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Photo: Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves

#AHLOTB: From Russia with young love

by Lindsey Willhite | AHL On The Beat

Ivan Barbashev always has been absurdly mature for his age.

When the Moscow native was 15 years old, he was promoted to the Moscow Hockey League — Russia’s finest junior league — where many of the players he faced were 19 and 20.

When Barbashev was 16, he made the jump to North America. He joined the Moncton Wildcats in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — and he did it without knowing a speck of English.

When Barbashev was 18, he and Ksenia Bezgodova were wed in Moscow during a civil ceremony witnessed only by their parents. While their marriage occurred at an incredibly young age by American standards, the Chicago Wolves center — now all of 21 years and 2 months old — suggests it’s standard in his country.

“It looks like it’s really young,” Barbashev said. “But I have six or seven buddies in Russia who are my age and all married and a few them are having babies already.”

Some of those buddies deserve a round of thanks from Barbashev, who might not otherwise have met Ksenia in their hometown of 12 million people. They were hanging out with mutual friends at a hockey tournament when their eyes met.

Barbashev tells people it was love at first sight. Ksenia confirms it was the same for her, though she admits there weren’t many verbs at first sight.

“It was weird in the beginning,” Ksenia said. “He was very shy. He didn’t talk very much. We would meet for one hour. Then two hours. Then four hours. Then we would Skype.”

Then came the world. Ivan’s pursuit of hockey greatness has taken them from Moscow to New Brunswick to St. Louis to Chicago… and oddly she has been better prepared for it than Ivan.

Ksenia studied English for 12 hours each week during her high school and university days. Ivan, on the other hand, did not have any English in his arsenal when he moved to Canada in 2012 — but that was not going to deter him.

As you’ll discover with Barbashev — who has produced 19 goals and 18 assists in 46 games for the Wolves this season and also made his NHL debut with the St. Louis Blues — he’s someone who knows what he wants and does whatever’s necessary to overcome hurdles in his way.

For example, he decided at the age of 14 that he wanted the National Hockey League to be his hockey destiny. He learned from the lessons endured by his older brother, Sergei, who’s in his fourth season playing for Admiral Vladivostok in the Kontinental Hockey League.

When Sergei showed an interest in playing in North America, his binding KHL contract kept him in Russia. Ivan and his parents were determined their second son wouldn’t suffer the same fate.

“What happened when I was 16, there was a KHL draft and I got drafted by Dynamo Moscow,” Barbashev said. “When you get drafted, you have to go to the camp right away. I didn’t go anywhere. I was just waiting because the Canadian Hockey League (import) draft was maybe a week or two weeks later. Dynamo Moscow was calling me every day — maybe three times a day. I didn’t pick up the phone.”

When the Moncton Wildcats made Barbashev the first overall pick in the 2012 CHL Import Draft, he quickly became a Russian export.

“When I got drafted, I told (Dynamo Moscow) I’m moving to Canada and I’m sorry for that,” Barbashev said. “The people don’t really like it when you’re leaving Russia to go play in North America but, I mean, it’s my decision. It’s my life. If I want to play there, I’m going to go there, you know?”

Among the million life changes that occurred when Barbashev moved to Moncton, located in the province of New Brunswick east of Maine? He underwent a name change. Well, not a name change exactly, but a pronunciation change.

In Russia, his name is pronounced “E-von BARR-(with rolled r’s)-ba-shof.” In Moncton, everybody greeted him as “EYE-vin.” So “EYE-vin” he has remained and he’s good with that, though it’s not like he could have told anybody otherwise.

“My first two months were really hard,” Barbashev said. “I could not say anything. If a guy was asking me something, I just wouldn’t respond. I got lucky because Dmitrij Jaskin was drafted by Moncton the same year. His English was a little bit better and he helped me a lot.

“My third month, me and Jaskin went to a school there at 7 a.m. every day for English class. It helped us a lot. That was for two months. After that, we got really tired of waking up at 7 in the morning and we just kind of stopped going.”

Barbashev said that with a smile — the kind that comes with command with a language. He accelerated his knowledge when his billet family in Moncton introduced him to Netflix and encouraged him to watch all types of movies.

Photo: Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves
Photo: Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves

When Ivan wasn’t busy piling up points for Moncton or adding words to his vocabulary, he was maintaining a long-distance relationship with Ksenia. During his middle season in Canada, she received a visa and joined him for a few months.

But when Ksenia applied for another visa prior to the 2014-15 season, she was denied. They solved the problem pragmatically and romantically — by getting married on July 23, 2014.

They’ve enjoyed many adventures in North America, such as the time a massive snowstorm hit Moncton and knocked the power out while Ivan was on the road. Ksenia had to move to a hotel briefly. She returned to their place to find the door blown open and the whole kitchen covered in snow – with a couple inches stuck in the microwave, the fridge, the stove.

Their trip to Miami over the 2016 AHL All-Star break was much more relaxing and warm. They planned to spend the 2017 AHL All-Star break together in Cleveland, but Ivan was called to the NHL. Basically, their lives change on a moment’s notice in America.

That doesn’t stop them from thinking about their homeland and noticing how Russia is portrayed in the American headlines —especially during the recent presidential election. Ksenia has more time to consider these things as her current visa prohibits her from working.

“I like it here a lot, but sometimes I hear that Russia’s scary,” she said. “No one in Russia hates Americans. No one hates Canadians. No one hates any foreign people. They just don’t speak English to tell them so. The people are really nice.”

Ivan and Ksenia live virtually year-round in America. They manage to fit in a visit to Moscow each summer, which is enough to remind them what’s great about Russia’s capital. Aside from the remarkable sites that have stood the test of time — such as Red Square and the Kremlin — here are three of their favorite stops when they’re home:

1. Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure: Nearly 100 years old, almost all of the amusement park rides were dismantled in 2011 in favor of an environmentally friendly recreation area.

2. Arbat Street: Located in the heart of Moscow, this street features historic architecture mixed with terrific restaurants.

3. Rooftop restaurants: The Barbashevs love to visit these restaurants that offer amazing views of the city. If you’re a tourist with time for just one stop, they recommend Sixty — which can be found on the 62nd floor of the Federation Tower. The restaurant’s website’s first food recommendation is the “crispy pig,” which is accented by spring wheat, apple cream and green marshmallow.

When asked what he tells his teammates about Russia, Barbashev offered this answer: “I can see in America, they’re always talking about Russia: ‘Oh, they did that, that, that.’ But it’s different than that.

“Moscow is a beautiful city. It’s my hometown. It’s my wife’s hometown. It’s my parents’ hometown. I lived there for 16 years. Moscow is huge. Traffic is awful. Sometimes a 45-minute drive can take you three hours. It’s really bad. Otherwise, Moscow is a beautiful city. I really want to go back there and enjoy it.”