Vitali Kravtsov was 10 years old, a hockey player growing up in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, Russia, when his father, Yuri, told him there was one skill he needed to master if he wanted to play in the NHL someday.
"My father said you need to learn English, because if you go to the U.S. ever, or Canada, you need to speak in English," the New York Rangers forward prospect said. "It's the first language in the whole world."
Nine years later, the 19-year-old is speaking English almost fluently, confident enough to shoo away a translator and answer questions from the media himself at Rangers development camp in June.
It's a major step for Kravtsov, whose grasp of the language barely existed a year ago, when the Rangers selected him with the No. 9 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.
"I think that says a lot about who he is and where he's going," New York general manager Jeff Gorton said. "I think his eyes are on the right thing."
Video: Vitali Kravtsov scores on penalty shot
Kravtsov began to learn English with the help of his sister, a student at the University of Toronto. He hung out and spoke it with the North Americans on his Kontinental Hockey League team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, including former NHL players Ryan Stoa, Christian Thomas and Paul Szczechura.
Kravtsov led KHL players younger than 20 years old in goals (eight), assists (13) and points (21) last season, something Rangers forward Artemi Panarin also did. Panarin had 21 points (five goals, 16 assists) as a 19-year-old with Vityaz Podolsk in 2010-11.
"I can play better," Kravtsov said.
He began his push to prove that last month, when he moved to the United States. Kravtsov is living with a billet family the Rangers connected him with in Stamford, Connecticut. He speaks only English with them, including their three hockey-playing boys.
"I need this to talk to guys, understand the coach and what he says, talk to the general manager, talk with everybody," Kravtsov said. "It's better for me because I'm not in my town. It's easier to communicate here."
Kravtsov said his improving English has helped him feel at ease on and off the ice. It has fueled his confidence, which was on display along with his talent during development camp.
"What I saw was what I already knew about him, he's highly skilled," Rangers coach David Quinn said. "Development camp can be a little bit deceiving because it does have a bit of a summer hockey feel to it, there isn't a lot of physicality to it, but you saw the skill set, and I think he may surprise people with his size too (6-foot-3, 181 pounds). I think he's a little bit bigger than people think he is, but the thing I love about him is he can make plays at a high pace, high speed. That's what this game is all about, particularly at our level."
The Rangers believe Kravtsov has a solid chance to be in the lineup when they open the NHL season against the Winnipeg Jets at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 3.
"I think he's going to be right there," Gorton said.