By Justin Birnbaum
It is hockey Night in New Jersey, and the cellar-dwelling Devils are taking to the ice to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in front of just 13,000 fans at the Prudential Center. Nikita Gusev is not among them. After appearing in the first nine games to start the season, the Russian is a healthy scratch.
While showcasing flashes of potential, Gusev, 27, is having trouble adjusting to the North American game. Complicating matters even further is the language barrier. To hurdle it, and all the other cultural shocks that come with transitioning players from Russia and Eastern Europe, New Jersey is pulling out all the stops.
This is nothing new to the Devils. With three decades of experience to leverage in helping players acclimatize to North America, they’re making sure Gusev has everything he needs to succeed.
The world was evolving when the Berlin Wall began to fall Nov. 9, 1989. Democratic changes were sweeping across Eastern Europe, and the West needed time to unlearn the prejudices instilled in them during the Cold War.
The NHL was no different. At the time, less than 10 percent of the league’s players were born outside North America, and less than four percent were from countries that made up the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary and Albania). A handful of players had already blazed the trail from East to West. But with a rich talent pool opening up as the Berlin Wall was coming down, more players from behind the Iron Curtain began to trickle in by 1989. Sergei Priakin became the first athlete from the Soviet Union to be officially allowed to play for a pro team in North America. Alexander Mogilny, who had defected earlier in the year, was playing his rookie season with the Buffalo Sabres, as was 31-year-old Sergei Makarov, who went on to win the 1989-90 Calder Trophy with the Calgary Flames.
The Devils had long hoped this day would come. In 1983, they drafted Soviet superstar Viacheslav Fetisov along with fellow stalwart defenseman Alexei Kasatonov. Six years later, shortly after GM Lou Lamoriello had begun his nearly three-decade tenure with the Devils, the pair finally arrived in New Jersey. And the work the Devils started all those years ago, with Lamoriello at the helm, remains an ongoing effort to this day, as they continue to mine Russia and Eastern Europe for talent.
Two such alumni are team advisor Patrik Elias and AHL assistant coach Sergei Brylin. Each came over in the mid-1990s and spent his entire NHL career in New Jersey: 1,240 games and two Stanley Cups over 20 seasons for Elias, and 765 games and three Cups over 13 seasons for Brylin. They’re still with the organization today, and both are playing an active role in getting Gusev acclimatized to the NHL and North America.
On this night, Gusev watches the game from a box high above the ice with Elias, whose No. 26 now hangs in the rafters of the Prudential Center. Between Elias pointing and gesturing and Gusev’s limited English, they’re able to break down the action to help Gusev make the switch to the smaller ice surface. (Gusev, who declined to be interviewed for this story, speaks little English and only talks to the media through a translator.) And even though he’s three hours away from New Jersey, with the team’s minor-league affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., Brylin’s fluency in English and Russian comes in handy as an in-house interpreter for Gusev. And he knows exactly what his countryman is going through. “It’s not an easy transition for anybody,” Brylin said. “You’ve just got to give a little bit of time and be patient.”
Lamoriello and the Devils weren’t the only pioneers back in 1989 in the then 21-team NHL. Around the same time, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, Detroit Red Wings GM Jim Devellano saw an opportunity and began importing players from the Eastern Bloc, forging a competitive advantage in the NHL while other teams remained stuck in the old Western ways. “I knew there were good players in Russia,” Devellano said. “I knew there were stars there. I knew there were stars in Czechoslovakia. The problem was you couldn’t get them out. I took a risk.”
Devellano brought Peter Klima over from Czechoslovakia in 1985 and hired a fellow Czech to translate and help him adjust. After facilitating the defections of Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Vyacheslav Kozlov, Devellano put them up in apartments just a two-minute walk from Joe Louis Arena, creating a comfortable situation and giving the players the tools they needed to succeed.
With Devellano in the front office, the Red Wings went on to win four Stanley Cups in 11 years. “When you start putting the Fedorovs and the Konstantinovs on the ice, and they’re so far superior to the average North American,” Devellano said, “you’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror.”
It took time for this period of self-reflection to take hold in the NHL. The league eventually came around as teams realized how gifted many of these players were. But prejudices were slow to dissipate. “I had one player, a good friend of mine today, I won’t mention his name, who gave me s— for bringing all of those Russians over,” Devellano said. “He said, ‘They’re going to take my job. We’re hardworking Canadians. Why are you doing this?’ And that person coaches in the NHL today.”
Former Devils star Bobby Holik experienced this firsthand. Holik was drafted out of Czechoslovakia by the Hartford Whalers in 1989, only months before the first brick fell in Berlin. When he made his NHL debut a year later, he quickly realized cultural perceptions in the West weren’t keeping up with the rapidly changing political climate in the East. “You wouldn’t believe the prejudice I faced, downright racism,” Holik said. He remembers being called an “effing commie,” something he finds ironic because he says his father, Jaroslav Holik (a renowned player in his own right), was the “staunchest anti-communist there ever was in the history of Czechoslovakia.”
Getting traded to the progressive and open-minded Devils two years into his NHL career helped Holik make the transition. He went on to play 1,314 games over 18 years and won two Stanley Cups with New Jersey. “For me, it was like, hey, you figure it out or else,” Holik said. “So, I figured it out.”
And so has the rest of the NHL. It took longer for the league to adjust to the influx from the Eastern Bloc than it did for the players to make the switch to the NHL. But 30 years after the Berlin Wall began to fall, the percentage of players from former communist nations has tripled. As more Russian and Eastern European talent arrives, the challenge of acclimatizing the players, on and off the ice, has become a priority.
Since 1989, organizations have upped their investment in support staff and services. Players need visas, bank accounts, a place to live, English lessons and a translator, and the responsibility falls on agents and teams to help players learn to live day-to-day in a place where the language and culture are unfamiliar. Some have a dedicated team-services coordinator to handle these tasks.
Whether it’s spending extra time in the video room, drawing diagrams on the screen or speaking in slower, clearer words, the key is avoiding miscommunication and creating a mutual understanding. And it goes both ways. “It’s educational not only for the player,” said Devils assistant Rick Kowalsky, “but for the coach as well, too.”
Holik found himself on the flip side last year during a short stint as coach of the Israeli men’s national team. The dressing room was a mix of English, Hebrew and Russian, and Holik remembers struggling with name pronunciation and memorization because of the three different alphabets.
His solution? Have fun and make it up as he went along. Holik made the unconventional decision to give players random nicknames. Once they took to their monikers, everything clicked. “It was easier for me to call them by nicknames,” Holik said. “It was an incredible experience. We made it work.”
The Devils are making it work as well with Gusev, the KHL’s MVP in 2017-18 and that league’s leading scorer in 2018-19. Tapping into the experience of Elias and Brylin has helped soften the transition. Since sitting out three games, Gusev’s play improved noticeably, and he became a fixture. With three assists against Montreal in late November, he notched his first multi-point game. With a young, talented core, the Devils hope Gusev can grow into a key contributor.
And it’s all because New Jersey stuck to the plan they started 30 years ago and made an effort to welcome players from other countries and cultures with open arms and open minds. “My experience was quite different than it is today,” Holik said. “But there is one common denominator, and that is you have to be willing to learn about the other culture.”
This is an edited version of a story that appeared in The Hockey News 2020 Rookie Issue. Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.