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FEATURE: Billet Brothers and Best Friends Reunited with Devils

Three members of the OHL's Ottawa 67's Attended Devils Development Camp last week.

by Amanda Stein amandacstein / NewJerseyDevils.com

NEWARK, NJ - Take a moment to speak with Devils prospect Nikita Okhotyuk and you'd never know.

Sure, his English is broken, and you can see the wheels turning in his brain to try to translate the question he's being asked. But this time two years ago, Okhotyuk did not know a single word in English. 

"When I came to Ottawa, it was camp, and I couldn't speak English - like, zero," Okhotyuk said.

Clearly, that's no longer the case. 

He picked up the language so quickly, he doesn't shy away from participating in interviews.  

The Devils second-round 2019 pick grew up in Chelyabinsk, Russia and played his junior hockey for his hometown team. When he was selected by the Ottawa 67's 16th overall in the 2017 CHL Import Draft, he decided to make his way to North America and leave his native Russia for Canada. When he arrived in Ottawa he was placed with a billet family, joining his new teammate and fellow Devils draft pick, Mitch Hoelscher. 

"Mitch is my best friend," Okhotyuk said. 

"When he first came over he didn't know much English," Hoelscher said. "He didn't know many of the guys and I think I just tried to help him as much as I could. There was a lot of Google Translate on our phones back-and-fourth. But he's really smart and picked it up really quick." 

On top of being teammates in the Ontario Hockey League, they're both New Jersey prospects and currently billet with the same family in Ottawa. Hoelscher was drafted in 2018 and couldn't be happier to see his friend at an NHL development camp with him.

"I remember texting our billet mom," he said. "She was saying that he was going to Ottawa so that he was closer to her, and I was joking that he was going to go to New Jersey. Two hours later, I'm texting her saying 'oh my god it happened! He's coming to New Jersey!'"

At home with their billet family, Okhotyuk asks a lot of questions. He credits Hoelscher for helping him the most with learning English. 

"At home he'll ask me questions like 'what was that?,'" Hoelscher said. "I remember when he first came, [Nikita] was like 'what are the boards? What are the blue lines?' Stuff like that, just like words, so it's pretty cool."

Hoelscher also points to the 67's locker room as a big part of helping Nikita adapt to life in North America. 

"I remember there was [teammate] Seva [Losev] who spoke Russian and we were in a video session and he was translating to Nikita so he could understand," Hoelscher said. "Our coach stopped the video and was like 'no, no more Russian. You have to learn English.'

"So, that's kind of how he started."

Okhotyuk and Hoelscher weren't the only Ottawa 67's at camp. Forward Graeme Clarke was also in attendance after he was drafted in June with the 80th pick. The three can be seen chatting endlessly now, but it wasn't always like that. 

"I think our first skate I tried to say hi to him and he didn't know how to respond," Clarke shared. "He just kind of looked at me, then now, you can have a full-on conversation with him and he actually makes jokes and stuff, so it's pretty crazy the transition he's made and I definitely think it's helped him on the ice as well, just being able to talk to his teammates and everything, it's good."

Okhotyuk will admit though, despite the high praise from his Ottawa 67 teammates, there is a sense of relief during development camp knowing that Binghamton assistant coach Sergei Brylin was around and on the ice. Sarge could often be found near Okhotyuk during drill explanations, with the 18-year-old relying on the three-time Stanley Cup winner to make sure he was properly following. 

"Oh yeah, of course," Okhotyuk said. "He always talks to me, I understand him and know him. It's much easier on the ice when the coach shows us something quick, but I just look at Sergei, he tells me right away how to start, so it's much easier." 

What also made development camp a relatively smooth process for both Clarke and Okhotyuk was having Hoelscher around. Hoelscher attended in 2018 and knew the ropes. 

"It makes it a lot easier for sure," Clarke said. "Looking across the room and you see two teammates, it's definitely a nice warm feeling and [Mitch] was here last year so he kind of helped show me around and stuff, so it's good." 

"Yeah, it's awesome and I have Russian guys too so that always helps," Okhotyuk said. "But, I'm really happy for my teammates; they fit me, and I fit them. Mitch is my best friend, so it's really good to be with him again."

Tough Questions With… Mitch Hoelscher

What sports rivalry did you enjoy most growing up?  I didn't really have one outside of hockey. It would be Toronto and Montreal, for sure. 

What movie could you watch over and over again no problem? Probably 'Step Brothers', you watch that one on the bus a lot playing in junior hockey.

What's the most expensive thing you've broken or felt really guilty about breaking? Actually, I was working at a golf course and I was doing grounds. It was in the morning and my brother's car was parked on the end of the driveway and I was taking my dad's car to work. It was really early and I backed up and scraped my dad's car on my brother's car. My dad was pretty good with me, but I think deep down he wasn't too happy! 

This might be an obvious one for you, Mitch. But what language do you wish you could speak fluently? Probably Russian, so me and Nikita can talk more and when his dad comes to visit we can communicate.

What food do you crave the most?  I'd say steak, I'm a big steak guy.

What meal can you best prepare for yourself? Oh, I'm pretty good at cracking eggs [laughs]. 

If you weren't a hockey player, you'd be pursuing? I grew up playing lacrosse, my brother played junior for a while, so I think that would be somewhere I'd go. Or something involved in hockey, I think.

What's the longest road-trip you've ever taken? I think [my family] went to Florida one year. We drove down, it was like two days straight.

Is a hotdog a sandwich? No. 

If you could experience the life of any character on tv, who would it be? Barney [Stinson] from 'How I Met Your Mother'. I've been watching that recently, definitely him.

What chore do you least like doing? Probably doing the dishes, I hate doing the dishes. But I have a really good billet in Ottawa and she doesn't make us do the dishes! 

 Tough Questions With… Graeme Clarke

What was your favorite sports rivalry growing up?  I'm from Ottawa, so I liked watching Ottawa and Toronto. 

What movie could you watch over and over again? Probably, Happy Gilmore

What's the most expensive thing that you've ever broken? When I was young, and I had just got my license, I crashed my car. I got into a rear-end with a guy. I was like 16. 

What's the least favorite nickname you've been given?  My name is Graeme, so a lot of people call me cracker sometimes. That's probably my least favorite. 

What meal can you best prepare for yourself? I can do chicken and pasta pretty well. 

What food do you crave the most? Big pizza guy. Just simple peperoni and cheese. 

If you weren't a hockey player, you would be?  Probably a golfer.

What's the longest road-trip you've ever taken? 10 Hours on the bus from Ottawa to Saginaw, we got stopped at the border so it really took a while.

Is a hotdog a sandwich? No.

What chore do you least like doing? The dishes, for sure the dishes. 

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