Eduard Smirnov has learned techniques on the ice from opposite sides of the world, all with a goal of reaching the National Hockey League. In two years of American hockey, the offensive talent has shown he can be a difference maker on the ice. But he still has a ways to go when it comes to fashion in America.
The 19-year-old from Yurslaval, Russia, could be a walking billboard from the disco age.
When he’s not sporting hockey pads for the Gillette Wild junior hockey squad, Smirnov wears colorful T-shirts with complex, intricate patterns and 1980’s style jackets that his coach likens to “Michael Jackson parachute jackets.”
He would, coach TomWinkler jokes, “fit in at a European discotheque.”
But Smirnov, who grew up in a city of 598,000 about 160 miles northeast of Moscow, is doing most of his dancing these days on the ice.That, after all, is the focus of his dreams.
Coming to America
When Smirnov came to America in November 2010, he left a lot of things behind. Family, friends, his girlfriend, not to mention comfort and familiarity with his surroundings.
One of his biggest adjustments was the language.
Playing in Hampton Roads, Va., for the Junior Whalers under Winkler, Smirnov was the object of lots of practical jokes a year ago, most of which involved slang he didn’t understand. His English is still far from fluent. But he’s gotten better by studying the language. “He’ll kind of give you that squinty-eyed look like, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying’ if he doesn’t understand what you’re saying,” Winkler said. Casey Moneer, who played with Smirnov last year in Hampton Roads, said his teammate has become more expressive and comfortable talking with teammates.“His English has gotten 1,000 times better since then,” Winkler said.For all the adjustments to living in the Western world, Smirnov is taking everything in stride. Or at least he appears to be. He Skypes with his family and girlfriend on a regular basis and said he’s grown fond of the open space that comes with living in a sparsely populated state. “I don’t like the big town because it’s a lot of people, a lot of traffic,” he said. But there still may be a bit of a language hurdle for him. Asked what was toughest about leaving Russia behind in his quest to reach the NHL, he had a surprising answer.“It wasn’t so hard because I got my Visa on my first try,” he said. But the language barrier doesn’t hinder his performance in the hockey rink.That’s where his skates do the talking.
Setting the bar high
A year ago, the Russian scorer notched an estimated 25 goals in 40 games. Winkler brought him in midway through the season to give the team an added offensive presence. It paid dividends.
“He made a huge impact,” Winkler said.
He’s easily on track to duplicate that feat or better it on the ice for the Gillette Wild.
But the forward has set the bar high.
His goal is to finish the season with 60 points, a number that he decided would denote a successful season and earn him attention from coaches and scouts at the next level. He had 16 points in 13 games through Friday night, putting him in a tie for the team lead.Believe it or not, North American hockey is far different than the European style.
The game is faster and more physical, more frenetic.
The rinks are smaller in North America and the ice is faster, which means hockey players in North America have to have split-second reaction times.
Smirnov, who played in a junior league in Russia three years ago, is making the adjustment.
He came to North America after a family advisor told him about the ample opportunities to play out West.
“It was a good decision,” Smirnov said. “I like American hockey better than European.”
Whether it’s Gillette, Virginia, Calgary, or New York, Smirnov said he doesn’t really care.
The 6-foot-3 scorer has another year of eligibility at the junior level after the 2011-12 season has ended.
His chief concern is climbing the professional ladder, rung by rung.
“He needs to continue to get bigger and stronger,” Winkler said. “He’s pretty hard to knock off his skates, but as he goes through the ranksm it’s going to get tougher.”Gettting to the next level is a tall order, one that most hockey players never realize. “You have to be a pro everyday if you want to be a professional,” Smirnov said.
He’s earning fans in Gillette, too.“Honestly, I think he probably would’ve played in Russia if we didn’t have a team here,” Moneer said.