Russian Hockey Players Become Fan Favorites for Wolves

Russian hockey players become fan favorites for Wolves 

By Emily Griffin

The Watertown Wolves had just secured yet another win, besting the Mentor Ice Breakers 7-2. It’s just past 10 p.m. when the players lumber out, still sweaty in their gear, to celebrate with fans and sign autographs.

Pucks, player cards, hats and photos are passed around for signatures. Smartphones are flashing for pictures and cowbells are dinging, younger fans holding them in the air still wet with Sharpie signatures. The narrow walkway between the ice arena panes and the tables of athletes is packed with dozens of fans, waiting to say hello to their favorite players.

“Anton?” a voice calls amid the chatter. It’s Egor Kostyukov, number 3. He was out this game with a knee injury, but is still surrounded by fans.

Anton Kalinin, number 17, makes his way to Egor through the fans. He had just been named the star of the game for making three assists. His hair is slick to his forehead and a cheeky grin has not left his face. He reaches Egor and discovers that a fan is trying to get a certain message signed on her poster, but Egor cannot understand. Anton, who serves as Egor’s translator as well as teammate, helps him get the fan’s request.

“The Russian Wolves” are certainly fan favorites, but they sometimes have a hard time understanding them.

Anton has been in America for three years now. He came at the age of 17 with not a lick of English, leaving behind his family in Kasli, Russia, a small town on the southern border near Kazakhstan. He played Canadian Juniors before he was scouted for the Wolves last season.

“My first couple months living here (in North America), I was trying to go home. I had no English, no Russians around, I couldn’t talk to anyone. It sucked,” he said. “I used Google translate, but you had to hold it up to talk in it, then wait for it to translate, then they read it, then they hold it up to talk to it, wait for it to translate ... it sucked,” he said, trailing off.

Anton taught himself to speak English simply by listening and talking to his teammates. Now, he helps Egor, who arrived in America in October. Egor also came with no English, so he stays close to Anton for help when he cannot understand something.

“My English gets better every day,” Egor said.

Wolves coach Trevor Karasiewicz said neither player has a hard time understanding him on the ice. Hockey is its own language, and both boys know it by heart.

“Egor knows what I’m saying on the bench, he understands the technical terms. He knows what I’m saying for the most part,” Mr. Karasiewicz said. “Except sometimes, between periods, I get worked up and start to talk faster, it can be hard to understand for them.”

The challenges they face with the language barrier is just minor inconvenience in the big picture, though. The boys are here with a purpose — to pursue the American Dream. They may not have known what that phrase meant, but they are living what it embodies.

“This has been my dream ever since I was 5 or 6,” Anton said. “I saw NHL players and I wanted to go here. When I saw I had the chance to go here, I didn’t think about it, I just said yes.”

Anton translated for Egor and explained, “It’s the same for him. He says there is more upward opportunity to move up than in Russia.”

The Watertown Wolves was an exciting opportunity because the team is considered a minor professional team in the Federal Hockey League, which gets the boys’ names out there for other FHL teams as well as the NHL. To put the boys’ standing into perspective, there are only six teams in the entire Federal Hockey League, and the Watertown Wolves, which was the best in the league last year and is currently in second place for this season, only took on 20 team members in total. So, for Anton and Egor to get this opportunity was tremendous for their futures in hockey. They’ve already made it into an elite pool of athletes, so with persistence, they could be on their way to the NHL; and they work toward that goal all day, every day.

“Yes, of course we want to play in the NHL, that’s the dream,” Anton said. “Play against the best players in the world!? Oh yeah, that’s the dream. That’s why I am working and getting better every day you know. But we’ll see how it goes.” 

Their coach sees that desire to succeed and get better both in and out of practice.

“They’re obviously good kids. They listen really well and want to learn,” he said. Both players agreed their goal of coming to Watertown was to simply get better at hockey and try to move forward. They had to start by adjusting to the game play here, because there are some differences.

“The game is fast and there are big mans against you,” Egor said. Standing close to 6 foot 3 inches when on skates, Egor has had no trouble adjusting to the more aggressive play that American teams are used to.

“The ice is small, not like Russian ice,” he added. Russian arenas are typically 15 feet wider than an NHL arena.

The rink size isn’t the only difference the boys have noticed.

“School in Russia is different,” Anton said. Both he and Egor are currently in college, taking their curriculum online. They both study coaching hockey, which has its own category of study in Russia, like how accounting or education is in American schools. Rather than having several classes, the boys just have all of the information they need in segments; currently, they’re working on biology.

“In America, if you cannot make practice because of school, it’s nothing. In Russia, it’s not like that… You don’t miss practice for school,” Anton said. The boys have never once missed a practice for the Wolves.

And then there’s the difference in people.

“Everybody smiles,” Egor said. “Nobody in Russia smiles.”

“It’s so different. The people are different, the food is different,” Anton said. “Everyone uses fast food. We don’t have that in Russia, we cook at home.”

And by we, he means Egor.

“I’m the cook,” Egor said, taunting Anton. The two live together in Evans Mills. “He cook only macaroni, it’s easy.”

Anton rolls his eyes at him, but smiles. His favorite food here is admittedly macaroni. Egor goes on, “I cook well ... I put onion, carrots, chicken, garlic ...” he trails off, and kisses his fingers like an Italian chef before grinning at Anton and giving him a nudge with his shoulder.

“He thinks it’s so hard, so give him credit for it,” Anton joked. They do both miss Russian food, though.

“I can’t wait until my mom cooks again,” Anton said. They would like for their families to visit, but that would be extremely difficult with travel policies.

For their families to get a visa would take several months, and getting into the U.S. from Russia would be challenging on its own.

“In Russia, they have big problem with America,” Anton said.

For the boys to be able to come and play professionally, they had to get P1 I-94 visas, which allows elite athletes to participate in American teams. If the boys hadn’t gotten their special visas, they’d have been sent back home on the first flight. 

When the Wolves’ season comes to an end in April, rather than going straight back to Russia, Anton plans to stay in New York City for a few months. Egor plans to return home to see his little sisters and focus on his studies.

When asked if he missed home, Egor told Anton, “I will go home for family. Not Russia.”

Both boys want to continue their careers here in America, even though that means facing homesickness during hockey season.

To combat it, the boys keep busy.

“We don’t have free time,” Anton said. When they’re not at practice or team workouts, they’re meeting fans or playing ping pong in the locker room. In what little time they might have off, Anton likes magic tricks and Egor likes shopping.

“He likes shopping so bad, he’s like a girl!” Anton teased. They like to go to the mall and video chat with their friends from home as they peruse the aisles, despite an eight-hour time zone difference for Egor and a 10-hour difference for Anton.

When they’re at their apartment for the night, the pair wait for their third roommate, the team manager, Paul, to go to bed so they can watch Russian films from their phones.

The two are best friends. They’re able to find comfort in each other in this foreign place they’re still working to get used to. They’ll likely continue to face challenges as they continue striving for their future careers in America, but their goals are set. When next season rolls around, the boys are already invited back to the Watertown Wolves.

“They’ll be back, for sure ... if they want to,” Mr. Karasiewicz said. If the boys find another team to take them on, perhaps they’ll take different opportunities.

“I can’t tell you about next year,” Anton said. “I don’t yet know where I am going, so…” he trailed off.

But the main thing is reaching the NHL. That’s the dream of both boys. That’s why they came all this way and are battling challenges with language and culture differences and missing their families.

If, for whatever reason, the boys decide to stop playing professionally, they want to apply the knowledge they’re studying at university and become coaches. Either way, they’re staying in the hockey world.

“I will continue until I can’t play hockey anymore,” Anton said. “I will keep doing athletics until I die, even if it’s ping pong.”

Egor agreed that he will continue until his body no longer lets him. Then, when he’s at that point, he said, “I want to sit on the beach and drink something,” and Anton translated for him more, adding, “he wants to just chill basically, and have a family.”

For now, they’re content in Watertown with their fellow Wolves helping them with their goals.

“We’re just trying to get better,” Anton said.

Egor patted him and they spoke Russian for a moment.

“He’s trying to think of what you say,” Anton said, trying to decipher what Egor was trying to think of. Suddenly, Egor had an “aha” moment and leaned forward.

“Livin’ the dream,” he said proudly.

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