For Russian hockey players, coming to America means a world of change. Imagine moving 5,000 miles away from home, not speaking the language and having to relearn your trade. Even the most familiar thing – the rink – is a different size.
For Kirill Petrov, a seven-year Russian pro vying for a spot on the Islanders, this seemingly overwhelming situation is his reality. But thanks to Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin, he’s battling through the adversity and is challenging for a roster spot as training camp enters its final week.
Grabovski and Kulemin can relate to what Petrov is going through. They too came over from Russia, but made successful transitions to the NHL and living in North America thanks to the help of Russian teammates who took them under their wings. Neither knew Petrov before he came stateside, but they both knew what to do: pay it forward.
“It’s a little bit tough for him to communicate with the guys and coaches,” Kulemin said. “We do our best to help him fit in and feel comfortable. I know how hard it is.”
The language barrier is the biggest hurdle, so that means Grabovski and Kulemin are translators as well as teachers.
“He’s asking a lot of questions every day. I don’t think anybody has ever asked me so many questions,” Grabovski said after the team’s practice Thursday. “Day to day stuff, ‘where do we go?’… ‘what time?’ In practice all the time asking about drills.”
Petrov said he was grateful for Grabovski and Kulemin’s help and that the rest of the Islanders were making him feel comfortable, even if they can’t have the most in-depth conversations.
“For the language barrier that he has, Kulemin and Grabovski have been great for him, as far as helping him along with the systems and communicating,” Capuano said. “He’s a big body, he’s played physical and he’s got a really good scoring touch. He’s starting to understand the systems and the way we want to play. It’s probably a little different than what he’s used to playing, but I’ve been impressed up to this point.”
It’s a big transition, but being at the rink is relatively easy. Whistles start and stop drills, a tapping stick calls for a pass in any language and meals are prepped by staff and caterers. The North American game is faster and more physical, but with constant reps, it can be learned quickly by those willing to adapt. Petrov said he’s getting the hang of it.
“The first game against Philadelphia, the first 10 minutes it was hard to get used to, but then he got used to it,” Petrov’s translator told the media Thursday. “It’s not a major problem; it just needs a little bit of time. He is ready to play on small rink.”
Life can be harder away from the rink. Long Island can be tough to navigate without a car and even simple tasks like ordering food – he’s currently living in a hotel, so cooking isn’t a viable option – are difficult if you don’t speak the language. Grabovski and Kulemin invite him over for dinner and take him to stores. Petrov’s agent and girlfriend are now here to help as well.
“It’s hard to move here. Everything is new: stores, banks, everything is different,” Kulemin said. “Everywhere you need to talk to people, you don’t know any English, it’s hard.”
The situation causes Grabovski and Kulemin to reflect on their personal journeys. Kulemin relied on Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Nik Antropov and Alexi Ponikarovsky, while Grabovski leaned on Andrei Kostitsyn while playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs.
“I didn’t speak English at all,” Grabovski said. “I was in the same situation as him right now. It takes time.”
Grabovski sought out an English teacher while he was injured in Hamilton and said he had a lot of support from teammates while he was learning North America and North American hockey. He jokes that he felt comfortable after scoring his first goal.
For Kulemin, things took a little longer. He said it took him nearly two years to feel comfortable on his own in Toronto, equipped with enough English and know-how to navigate Canada’s biggest city. Kulemin scored 15 and 16 goals in his first two years in Toronto and 30 in his third – also the first year he hooked up with Grabovski.
Petrov’s transition first depends on whether or not he makes the Islanders, but he’s still here as the training camp roster gets smaller and smaller.
“We have some competition, but he’s right there,” Capuano said.
To that, the Russian forward can say two of the new words he’s learned: thank you.