MONTREAL - Only time will tell how quickly Alexander Radulov settles into life in Montreal. But if his previous stint in the province 10 years ago is any indication, it should take no time at all.
When he decided to take his hockey career to Montreal this July 1 after spending the last eight years in his native Russia, Radulov was following in the footsteps left by his younger self a decade earlier.
A few days before he was selected in the first round of the 2004 NHL Draft by the Nashville Predators, the Quebec Remparts landed the rights to Radulov with the ninth pick in the CHL's Import player draft. Arriving in the Quebec capital with limited knowledge about the city or the language, the Nizhny Tagil, Russia native had to rely on his hockey knowledge to help him acclimate.
"I didn't know a lot about the province of Quebec. I was a big fan of hockey, so I knew about the Canadiens and the Nordiques. I knew some of their big players like Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, and Mats Sundin," recalled Radulov, who joined the Remparts' organization a few days before his 18th birthday. "After I was drafted in the NHL by Nashville, my agent told me that the Remparts really wanted me and he thought it was a good idea to go play Junior in Quebec."
One of just three European players in the Remparts' lineup when he joined the team in 2004-05, Radulov had no choice but to put in a little overtime to help move the adjustment process along in his new digs. Faced with a completely different culture than what he'd known for the first two decades of his life, Radulov turned to his billet family and teammates to help learn a little more about life in Quebec.
"My first impression of 'Radu' was similar to what it was with a lot of the Russian guys. He came here to play hockey and he was really talented, but he basically had to adapt to pretty much everything around him. Everything was new to him," recalled Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who spent two seasons alongside Radulov with the Remparts. "He was pretty under-the-radar his first year with us. But in Year 2, he really came out of his shell.
"I sat next to him in the dressing room, and whenever he needed help finding his words - either in French or in English - I would help him out," continued the San Jose Sharks' blue-liner. "Away from the rink, his billet family really helped and he took English classes. He was out of his element off the ice, but when he was on the ice, he didn't need to know much English to be understood."
As Vlasic recalls, Radulov bonded quickly with the people around him, despite the language barrier. Present at every team dinner and outing, Radulov may not have been a master of either of Canada's two official languages, but he never had trouble working a crowd.
"It wasn't easy, but it was fun. I was 18 years old and I had a chance to live in a different country. I spent two years in Quebec City and I learned some words in French, but it wasn't easy. I was focusing most of my time on English since I knew it would be good for my career," explained Radulov, who moved out of his billet family's home in his second season to live with then-head coach Patrick Roy. "We also had a few Americans on the team who spoke English, so most of the guys on the team spoke it so everyone could understand. I was way more comfortable during my second year. I knew a lot more people and I could communicate easily since my English was better."
As his comfort level grew, so too did his stature in his adoptive QMJHL city. Radulov may have been able to remain discreet around the streets of Quebec in his rookie year, but by his second season, his star power was out in full force. He dominated on the ice in 2005-06, finishing as the league's scoring leader with 152 points in just 62 games.
Video: RIM@QUE: Radulov's seven-goal game in the QMJHL
Those numbers may have actually been slightly smaller had it not been for a little push from Vlasic before the last game of the regular season, when Radulov still hadn't locked down scoring title honors.
"Just before our final game of the year against Rimouski, we were sitting next to each other and he said he wasn't feeling well and had a bad stomach ache. I told him he needed to play because it was our last game, but he wanted to talk to Patrick to have the night off. I don't know if I'm the one who convinced him or if it was just his passion for the game, but he decided to play. And then he scored 11 points," remembered Vlasic, who recently captured the 2016 World Cup Trophy alongside Carey Price and Shea Weber as a member of Team Canada. "After the game I asked him if he was actually sick. He told me he still felt really bad. If he was able to get 11 points when he was sick, he probably would have had 20 if he'd been healthy!"
Performances like that over his two years with the Remparts - and the role he played in bringing a Memorial Cup title to Quebec - turned Radulov into one of the most beloved players in franchise history. The Bell Centre may be nearly 300 km away from his former Quebec hockey home, but the love he received at the old Colisee was still a major factor in his decision to return to la Belle Province this summer.