London, Ontario is 5,723 miles from Prokopievsk, Russia, but Sergei Korostin believes the quickest way to realize his NHL dream is there.
It was the desire to accelerate his development that prompted him to leave the Moscow Dynamo organization mid-way through last year to join the Texas Tornados of the NAHL.
"Because I don’t have long time on the ice, you know? I don’t have game every time and I sit," Korostin said, referring to his ice time in Russia. "Better for me if I go to the U.S. After this I come to Canada. They have a good game and it’s good for me and my styles in hockey.
"When I go to the Dallas Stars, they say to me, ‘You will play in NAHL with the Texas Tornados’ and after that, say ‘you will play next season [with] the London Knights OHL. And maybe you will play in farm team, and you will play OHL’ — it’s good for me."
If the recent past is any indication, coming to the OHL will definitely be good for Korostin. When it comes to developing players from the former Soviet Union, the Knights have a recent alumnus who graduated summae cum laude from the OHL — the Montreal Canadiens‘ Sergei Kostitsyn. And Knights General Manager Mark Hunter said he’s applied one key lesson from his experience with the young Belarusian.
"Be patient," Mark Hunter said, his normally stern visage breaking out into a grin. "Be patient. Patient with their language, the culture on the ice. It takes them to be taught and with a stern hand or with a soft touch. The word always comes up with these kids is to be patient and to teach them the right way to play in North American hockey."
London has served as a dependable pipeline of talent to the NHL since the franchise has been under the stewardship of the Hunter brothers — Mark and President/Head Coach Dale. Notable recent graduates include Corey Perry, Sam Gagner, Sergei Kostitsyn, and two players who were taken first overall in their respective years at the NHL entry draft: Rick Nash and Pat Kane.
"They have to buy in — trust us that we know what we’re doing," Mark Hunter explained "Dale’s played 19 years in the National Hockey League and he’s had a great coaching record here. [Korostin]’s got to go, ‘You know, this is what I have to do to take that next step.’"
Korostin got a head start on his North American career when he joined the NAHL. In 19 games he scored eight goals and 10 assists and finished the season +4. He also scored two goals in three playoff contests with the Tornado. In seven OHL games so far, Korostin has accounted for one goal and three assists in four games. His goal was scored with the man advantage and Korostin has received ample power play time with the club. However, Korostin remains very much a perimeter-based player, rarely venturing in front of the net, prefering to remain on he periphery waiting for an outlet pass. He admitted that the adjustment to the style of hockey played — and the venues — on this side of the Atlantic have been a challenge.
"It’s hard for me because it’s small arena, big speed, hard work — hit every time. It’s a changed game for me, because in Russia you get pass pass, here’s it’s shoot, shoot — sometimes pass, but no," he said. "It’s hard for me."
Adding to that challenge is the language barrier. While Korostin has an impressive grasp of the English language, he’s still shy about speaking — apologizing in advance for his level of English, which is better than he gives himself credit for — but is taking the steps to learn. And he admits that certain things — the language of hockey — transcend mere words.
"Sometimes, with some guys, I don’t understand, so I look on the table [whiteboard] and I understand what I need do on the ice. Hockey language I understand. I don’t understand if I go to the opera or the political — that I don’t understand with my English," Korostin said. "I study English in Texas for two months with my English teacher — she’s Russian. She’s from Russia and the Dallas Stars get her for me. I speak with [her] every day and I study English for four months right now — maybe four-and-a-half months.
"It’s a little bit tough for me. Right now my English is not so good and it’s bad for me. I look what doing guys, and I look across the table and it’s not hard to learn no matter what the language is."
Living in London, ON, which has no Russian enclave, Korostin is forced to speak — and thereby learn — English. "No, not too many people speak Russian," Korostin said. "Maybe in Toronto there are some Russians, but here I don’t hear. Yes, it’s helping me to study English. If I do speak to Russians every day, then I don’t learn English. Maybe it’s good for me, I don’t know."
Korostin admits to being on the Internet everyday, staying in contact with friends and family back in Russia. However, despite the regular Russian-language chats, the Knights assistant coach Pat Curcio said that while it may take away from his time learning English, there are other aspects of hockey life that this continued contact will help Korostin learn to deal with.
"I think you want to still have him be in touch so he feels that he’s not too homesick. You have to realize, though, if you want to be a hockey player there are sacrifices you have to make and one of them is what he’s doing now — living away from home."
While language may be the largest barrier, there are other aspects relating to the transition from Russia to Canada that also add to the difficulty level in developing a player, Dale Hunter explained.
"It’s a process, it’s hard to coach a kid that doesn’t understand. So we’ve got to give him a little more time to figure it out," Dale Hunter said. "They learn the language — we put them in school, or get tutors. It’s tough — different food, different everything. We’ve been fortunate that when the kids come in we’ve got good billets and they spend a lot of time with them, talking to them, finding out what they like to eat and everything, and basically we haven’t had any problems with them that way.
"It’s tough. They have their friends, their families, their girlfriends over there. I can just imagine how I’d feel if I was in Russia playing or coaching and you’re always wondering what’s going on back here."
That said, learning the language while learning the North American game here has its advantages, Dale Hunter explained — pointing to Sergei Kostitsyn as an example of how European and Russian (or, in Kostitsyn’s case, Belarusian) players can benefit from the experience. And he added that he sees some similar qualities in his current charge.
"Sergei [Kostitsyn] was a smart kid, he picked up English right away and he took off from there. Coming over here and playing here — he went pro, he knows the language and he knows what’s expected from his time here," Dale Hunter said. "It’s an advantage that [Korostin] could speak [English] coming in and he’s used to the small rinks over here. It’s a totally different game from over there with the big rinks, so he’s adapted very well that way both speaking and getting used to the rinks."
Greg Stefan, a former NHLer who currently is the head coach of the Plymouth Whalers, said that the fact that these players can come play in the OHL is an advantage that Russians and Europeans who played during his day didn’t have.
"I think it’s important. I think it’s the brand of hockey — we’re a pretty similar brand of hockey to the National Hockey League, we have a grinding schedule, we have a grinding practice schedule, so I think it’s pretty much as close as you’re going to get to the National Hockey League," Stefan said. "There are lot of quality coaches in the Canadian Hockey League — as a matter of fact, a lot of them have coached in the National Hockey League, so I think having that underneath them for a couple of years, it makes the transition to the National Hockey League a little easier.
"I think all the players from this level to the next, it’s about preparation, professionalism, about playing away from the puck. It’s so important at the National Hockey League and even at this level, these young kids are very talented kids at this age level and they can get away with a lot of things, they’re very talented with the puck. But when you go up to the next age level and are playing against the best players in the world and you can’t always do those types of things. If you can’t do those type of things and you’re not playing well away from the puck, then you can’t play at the NHL level."
Mark Hunter said just as the coaches need to learn how to best utilize these kids, import players have to learn how to adjust to North American coaching, and the expectations placed upon them by the teams that have obtained their rights.
"I think the culture change of a smaller rink is the first step and getting him to understand what the coaches want, what kind of hockey they want him to play, and getting him used to playing North American hockey," he said. "The reason why he’s here is because he wants to play in the National Hockey League and for us to do that he has to play the way the Dallas Stars [want him to] — no turnovers in the neutral zone, drive the net, work hard away from the puck — because he’s got some very good gifts: scoring and passing. That’s there, but he’s got to do the little things to take that next step.
"I think he’s still got some push here to get playing the right way. I mean, getting used to what the coaches want, but that’s been an adjustment for our whole team as we’ve had a lot of new players, these kids it’s going to take some time to know what the coaches want. That’s what Korostin is going to have to figure out — every coach over here is going to coach differently than a Russian coach. At the end of the day it’s going to be an adjustment period, but you know with his skill and his gift of finishing and passing, he’s going to be a good player, but it’s going to take some time."
It’s a message that’s starting to sink in. "[The coaches and I] talk about game every day, after practice, before practice we talk about backcheck. We talk about power play and offensive zone, and we do that on the ice," Korostin said. "It’s just a [few] games into the season. It’s hard for me — I’m an offensive game. I need to do better, when I’ll do better maybe I’ll get more [ice] time."
Curcio added that despite the language barrier and the unfamiliar surroundings, Korostin and his North American teammates have come together nicely.
"He’s fit in real well. He’s become quickly a part of the London Knights family. The guys have been hanging around and spending a lot of time with them. He’s fit in and I don’t think it’s going to be a big problem for him in adapting to his style," Curcio said. "I think it’s just trying to get him to spend as much time as possible with the players, maybe getting him to go out and go to the malls, do the movie thing, and get him accustomed to what we do around here — I think that’s the key."
And so Korostin’s doing just what every other teenage boy does. The team has taken him under its collective wing and by all accounts Korostin is fitting in gloriously. Admitting to some homesickness, Korostin does keep in frequent contact with those back home. But he still makes time for socializing with the team — even if that means going to a restaurant known for its wait staff’s pulchritude and other physical attributes.
"Off the ice, I come back to home and see Russian Internet and need Internet in Russia to talk every day with my parents, my girlfriend. Sometimes I go downtown and sometimes we go to Moxie’s — Moxie’s is a good restaurant," he said, pausing for a moment before breaking into a huge grin and laughing.