Imagine moving to a new country for work. You don’t speak the same language as your boss or your coworkers. It’s a new home, a new gig and a totally new lifestyle.
Now imagine you’re only 17 years old.
It may sound intimidating, but Rangers defenceman Dmitrii Sergeev has done just that. The young Russian was the team’s first round pick in the 2013 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft and arrived at The Aud at the end of the summer, just in time for training camp. He doesn’t speak English, but you can tell he’s excited– the smile on his face speaks a universal language.
His shy grin was in full force when he sat down after a big road win to share his story through a translator. It turns out that playing for the Rangers is a dream come true for Dmitrii.
“I like the Canadian hockey style,” he explains, adding that coming to play in the Ontario Hockey League is “an opportunity for a future to play in the NHL.”
Like his North American counterparts, he got an early start when his parents decided to try him on skates. His father was never a hockey player, but he was an avid swimmer, and when Dad introduced his son to his first sport, Dmitrii was hooked.
“When I was five, my dad brought me to the skating rink. It wasn’t really my decision in the beginning, it was my parents! But I started skating and I guess after that, I just liked it.”
It took a serious level of commitment to move around the world to pursue the sport he loved – especially when you throw in the language barrier. But if you ask him if there was any hesitation when the time came to pack his bags, his smile gives way to determination.
“No. Not at all. I was looking forward to a challenge – you can’t be afraid of that, trying something new,” he insists, the sharpness of his native Russian accentuating his serious tone. But he will admit that it was definitely one of the toughest challenges he has faced.
“At the beginning it was really hard, but it’s getting better. I’m starting to relax, but at the start it was difficult. There is a difference from Russian hockey. Different skating rinks, different rules, the coaches teach us differently, different practices.There’s more power plays here than in Russia – that’s what North American hockey is known for [back home]. And in the beginning it was very hard for me. But now I’m getting used to the process.”
Dmitrii grew up on Russian hockey: far too young to remember the original Canada-Soviet rivalries, he has still seen the talent coming from his homeland with contemporary players like Pavel Datsuyk, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin. But,while he’s respectful of his nation’s reputation as a hockey powerhouse, he says he didn’t have a idol growing up.
“I didn’t have a favourite player. I liked Russian hockey but I was always taught not to have someone I model myself after. I just wanted to reach the top of my own game.”
That focus on constantly improving his skills helped get him where he is now. The CHL Import Draft is the opportunity for teams to bringing in elite skill from around the world. In past years, Kitchener has selected players like Gabriel Landeskog and Radek Faksa, bringing them across the pond to The Aud. There is a world of hockey talent to choose from, but General Manager Murray Hiebert seemed particularly pleased to get his hands on Sergeev with the 23rd overall pick. After seeing him in action with Team Russia at the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge in Quebec last Christmas, Hiebert liked the hardworking, shut-down defenceman and his aggressive style of play. And Sergeev says there’s even more to his game that he’s excited to demonstrate.
“I’m a good skater, that’s my biggest strength. With more opportunities to skate with the puck, I will show that. But I’m happy to play a team game. It’s not about what I can show off.”
Sometimes it is a struggle to communicate with his new teammates off the ice, but there’s no confusing Dmitrii’s team values. When he talks about his goals for the season, the Rangers and their success are the first things he mentions.
“I want to stick to the team’s goals and do whatever the coaches ask me to. They’ve set a level for the team and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish. It’s not about personal goals, just being steady with the team.”
But press him a little, and he’ll confess that there is one personal milestone he wants to achieve – one that drove him all the way from Chelyabinsk, Russia.
“The end goal to reach the top of my knowledge and ability and to get to the NHL level.”
Dmitrii is making new friends along the way, happy to sit down and try to communicate with everyone in the dressing room, from coaches to players. And he’s teaching his teammates some of his native tongue as well, though he smiles mischievously when you ask if he’s included a few ‘bad words’.
The season is still young, and the fresh-faced blueliner is still adjusting to a new style of play, but the reviews have been good. And Dmitrii says the admiration is mutual. When asked if he’s glad he came to play at The Aud, he doesn’t hesitate.
“ÐºÐ¾Ð½ÐµÑÐ½Ð¾! (Of course!),” he laughs.