with his experience and can help him along the way.

"We had set up tutoring lessons for Yuri and it was definitely helping his communication skills," said Boston Bruins Assitant General Manager Don Sweeney. "But when Anton came in, what he was able to do was take the literal translation, give it to him, but then have Yuri refine his English.

"It forced him to come outside [of his comfort zone]," he said.

Alexandrov and Khudobin's common ground made for a good jumping off point for Yuri to push his language limits.

"Sometime when you have language barriers, you're searching for that word in the context and [Anton] would be able to give it to him, but would require him to at least extend himself," added Sweeney. "So that way he was trying to think in English.

"Anton is very, very good and very, very fluent in both languages.

"He's a sharp kid...and Anton is coming into the organization and reaching out to a younger kid, which is great," he said.

“It’s not usually lots of Russian guys who are playing on the same team,” explained Khudobin. “Plus, I understand this is just his first year here.”

“When I played in the first year it was hard for me. So I kind of understand what is going on. So I try to just help him. I try to just to be on his side and if I can do something for him that will help him, I’ll help him.”

Since the two have connected on a learning level, Khudobin said he can see an improvement in Alexandrov’s ability to communicate with his teammates and coaches.

“I handled everything pretty well. Of course it's my first year and at the start of the season, in Providence, it was a little bit different,” Alexandrov said through Khudobin’s translation.  “You can't speak and you can't talk to other people without English and you can't explain to them. But it was just at the start of the season, but right now, this year has been good.”

Khudobin continues to share his story with Alexandrov and push him to learn and develop, in the knowledge he has a friend to rely on for help.

“I just told him, don’t be shy,” said Khudobin. “Guys will understand you, guys will help you. They’re your teammates; they’re your team.”

“And if you can’t understand, I’ll help you."

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