The moments are rare, but every now and then, those around Andrei Svechnikov are reminded he’s still a teenager.
Take his first car-buying experience in the U.S. in the fall. While Svechnikov, who is still mastering the English language, had the confidence to walk into a Mercedes dealership on his own, the day wasn’t without a rookie mistake. “Andrei being the trustworthy person he is,” said Carolina Hurricanes GM Don Waddell, “he went out for a test drive with the sales guy, and he left his wallet and chequebook in the dealership.”
Svechnikov, 18, also left his passport and work visa behind. None were seen or heard from again, necessitating a day trip to Washington and a visit to the Russian consulate in Montreal for replacements. “It was a learning lesson,” Waddell said. “It was a pretty humbling experience for him. But it was also a positive sign that he felt comfortable enough to go out and negotiate himself to get a car.”
The hiccup at the car dealership is one of the few speed bumps Svechnikov has encountered on what has otherwise been a smooth ride on and off the ice since moving to North America in 2016. After he earned rookie-of-the-year honors in the USHL (2016-17) and OHL (2017-18), the Hurricanes selected Svechnikov second overall in last June’s NHL draft.
Aside from his play in junior, Svechnikov impressed the Hurricanes with the manner in which he carried himself at various pre-draft meetings. While these meetings are typically reserved for teams to get to know the player, Svechnikov flipped the script, inquiring in some detail about Carolina’s roster, the new coaching staff and about life in Raleigh. “You could tell he had done his research,” Waddell said. “He wasn’t just going through the motions talking about himself. He wanted to know how things work in Carolina. He was very intrigued with what we had going on here. You don’t usually see that from an 18-year-old.”
Teammates, past and present, rave about Svechnikov’s maturity, work ethic and raw ability. At 6-foot-2 and 192 pounds, Svechnikov has already proven a handful to knock off the puck. His knack for driving to the net and his ability to quickly unload an accurate shot are among his biggest strengths, but it’s his desire to improve that continues to impress teammates. “Sometimes kids come in,” said Hurricanes captain Justin Williams, “and if they’re highly touted, they get massaged a little bit, their egos blow up, everyone tells them how great they are, but he’s a very down-to-earth guy. He wants to learn. When you tell him something, he doesn’t brush it off. He’s intent, and he wants to be really good. That’s been the best thing about him, how good and how mature he is for his age.”
By his maiden NHL campaign’s midpoint, Svechnikov, a naturally gifted scorer, had already shown why he could someday be the engine driving the Hurricanes. All 11 of his goals through 41 games came at even strength. But it’s how he’s creating opportunities that most excites Svechnikov about his own game. “I like playing behind the net,” he said. “I like being a physical player, working hard in the corners, winning those battles and scoring goals. It’s a mentality.”
Svechnikov knows there is room to improve – better puck management when protecting a lead is among his priorities – but the Hurricanes believe they have a potential franchise centerpiece. “I’ve seen a lot of these players over the years,” said Waddell, the former GM of the Atlanta Thrashers. “But this may be the most mature 18-year-old I’ve ever had.”
Svechnikov comes by it honestly. Born and raised in Barnaul, Russia – an industrial city in western Siberia – he and older brother Evgeny had a modest upbringing where hard work wasn’t a choice. Their father, Igor, travelled great distances selling baked goods, while their mother, Elena, worked long days and nights. “She worked everywhere,” said Evgeny, a prospect with the Detroit Red Wings. “During the day she was an administrator at the rink, at night, she was cleaning floors. She was a huge factor in our lives. Without her, I don’t know where we’d be right now. She grabbed every job she could.”
Evgeny is three years older than Andrei and arguably the biggest influence on his hockey career. As kids, they were rinks rats, often practising outdoors, sometimes as early as 6 a.m. “We went to hockey schools at minus-35 degrees outside,” Evgeny said. “That’s where our heart is. (Andrei) used to skate with four different age groups, always with older guys. We’d just stay out at the rink.”
Facing older competition and spending hours at the rink have become Andrei Svechnikov staples. The first player born in the year 2000 to score a goal in the NHL, he was an underage star during his only season with the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks. As a 16-year-old, he had 29 goals and 58 points in 48 games en route to being named to the All-USHL Team.
The move to Muskegon made sense for Andrei with his brother only 40 minutes away, plying his trade that year with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins. “When I moved, I could only say ‘Hello. How are you?’ ” Andrei said. “So, he helped me with hockey, but with everyday life.”
Evgeny made the occasional visit to Muskegon, where the brothers would inevitably get reacquainted on the ice. They had their fun, but these were hardly pickup shinny games. In full equipment, they engaged in highly competitive battle drills with Evgeny giving Andrei a taste of what was likely in store. “He was tough on Andrei,” said former Lumberjacks coach John LaFontaine. “He wanted him to learn how to defend himself, how to maintain balance in the corners and how to take a hit. He wanted him to understand, ‘You’re young, and it’s not going to always be easy.’ ”
Andrei took the lessons in stride. With few distractions in Muskegon, he spent so many hours working on his craft that LaFontaine sometimes had to tell him to slow down or take a breather if they had a game the next day. “If he could train 10 hours a day, he would do it,” LaFontaine said. “He wasn’t going to leave the rink without shooting another 100 pucks or without doing some extra stretching or squatting or lifting.”
Svechnikov was “all business,” according to his Muskegon teammate and road roommate, Casey Gilling. “The night before a game, everyone would be playing video games or messing around in the lobby, Svech was in the room, lights off, sleeping.”
Sounds boring no? “He was our best player,” Gilling said. “He knew he needed to be ready to go every game, and he took that responsibility very seriously.”
As Svechnikov navigates through his first year in the NHL with cross-country flights and plenty of downtime, video games and movies remain low on the priority list. He sent out a whopping 11 tweets from his Twitter account in 2018. “We never had computers in our lives,” he said. “We never had video games. We never had money to buy these things. All the time was spent at the rink or playing hockey outside.”
Waddell adds that if a Hurricanes practice ends at noon, Svechnikov is usually still working on his own at 2 p.m. “If there’s something that’s going to help his development or make him a better player, no stone is left unturned,” Waddell said. “Everyone needs distractions, but right now he’s living hockey 24/7.”
Svechnikov is also a bright spot on a team desperately looking to end a nine-year playoff drought. It appears his work ethic and positive attitude are infectious. “It seems he has some very good values,” said Williams, who broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old himself back when Svechnikov was just six months old. “It’s important to get great players, and it’s important to get great people. He’s an example of both. When your organization has its best players as its best leaders and hardest workers, that means you’re in good shape.”