by Mike Peck || AHL On The Beat Archive
Imagine going out to dinner, placing an order and getting your food only to find out that the item you ordered was something completely different than what you thought you were getting.
Or traveling halfway across the world thinking you were going to learn English only to find out that everyone spoke French.
These are a couple of the trials and tribulations that Rockford IceHogs skaters and Russian natives Igor Makarov and Ivan Vishnevskiy have tried to cope with on their journey to the National Hockey League while playing in the American Hockey League.
Young players have to deal with a lot of change, regardless of their background, but when players come to North America from Europe or Asia they also have to deal with a huge cultural change off the ice.
“At first I didn’t think about anything but hockey and I made my decision to come over (to North America) but I really didn’t understand how different it would be,” said Vishnevskiy, now in his fourth professional season. “When I got here I found out that the language barrier was hard at first, but once I got used to it, it was fine.”
A Barnaul, Russia, native, Vishnevskiy jumped the pond prior to the 2005-06 season and joined the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Hoping to get a grasp on the English language, Vishnevskiy soon found out that French was the language of choice in Rouyn-Noranda, not English.
“We had six or seven guys on the team that spoke English and I tried to hang around them and learn something from them each day,” said Vishnevskiy. “I had an English teacher but he wasn’t very good because he spoke French and his English was about as good as mine.”
After a successful season in the QMJHL, the defenseman was chosen by the Dallas Stars in the first round (27th overall) of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. When weighing his options regarding his future in professional hockey, Vishnevskiy and his agent thought that North America and the QMJHL was his best option for him to get to the NHL.
In 2005 the top professional league in Russia was still the Russian Super League, now the Kontinental Hockey League, and Vishnevskiy knew that ice time would be hard to come by if he stuck around the homeland.
“It wasn’t really that hard of a decision for me,” said Vishnevskiy. “But I know as a young guy I was going to play probably like 10 games a season in the Russian League and five minutes a game and it wasn’t worth it. So I talked to my agent and we felt that going to North America was the best for me in order to take that next step.”
The decision to come to North America wasn’t as easy for Makarov. After getting picked by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round (33rd overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Makarov, 23, stuck around Russia for four seasons before signing with Chicago this past August.
It’s not just the language barrier that has made the transition for Makarov a bit difficult.
“It has been a little hard for me,” said Makarov through Vishnevskiy. “I speak just a little English and I would like to speak more. The rest has been all good though. The hockey style is good, I like to play physical.
“Besides the language, just the different people and everything is new. Russia is Russia, the U.S. is the U.S. Everything is completely different. Money color is different, lifestyle is different, food is different. Pretty much everything is new to me.”
The lack of ice time that concerned Vishnevskiy, and ultimately helped make his decision to head overseas, plagued Makarov in the KHL. A Moscow native, Makarov appeared in 225 career games in Russia’s top professional league, but registered just 67 points, including 34 goals and 33 assists.
Rockford head coach Bill Peters knows that in order to get Makarov where he needs to be as a professional, he needs ice time to develop and be put into more situational hockey.
“Just from talking to people that have coached over there and with some guys who have played, the young guys don’t play a whole bunch and especially if it is a younger guy who they know is going to leave and play in North America,” said Peters. “They’re not too excited to give those guys ice time over some of their older guys.”
Even though Makarov wasn’t seeing as much ice time as he’d hoped for in Russia, he wasn’t exactly champing at the bit to come stateside. Last season Makarov played 25 games in his native Moscow.
“It took me four years to decide to come over here to play, ever since I was drafted, so it was a tough decision to make,” replied Makarov. “I was in a good spot in the KHL, and it’s good hockey over in Russia. Then you decide to go over to North America you have to start from nothing.
“You have to earn your place and there is lots of things that have to happen. I guess I didn’t know what it was going to be like here or how hard it was going to be over here.”
And that is one big reason why Vishnevskiy has been so valuable to both Makarov and the IceHogs. The 6-foot defenseman has been through the transition from Russia to the AHL. After breaking into the “A” with Peoria in 2008, Vishnevskiy has played in 146 career AHL contests entering this season and seven NHL games with Dallas.
After a three-year stint in the QMJHL, Vishnevskiy faced many of the same challenges that Makarov now faces every day. But fortunately for Vishnevskiy, he had a fellow Russian and longtime NHL’er Sergei Zubov to lean on when he broke into the Dallas system.
“In juniors I was by myself, but when I was in Dallas, Sergei Zubov helped me a lot. He was there and helped me on and off the ice,” said Vishnevskiy.
“The hardest thing for me to overcome was explaining to people at the beginning what I wanted. You go out to eat and you say something to people in French and you really don’t know what they said and then you get your food and it’s all wrong. That was probably the biggest issue.”
Zubov probably didn’t realize at the time how valuable his guidance for Vishnevskiy would be for another Russian player.
Vishnevskiy now lends his assistance to Makarov because he remembers the frustrations of asking for something only to have the opposite party not understand what he was asking for. Plus he feels Makarov is a step or two ahead of where he was at in his off-ice development.
“He’s 100-percent better than me when I got here because my English was at level zero,” said Vishnevskiy. “When he gets used to it, he’ll understand more and he’ll be fine. It’ll take some time.”
And don’t think that Blackhawks’ management hasn’t seen the value of having a player like Vishnevskiy around to mentor Makarov. Vishnevskiy was acquired over the summer from the Atlanta Thrashers organization, and his presence has helped the IceHogs out just as much off the ice as on it.
“It has worked out very well, Ivan speaks English very well and he’s been over here for three years in the AHL,” said Blackhawks general manager of minor league affiliations Mark Bernard. “He understands the daily-going-on. He can help (Makarov) out with the everyday things like shopping, laundry and different things that a young kid has to learn. So it’s proved to be very valuable for us.”
Not surprisingly, Makarov and Vishnevskiy are roommates away from the rink and Makarov jokes that since Vishnevskiy rents his apartment, then maybe he’ll now buy him a car.
“Vish has helped me a lot,” said Makarov. “When we go anywhere, maybe I’ll say something wrong and he’ll tell me the right way to say it. So next time hopefully I’ll know how to say it.”
When watching Makarov, it doesn’t take long to understand why the Blackhawks used a second-round draft pick on the Russian winger. Early on in his first AHL season Makarov has shown good speed, vision and creative playmaking.
That’s in game situations. During practices Makarov has had a little bit more difficult time catching up to speed with everyone else. Not because of lack of talent though.
“At the beginning, it wasn’t hard at all because I thought he understood everything,” said Peters. “All he kept doing was nodding his head yes, yes, yes. I thought everything was good. Then as I watched him go out and do drills and play, then I knew there was an issue.
“So that’s when we started doing the pre-ice with him. The guys have been real good with him on the bench talking to him, making sure he understands what is going on with the drills and the concepts.
“Vish looks after him like a little brother really. At practice he can tell when Mak isn’t sure what’s going on and he’ll go over and speak a little Russian to him and next thing you know everything is straightened out.”
Said Makarov, “During practice I don’t really understand all the drills. Coach always stops the drills and starts over and over and over.”
The coaching staff has also made a few adjustments to their pre-practice regiment to help Makarov. IceHogs assistant coach Ted Dent now holds a meeting with Makarov to go over drills so he has a better understanding of the practice layout.
One advantage of playing in the KHL for Makarov is that he was playing against elite competition similar to the NHL. Most of the top Russian players are still in the KHL, so talent wise, the transition to the AHL has been pretty smooth.
With a larger ice surface in Russia, skating hasn’t been an issue for Makarov. Since deciding to make the jump to the Blackhawks organization, the winger has beefed up a bit from 183 to 200 pounds to help withstand the more physical style of hockey played here.
With the 2010-11 season just a month old, Makarov has come a long ways in his development and adjustment to Rockford and the AHL.
This is just another step, however, for the Russian to reach the NHL and prove to himself that taking a risk to leave his home country was all worth it.