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Galchenyuk: The vagabond journey to Pittsburgh

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Penguins

Resting in the foothills of the Alps in northeastern Italy is the small town of Asiago. Green plains stretch across a landscape that houses only 6,500 residents and sits atop Italy's largest plateau.

Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio called Asiago the "smallest and brightest town of Italy."

Asiago is most notable as the origin of asiago cheese. It is less notable for its love of hockey.

Every summer youth hockey players from across Europe gather in the town to take part in a hockey camp. The camp is run by Alexander Galchenyuk, who became a folk hero in the region after helping Asiago win the Italian hockey league championship in 2001.

Accompanying Alexander in running the camp is his son and namesake, Alex.

"As a family with my dad we hold the camp in the summer there," Alex Galchenyuk said. "You'd be surprised how many kids actually like hockey in that town."

When Alex looks down at the youth skating around cones and rushing through drills, he could be looking at himself. From the ages of 5-7, Alex called this town home while his father suited up for Asiago HC from 1999-01.


A post shared by Alex Galchenyuk Sr. (@galchenyuksr) on

It was in these plains that he learned the Italian language, his love of Italian food and his passion for hockey, all of which stay with him today.

Not much has changed in "the smallest and brightest town of Italy" over the past two decades. The same can't be said for Alex.

Alex's life has changed drastically since his youth. And even more dramatically the month before he arrived in late July for the camp.

Reminders of his most recent change surrounded him in the small town he once called home.

In a video produced for the campers, footage of Galchenyuk playing for the NHL's Arizona Coyotes was used. Posters printed out for the campers had Galchenyuk's image in brick red, desert sand and black.

But when Galchenyuk took the ice with the campers he was wearing a bright gold jersey with the Penguins emblem displayed. That's because on June 29, the Penguins acquired the winger from Arizona in exchange for Phil Kessel and a fourth-round draft pick.

"It's funny because even when I was playing for Montreal or Arizona there would always be a lot of Penguins t-shirts (at the camp)," Galchenyuk said. "It was special doing the camp playing for Pittsburgh because you sign so many t-shirts and jerseys with the logo you'll be playing for."

Galchenyuk had completed his first and only season in Arizona in 2018.19, picking up 19 goals and 41 points in 72 games, after spending the previous six years in Montreal.

But as he was preparing for his second campaign in the desert, he received a call from Coyotes general manager John Chayka.

"Things move really quick, especially in this league," Galchenyuk said. "At one point you're training and talking to your agent, getting ready for the season with one team and then a couple days later you're in Pittsburgh.

"Your first reaction is that you never want to get traded as a player. But when you do, you hope you end up on a team like (Pittsburgh). It was exciting from that point."

That excitement was evident when Galchenyuk spoke with Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford on the phone following the trade.

"I talked to Alex (and) his excitement was coming right through the phone," Rutherford said on that late June day. "He's very excited to come here."

A few weeks after the trade, Galchenyuk visited Pittsburgh to search for a new home in his new home. And while in town, he toured the team's facility at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

"I won't be able to sleep tonight I'm so excited," he said while walking through the state-of-the-art training center. "It's top-end. It's definitely the nicest practice facility I've ever been. You can't ask for better."

"Hockey was like my best friend"

The most difficult question for Alex Galchenyuk to answer is "Where are you from?"

By lineage, Galchenyuk is Belarusian. But by right of being the son of an international hockey father, Galchenyuk's journey has taken him all across the globe.

Galchenyuk is an American citizen having been born in Milwaukee while his father, Alexander, played for the Admirals of the IHL in February 1994. But his life as a vagabond began even before his first birthday.

After Milwaukee, his life included stops in Germany, Michigan, Italy, Russia, Italy (again), Switzerland, Russia (again) and Belarus. Galchenyuk was more well-traveled by the time he turned 10 than most foreign diplomats.

Despite the constant changing of life and language (he speaks three: English, Russian, French), Galchenyuk didn't realize how unique his childhood truly was.

"As a kid it seemed totally normal," Galchenyuk said. "Your parents go to this country, to this city, dad's playing hockey so you play for one (youth) team, then you play for another team. Slowly growing up, you think, 'We moved quite a bit, and from country to country.' "

"You look back as a kid and you spent so much time in Europe, which has so many nice places and I experienced so many different cultures, and great food."

While every new country had its own unique history, culture, language and charm, there was one constant for Galchenyuk: hockey.

"It was tough because you have friends and then you move schools," Galchenyuk said. "But hockey was like my best friend. You move from one country, one city, but you still play the same game. The rules are the same.

"When you get there, you make new friends with your teammates. Then you move to another city, and it's a routine. Hockey always kept me happy with (each) move."

Galchenyuk was only 20 months old when he put on his first pair of skates and hit the ice. Hockey was in his blood. And his father made sure his son followed in his footsteps.

"I don't think I had a choice (to play)," Galchenyuk laughed. "I obviously loved the game, and turned out to be pretty good at it."

As Galchenyuk pursued his own hockey career, he made a decision to go "home." That would be in the United States.

"When I was younger my parents had to visit the United States once a year because they just had green cards," he said. "Every time we'd land back my family would say, 'Son, welcome home' because I was born there. I was the only one with an (American) passport."

Galchenyuk and his family moved to Chicago, where Alex played minor-midget before joining the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.

While with Sarnia, Galchenyuk was reunited with an old coach. His father, who coached Galchenyuk during his early teenage years, was an assistant coach with the Sting.

"He started as a skills coach doing the same drills he's done with me my whole life, they just added a whole hockey team," Galchenyuk said. "The coach got fired so he moved up to an assistant. It was unique and different. It's cool to look back and say we did it."
Of course, Galchenyuk made sure to refer to his dad as "coach." He learned that lesson in his early teens.

"He was my coach when I was playing in Russia at 12, 13 years old," Galchenyuk said. "I remember I called him dad once and I didn't call him that for a couple years until I was in the NHL. Then it went back to dad."

Though he grew up playing hockey around the world, Galchenyuk stayed true to his roots. When it came time to play hockey on the international stage, Galchenyuk had a few options. Considering his background, he was eligible to play for several countries.

Ultimately, Galchenyuk chose the United States. 

Happy Independence Day #USA

A post shared by Alex Galchenyuk (@agally94) on

"It always seemed like home," he said.

Though he played a long portion of his youth hockey in Russia, the country never recruited him to play for the national team.

"I never got a call from Russia," Galchenyuk said. "When it was time for me to decide for whom to play the U.S. was the first one to call. I said, 'Let's go for it.'"

Russia would come to regret that snub. In the 2013 World Junior Championship, held in Ufa, Russia, Galchenyuk suited up for the Americans. Galchenyuk's eight points (2G-6A) in seven games helped lead the U.S. to a gold medal in the tournament, on Russian soil. 

"It was so cool that we won," Galchenyuk said. "(Russia's snub) lit a fire. We had a really good team. It was a fun tournament to play in."

Back to the Start

Alex Galchenyuk's introduction to Pittsburgh was during the summer of 2012. The city was hosting the annual NHL Draft, and Galchenyuk was expected to be one of the top players selected.

Galchenyuk and other top prospects took part in various activities around the city during the week leading into the draft. They took a trip to the top of Mount Washington to recreate a famous photo of Mario Lemieux in the same spot from his 1984 draft year. The prospects rode the Gateway Clipper and even played a game of ball hockey on the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

The experience left a lasting impression on Galchenyuk.

"Back then I knew it was a great sports city," he said. "There were so many cool events. (We played) hockey on a bridge. That was something that I've never done and it was so cool."

But all those events couldn't take away the stress of the main event.

Galchenyuk exploded for 31 goals, 83 points in just 68 games for Sarnia in his first season in the Ontario Hockey League in 2010.11. But a knee injury nearly erased his entire 2011.12 campaign - his draft year. Though he was able to return for the final two regular-season games and six post-season appearances, Galchenyuk still entered draft week with a lot of uncertainty.

"During your draft year you look at the rankings and you go from three to 15 to five, and there's nothing you can do it about it," Galchenyuk said. "You're just sitting there rehabbing and playing Call of Duty.

"Coming into the draft I didn't know where I was going."

Luckily, Galchenyuk didn't have to wait too long. His Sarnia teammate, Nail Yakupov, was selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers. After Ryan Murray was taken by Columbus at No. 2, the Montreal Canadiens were on the clock.

"Montreal is proud to select from the Sarnia Sting … Alex Galchenyuk."

It's every young hockey players' dream to hear their name called at the NHL Draft. Although Galchenyuk didn't quite have that luxury.

"To be honest I didn't hear my name," he said. "The second I heard Sarnia Sting I knew it was me. I didn't even hear my first or last name."

But that doesn't matter. Galchenyuk had been drafted, making him one step closer to realizing his dream of playing in the NHL.

The NHL experienced a work stoppage for the onset of the 2012.13 campaign, so Galchenyuk returned to Sarnia. And he tore up the league.

Galchenyuk scored 27 goals and 61 points in just 33 games for Sarnia. He then won the gold medal for the United States at World Juniors. After the NHL and NHLPA agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement, Galchenyuk got a call to report to Montreal for a five-day training camp.

"I was so nervous during training camp," he admitted. "I did not want to go back to juniors. I came in really prepared to crack the lineup. When you get a taste of it you want to stick around."

Galchenyuk made his NHL debut on Jan. 19, 2013 against Toronto. And things did not start smoothly.

"The first time I touched the puck I had a turnover and the guy was going to other way and almost hit the crossbar. I was like, 'Oh my God,'" Galchenyuk laughed. "But it was a dream come true."

In his following game against Florida, Galchenyuk scored his first NHL goal. Planting himself in front of the Panthers' Scott Clemmenson, he tipped a shot in for the milestone.

But Galchenyuk's nerves didn't subside until after the fourth game of the season. It was at that time the Canadiens had to choose between keeping him or sending him back to his junior team.

"I was told after four (games) that I would be a full-time NHLer," Galchenyuk said. "You made it then. You make it when you're told you're sticking. That for me was huge. When you get that green light, it's special."

Galchenyuk played in all 48 games of that strike-shortened season. In fact, he would spend the first six years of his career with Montreal, which included a 20-goal and 30-goal season. In the summer of 2018, the Canadiens traded Galchenyuk to Arizona.

In his lone campaign with the Coyotes, Galchenyuk notched 19 goals and nine power-play goals on a team that scored the third-least (tied) amount of goals in the league.

And now Galchenyuk's career is coming full circle. It all started in Pittsburgh at the 2012 NHL Draft. And Galchenyuk returns to Pittsburgh, but this time wearing a Penguins sweater.

"That's what made coming back as a Penguin so special," Galchenyuk said, "because you saw the environment and how everything was professionally done (at the draft)."

Déjà vu, all over again

A 25-year-old Galchenyuk retraced his 18-year-old steps on a warm July day in Pittsburgh. He landed at the same airport and took the same drive through the Fort Pitt Tunnel into downtown. He stopped to walk across the same bridge upon which he once played a game of ball hockey. And he even went to the same restaurant for dinner.

There was one change, though.

"Different meal," Galchenyuk chuckled. "Bigger meal this time."

Oh, and one more change. This time around, Galchenyuk arrived in Pittsburgh as a member of the Penguins organization.

"It brings back so many memories," he continued. "It's always in the back of your head. You got drafted (here). I don't think many people would forget that day. It makes everything so much more unique and special."

Galchenyuk has grown as a player and person over the past seven years.

"You make mistakes, acknowledge them and learn from the mistakes," he said. "You're trying to mature your game, what's right and wrong, keep good habits, keep working on it."

Galchenyuk is looking to take his game to the next level in Pittsburgh. He's already achieved the dream of playing in the NHL. Now he has championship aspirations. And looking around the locker room he sees names like Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Guentzel and Murray.

"Being here in Pittsburgh is such a great opportunity for me," Galchenyuk said. "You get a chance to compete, a chance to win, but also you get an opportunity to learn from the best players in the world. It's special."

After finishing his (bigger) meal, Galchenyuk returned to the airport. Later in the summer he would find himself working out in Miami with Evgeni Malkin and moving into his new home in Pittsburgh. After battling through some early-season injuries, Galchenyuk would score his first goal as a Penguin on Nov. 25 against Calgary.

But as he wrapped up his first visit in late July, he gathered his gear and suitcase for a trip to the airport. Galchenyuk had a plane to catch for Italy to a small town in the plains known mostly for its cheese, but also its passion for hockey. A town that left its mark on a well-journeyed youth whose life and career is coming back to the start.

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