Alexandre Carrier looked over at the stone-faced new guy to his left on the Gatineau Olympiques bench and noticed that he had another teammate’s stick in his hands. Ever the helpful sort, Carrier politely pointed out Yakov Trenin’s mistake. Trenin turned his head, stared at Carrier for a moment, and responded.
Confused but also curious, Carrier then asked Trenin another question, one in which “no” was the only possible answer. Trenin again eyed him, expressionless.
“I’m like, OK, he has no clue what I’m saying,” Carrier recalled with a laugh. “This was going to be a work in progress.”
Trenin was 17 years old when he left Russia to pursue his hockey dreams halfway around the world in North America. He had done his homework, too, taking classes to learn some rudimentary English so he at least could have a hope of understanding his coaches and fitting in with his teammates. The whole situation was terrifying.
Then he showed up in Quebec.
“I didn’t know they only speak French there,” Trenin said. “I was preparing for English and I get there and they all speak French.”
Trenin can laugh about it now, nearly a decade later. His English is excellent, and he’s in his fifth season with the Nashville Predators, with perpetual teammate Carrier owning the stall just across the Bridgestone Arena locker room. But when Trenin first showed up in Gatineau, he was the only Russian on the team — quite literally a stranger in a strange land. He knew nobody. He didn’t understand anybody. It was hard to make out the words the coaches were saying in team meetings. It was hard to communicate with his teammates on the ice. It was hard to fit in, to make friends, to hang out with the guys.
Carrier and the other Olympiques did their best to make Trenin feel welcome. They coaxed him into a volleyball match after a practice. They invited him to the movies “even though he didn’t understand a thing,” Carrier said. They spoke to him in their own sometimes-broken English, and Trenin — who was still new to that language and not very comfortable in it — found it easier to understand them than native English speakers because he found their accents similar to his own.
“You can’t really have a big conversation with him, so you try to just do stuff with him to make him feel part of the team,” Carrier said. “Just get him out of the house.”
Hockey is a global sport, and every time you walk into an NHL locker room, you’re liable to hear three, four, five different languages being spoken at once. Inevitable cliques form, too. The Russian players will have their locker stalls clustered together. The Czech guys on every team will all hang out away from the rink, piling into Bistro Praha for a taste of home when they roll into Edmonton. The Swedes and Finns are taught English throughout their childhoods and are usually at or near fluency, but they still congregate together and hide their conversations from prying ears by speaking their native tongue.
But not everybody has that social safety net. Sometimes, you’re the only Russian in the room, the only Czech, the only Finn, the only native French speaker. And whether you’re a teenager in juniors with no command of English or a 30-something trilingual NHL veteran, it can be difficult to be the only one from your country in the room. It’s isolating. Lonely, even.
“Sometimes, you just want to talk in your native language,” said 34-year-old Evgenii Dadonov, a 10-year NHL vet and the only Russian in the Dallas Stars room. “I can talk English, but I act a little different in Russian. I’m myself more. I’m not thinking too much when I talk and relax. In English, I’m always thinking and it’s harder to relax. It’s just something you deal with over here.”
Few players command a locker room the way Pierre-Édouard Bellemare does. He’s a big personality with a big voice, a big smile and a big laugh, and he’s everybody’s favorite teammate. As one of just two NHLers from France (Columbus’ Alexandre Texier is the other), he speaks flawless French and English, and he is fully conversant in Swedish, too. Teammates headed for summer vacations in Paris pepper him with questions and requests for restaurant recommendations. Others regularly chirp him about how “bougie” and “arrogant” the French are, and he gleefully gives it right back.
Approaching his 39th birthday and on his fifth NHL team, the Seattle Kraken, there isn’t a room in the hockey world in which Bellemare couldn’t fit in.
“I can come into a team really easily, talking to the Swedish guys or talking to the French-speaking guys or talking to the English-speaking guys,” he said. “It’s been my superpower.”
But back in 2006, Bellemare was a scared 21-year-old on the phone with his mom back in France, trying to hold back the tears because he hated walking through those doors. He had left France to play in Sweden’s second-tier league, one of the first Frenchmen to do so, and the transition had been soul-crushing. He had the skills and he had the work ethic, but he couldn’t communicate with anyone. He didn’t speak a lick of Swedish or English at the time. About the only Swedish word he knew was the one for French people, and he heard it often, usually under his new teammates’ breath as they laughed among themselves about the new guy.
The team in Leksand sent Bellemare and some of the Finnish imports to a professor’s house a few times for some basic lessons, but it was pointless, because, “At that time, I didn’t understand s—.”
“My first couple of months in Sweden were terrible,” Bellemare said. “Everybody was like, ‘Why are we bringing in a French guy? France has nothing to bring in hockey.’ This is how they saw me.”
If not for Bellemare’s mom, Frederique, his hockey career might have ended right there. But Frederique told him to embrace the challenge, that he was in Sweden not just to further his hockey career but to broaden his cultural horizons. So Bellemare broke through the language barrier like he was the Kool-Aid Homme. He learned both English and Swedish simultaneously, and shockingly fast — mostly through subtitles on movies and TV shows, as so many other international players do to hone their English once they get to the NHL.
“I was kind of in a panic mode to learn the languages,” Bellemare said. “I learned both languages really fast because I had no choice. The brain is such a wonderful thing. When you’re in a panic mode, he knows, he recognizes and suddenly you get abilities to learn a little bit faster. Nobody spoke my language, right? So I had to learn fast.”
Bellemare had to overcome more than just the language gap, though. The French had that “bougie” reputation in Sweden, too, and he had to overcome that resentment. The funny thing was that the Swedish league was the bougie one compared to what Bellemare had in France, where he was one of the country’s top players but was hardly making any money. In Sweden, he had free gear and free food. He had three hours of ice time every day instead of one. It was a hockey paradise compared to what he had in France.
So that became Mom’s advice: “Show those guys that they’re the ones who are all spoiled.”
“Once I started learning the language, they saw and said, ‘OK, this kid is trying,’” Bellemare said. “I became the hardest-working kid, and the happiest kid because I was in a sick locker room every day, with all this stuff I didn’t have back home in France. And all along, my mom was like, ‘How cool is it that a year from now, you’ll be trilingual?’ I was like, ‘That ain’t gonna happen.’ But it did happen!”
All these years later, Bellemare’s wife is Swedish and his kids, ages 6 and 4, already are bilingual, and “really close” to adding French to their repertoire.
“Like I said, it’s been a superpower,” Bellemare said, beaming. “Even though it was terrible at first.”
Unlocking the human brain’s massive potential isn’t the only silver lining that emerges from that kind of isolation. Rookie center Waltteri Merelä is the only Finn on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster, and while he admitted that he’d love to have one or two more in the room, it’s forced him to go beyond his comfort zone and make friends he might otherwise never have made.
Early in the season, Merelä and his wife learned that they live in the same neighborhood as goalies Jonas Johansson and Matt Tomkins, so they started hanging out. Now their wives and girlfriends have become close, too.
“When it’s just you, you kind of need to go find the guys that you’re going to hang out with,” Merelä said. “You don’t have that one guy you’re always hanging out with.”
Bellemare says he hasn’t experienced the animosity, othering and xenophobia in the NHL that he faced in Sweden. In his experience, the European players in the NHL typically bond over their cultural overlaps rather than focus on the divisions. There are Finns who played in Sweden, Czechs who played in Finland, Slovaks who played in Russia, Russians who played in Germany, and on and on. By the time they get to the NHL, many Europeans have a history with their new teammates, or at least some shared heritage to bond over. Which leads to a lot of good-natured chirping, particularly when a tournament like the World Junior Championship is going on.
The Swedish-Finnish rivalry is as heated as it gets, and that allows a rookie like Merelä to walk into the room and start giving it to a future Hall of Famer like Victor Hedman.
“Yeah, I can talk s— with him,” Merelä said. “But he’s always talking s— to me about Finland. It’s fun, it’s just a normal thing. It helps make you a part of everything.”
English is the universal language in hockey, the skeleton key to communication between nations. Many Europeans come to North America fluent, but nearly all can speak the language a little.
“The first few years, you just hang out with the Europeans,” said Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons, the only Latvian on the Sabres roster. “If you all don’t talk that great of English, you can talk to each other and help each other learn. You just manage, and try to learn English as fast as you can.”
In the rare instance when a player doesn’t speak any English at all, teams will sometimes go to great lengths to help them feel comfortable — especially for a potential star player. When the Blackhawks signed Artemi Panarin and brought him over from Russia for the 2015-16 season, they also signed Panarin’s buddy and SKA Saint Petersburg teammate Viktor Tikhonov, who grew up in San Jose, Calif., and speaks perfect English and Russian. Tikhonov could play, but he was brought over more to be Panarin’s friend and guide to America than he was to provide scoring depth. Once Panarin had his feet underneath him, Tikhonov was rather coldly traded to Arizona.
Some friends of the SKA Saint Petersburg program went so far as to set up Panarin with an interpreter, Andrew Aksyonov, who, along with his wife, Yulia Mikhaylova, were Saint Petersburg natives who had been living in Chicago. The couple picked Panarin up at the airport, took him into their home and showed him where to get groceries and the like. It was supposed to be just until Tikhonov arrived, but they became close, and the Blackhawks even hired Aksyonov to serve as Panarin’s interpreter.
Anything to make a player feel more comfortable because anxiety off the ice easily can spill onto the ice.
And that anxiety is real. Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, now the only Russian in the Blackhawks room, said the hardest thing when he first came to North America, leaving Moscow in the KHL for Toronto in the NHL at age 25, was English slang and hockey vernacular. His English was quite good, but he kept hearing words he had never heard before, lingo that’s commonplace in the NHL but gets lost in translation. So he leaned heavily on the other Russian in the room, winger Nikita Soshnikov.
“You just want to confirm something, make sure you’re hearing the right thing,” Zaitsev said. “It can be hard. Sometimes you just want to talk to somebody in Russian. You need that. It’s always going to be hard, especially that first year.”
The culture shock, of course, goes beyond the language. If you come from a small town in Russia or Czechia or wherever and you land in, say, New York or Los Angeles or Toronto, it can be overwhelming. Merelä, for one, is grateful he ended up in Tampa — a real city, yes, but a more manageable one, with a laidback vibe.
“We don’t have really big cities in Finland,” he said. “There are a couple of OK ones, a couple hundred thousand people, but nothing like (North America). So this is probably one of the best places to play. You can figure it out pretty fast and it’s not that big. It’s easy to live here and the weather’s good and all the people are nice. Maybe if I went to some other place, it wouldn’t have been as good.”
Joining a new team is never easy. Joining a new continent is something else entirely. There’s so much to navigate, so much to absorb, so much to learn. And doing it while feeling isolated and alone is almost hard to fathom. So, in Girgensons’ words, “You manage. You figure it out.” Eventually, your new home becomes simply home, and teammates and friendships transcend borders and languages.
But still, even after fully assimilating into North American life, it’s always nice to have someone from back home at your side.
“It’s less of an issue now that I’ve been here a while, but it’s still easier to talk to somebody that speaks your language, and who you can talk to about the news going on in Russia,” Trenin said. “When (the team) brings someone from your country, it’s exciting. You stick together.”
Then he smiled.
“Even if you don’t really like them.”
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos: John Russell, Bill Wippert, Christopher Mast / NHLI via Getty Images)