Mike Hamilton wishes he had a better story. The coach of the USHL's Muskegon Lumberjacks is about to welcome the latest in a string of high-end Russians to his franchise and I've asked him what the secret is. The newest is 16-year-old Ivan Miroshnichenko, the mighty forward who blitzed the Youth Olympic Games for 12 points in four games en route to a gold medal, while racking up numbers in Russia's under-18 circuit.
Muskegon has consistently landed game-changing imports in recent years, despite employing different GMs and coaches along the way.
"It all started four years ago with Andrei Svechnikov coming over," Hamilton said. "That one fell into our lap because his brother (Evgeny, the Red Wings pick) was going to be playing down the street in AHL Grand Rapids. His mom came over so she could be close to both of the boys. There was an opportunity for us to prove as an organization what we had to offer and it worked out for the family. They had good things to say about us and we've had five different guys in the past three years choose that pipeline because they wanted what worked out for Svechnikov. The organization kept its promises and proved this is a great league and a great opportunity for a player to develop his skills and potentially become an NHL star."
The Carolina Hurricanes young gun played his first North American hockey in Muskegon, leading the Lumberjacks in scoring and garnering USHL rookie of the year and first-team all-star honors in the process. Svechnikov would leave for the OHL the next season, but his stay in Michigan got other players back in Russia thinking. Defenseman Alexander Yakovenko was next, leaving Muskegon two years later as a first-team USHL all-star himself. Last year, right winger Daniil Gushchin made the trek to western Michigan and this season he was Muskegon's leading scorer. Gushchin will likely be taken in the second round of the NHL draft in 2020.
All of those players are represented by agent Mark Gandler, but the Lumberjacks have had even more Russian talent in between, including Nashville Predators second-rounder Egor Afanasyev and Igor Larionov Jr., though both of them played at least some years of hockey in North America before going to Muskegon.
"It's turned into something we've embraced and our fans have taken to it," Hamilton said. "At one point we had five Russians, which was fun to be around."
Having some American-born kids that speak the language helps, too. This season, for example, the team had New Jersey-born Alex Konovalov on the roster as well Alex Gaffney, another Garden State native who speaks Russian.
"Every year we've been lucky to have somebody able to translate," Hamilton said. "But their English comes along so quick. Daniil Gushchin, a great example, came over speaking zero English and at the end of the season he could carry on a full conversation and understand what you're saying."
The Lumberjacks cover their bases by offering English classes for their imports and the teacher will often take her students to the mall or a restaurant in order to make the lessons as practical as possible. Getting that sort of buy-in from ownership helps make the process successful in Hamilton's eye.
And now the future comes to Muskegon once again. Miroshnichenko was so coveted by the Lumberjacks that they used the USHL tender process on him. Basically, they had to give up their second-round pick in the Phase 1 draft for him (they also tendered forward Owen Mehlenbacher a month prior, giving up their first-round pick then), while guaranteeing that the youngster will play in at least 55 percent of the team's games next season, barring injury or suspension.
Given the skill, speed and physicality that Miroshnichenko brings to the table, the move was understandable. GM Jimmy McGroarty went over to the Youth Olympic Games in Switzerland in person, while the rest of the staff watched on video.
"He's obviously a very high-end talent," Hamilton said. "We had the pleasure of watching him at the Youth Olympic Games and he was dominant. There will definitely be a transition to the smaller ice surface and playing against older guys and the toughest part will be a 16-year-old coming over here, being away from his family and making that life adjustment as well. We're excited; the kid can play hockey, there's no doubt about it. It's just a matter of us helping him as an organization to handle those obstacles."
Given how well things have gone for Svechnikov, it's no surprise some of his younger countrymen continue to make the trip to Muskegon.