|Defenseman Ruslan Salei |
Welcome to Ruslan Salei’s first taste of America: Wayne Newton singing ‘Danke Schoen,’ The Flying Elvises, Charo and Don Rickles.
“A huge shock,” is how the Panther defensemen now describes his initial impression of the U.S. And who could blame him?
Back in 1995, Salei took a leap of faith when, without knowing a word of English, he left his native Belarus at the age of 20 to play hockey in the United States.
In the now-defunct Independent League.
In the middle of the Strip for the Las Vegas Thunder.
A dozen years later, Salei, who will begin his second season with
the Panthers, looks back on his early hockey career as an education both on and off the ice.
“Coming to Vegas was really shocking because I thought the whole country was like that,” recalled Salei recently. “It was unbelievable. I got nothing. I got no English. I got no clue of what America is.”
For Salei, who set career highs last season in points (32), goals (6) and assists (26), his introduction to Las Vegas came via Bob Strumm, currently the Blue Jackets’ director of pro scouting and formerly the general manager of the Las Vegas Thunder.
“We had good contacts in Europe at that time and Russ had played on the Belarus national team,” recalled Strumm, who a year earlier had signed 17-year-old Radek Bonk and female goalie Manon Rheaume. “His name was given to me by somebody and we did a two-way deal with him. I think it was $40,000 at the top and $30,000 if he wound up in the East Coast League.”
Salei, whose development had stalled while playing in Russia for Tivali Minsk from 1993-95, signed the papers and came to America for all the bells and whistles of Las Vegas. For instance, the Thunder’s practice rink was attached to the Santa Fe Hotel and Casino.
“You could play a few quarters before breakfast,” Strumm said.
“I spent the first three weeks there without seeing anything else and I was amazed at how unbelievable is was,” Salei, 32, said.
Salei got to know teammates and fellow Russians who worked in the entertainment industry. But it wasn’t until several weeks that Strumm heard Salei speak.
“Russ didn’t speak English, and he didn’t smile, either,” Strumm said. “A few weeks after he arrived I was walking through a casino at about 3:30 in the morning and I saw him and he saw me. I walked over to him and I said, ‘Listen, I didn’t see you tonight and you didn’t see me.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ And that was the first time I heard him speak.”
Salei recalls the exchange.
“It was exactly like that, too” he said with a smile. “(Strumm) knows the story. I know the story. It’s pretty funny because, me growing up in Russia, you’d be in big trouble if you were seen by a general manager at 3:30 in the morning walking through a casino with a bottle of beer or whatever. But when he said that to me, I understood it.
“(Strumm) gave me a chance. He didn’t know me and he never saw me play. But he gave me a chance.”
When asked what he thinks might have happened if he had stayed in Belarus, Salei replied; “It’s tough to say. You know, that’s how life is. You never know what’s waiting behind the corner for you. It’s interesting how it went. I think I got kind of lucky. You get your chance, you get some luck, and you make of it what you can.”
And Salei did exactly that.
“I’m very proud of Russ,” Strumm said. “He outworked and outplayed everyone. He came to America and went from being undrafted to being the ninth overall pick (in 1996). He cracked open the door and saw the light.”
Drafted by the Ducks, Salei played 594 games with the Ducks and helped them to the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals (losing to the Devils). Before signing as an unrestricted free agent last summer with the Panthers, Salei had played the most games by a Duck defenseman and was the longest-tenured Duck.
It’s no wonder Salei had strong feelings this summer when the Ducks hoisted the Stanley Cup after beating Ottawa in the finals.
“I played there 10 years, played with the team pretty much all my life,” Salei said. “I was excited they went to the finals and I hoped they would win the Cup. When they held it up, I was a little sad I wasn’t there at that time. I think that’s natural, those feelings. I made my choice and my choice was to come here. It’s still my choice.”
Panther GM and coach Jacques Martin sees Salei as a player with “great ability to read the play, good toughness, and someone who can be physical.” But like all his players, Martin has higher expectations for Salei.
“He was a minus player on our team last year and it’s something we want to rectify,” Martin said. “We want him to be a plus player and continue contributing.”
Despite setting career highs with his offensive numbers, Salei said he wasn’t satisfied last season for one reason – the Panthers didn’t make the playoffs.
“You can be happy with personal stats, but I was not satisfied because we didn’t make the playoffs,” he said. “Personal stats don’t get you in the playoffs. Last year, I was given a little different role, I was given more ice time on the power play, so I had more points. But no playoffs, so I’m not satisfied.”
Salei believes his satisfaction could come this season, but only if the Panthers come together as a team.
“I think this is the main thing,” he said. “If you want to win anything, the main thing is chemistry. That’s the most important thing when you get to the playoffs. I’ve been to the playoffs. I’ve been to the finals. And the feeling is indescribable. But without chemistry you won’t win anything. You can have all the stars in the world, but you won’t win if you don’t come together.
“We have a lot of new guys and I think this is what we must work on most of all, getting the chemistry going. If we can do that…”
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