In 2011, the USHL increased the amount of foreign players each club could carry from two to four. As a result, many teams have put more emphasis on global scouting in order to recruit European skaters that will improve their teams. But, while many of the foreign players in the USHL are from Canada, two teams are reaping the benefits of their global outreach and, in turn, have improved the league’s brand among the global hockey community.
Grigory Dikushin joined the Green Bay Gamblers from Moscow, Russia in 2011-12 and has 13 points in 26 games this season, nearly matching his total of 15 he had in 42 games last season. Cologne, Germany’s Fredrik Tiffels was named the 25th-best USHL prospect in NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary rankings this year after recording 14 points in 23 games in his first season with the Muskegon Lumberjacks this year.
Both players came to America knowing little English and with a lot of improvements to be made in their game. Their choice to play in the USHL, rather than the CHL or for hockey leagues closer to home, is a testament to how well America’s premier junior hockey league is regarded worldwide.
“The [NHL] draft speaks for itself,” says Gamblers head coach Derek Lalonde. “To have six kids go in the first round, you don’t get better exposure than that.”
Of the six USHL players that were first round draft picks in Pittsburgh this past June, Zemgus Girgensons stands out because the Latvian forward went directly from the Dubuque Fighting Saints to the Buffalo Sabres organization upon being drafted No. 14 overall—bypassing college hockey entirely.
“We’re a development league to college, that’s a priority for us,” avers Lalonde, “but as you start to see [players like] Girgensons sign directly from our league it just speaks volumes.
“Many kids are going to turn to us from anywhere because of the college route, but they are turning to us for development too.”
“This hockey league is just faster than hockey in Russia,” says Dikushin, “more fights, more hits, quicker shots. In Russia I play with my age, here I play against up to age 21. It’s harder for me, but I like it when it’s harder.
“I don’t like easy play.”
While there may be a couple outliers that go from the USHL into the Canadian junior leagues, and even fewer that go directly to professional hockey, the vast majority of USHL players will go on to college. Currently, there are 238 players in the league that have committed to a college hockey program.
Lalonde’s Russian import, however, has a different plan in mind.
“When I come here I don’t think about college,” says Dikushin in an accent so thick you would think he was auditioning for a role as a character in a James Bond film.
“I’m not going to college. I don’t want to. Right now everyone from [my] team wants to go to college, they think college is better.”
Dikushin says he is unlikely to return to his native Russia, something that the powers that be back home have anticipated. In the past, the Russian Hockey Federation would discourage their players from playing junior hockey in North America and set punitive measures for turncoats.
“I think the Russian Hockey Federation is changing their mentality about hockey on the kids over there,” says Lalonde.
Dikushin has played in the U-17 and U-18 tournaments for the Russian national team. In the past, the federation would have ostracized a player like him for leaving the motherland by leaving him off of the roster.
“Obviously those renowned top-end guys you see in the CHL, but at the same time you see a player like him that is very important to their national team (join the USHL),” says the coach. “Back in the day it was almost unheard of that if a kid left Russia they wouldn’t take him on the national team. I think there’s a change and it’s a good change.
“Grigory is going to pave a way by him coming over here.”
“I don’t really want to go back to Russia,” he says. “I just want to play here or in Canada. If I’m not going to the OHL, I’m going to college. After this year I’ll decide where I want to go.”
“To our league’s credit, he came over here undecided on college or going to the CHL,” says Lalonde, “but he came here for the league first. His first priority was the league and that’s a credit to our league.”
Tiffels, on the other hand, has plans to play college hockey after his stint in the USHL. The increased visibility of the league worldwide enticed him to make the journey across the Atlantic to play junior hockey.
“Without question it’s growing,” says Lumberjacks coach Jim McKenzie, a 15-year NHL veteran that won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2003. “More and more of these European players realize that for them a lot of times they start playing pro pretty young and then they can’t go to college and have those extra years to develop and play college hockey, get a degree and then have a pro career.”
Without the resources to advertise formally throughout the hockey-playing world, the USHL is often spread by word of mouth from player to player.
“These guys go back and tell their friends what they experienced and what the league was like,” says McKenzie. “Each year there’s more guys that get drafted and, if you want a pro career after playing hockey, that in and of itself will sell itself to players once they start seeing where guys came from.”
“The team was nice to me,” says Tiffels with help from assistant coach Dave Noel-Bernier, who translated words the German-born player struggled with mid-sentence. “The teammates, the coaching staff and everything is pretty good.
“It wasn’t hard for me.”
Noel-Bernier spent three years playing professional hockey in Germany after four years at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The Quebec native also played two seasons for the Muskegon Fury, then of the United Hockey League, making him a fixture in the city. His fluency in German has helped Tiffels adapt to U.S. culture. Tiffels still struggles to articulate more advanced concepts in English. When asked to compare himself to a current NHL player, Noel-Bernier said that the coaching staff has not been able to get him to answer the question, despite offering the inquiry in writing as well as verbally.
“It will come in time,” he says.
“The one advantage of him coming over like that is full immersion,” says McKenzie, seconding the notion. “He’s learning so quick and he’s got an outgoing personality so he’ll learn to speak it a lot quicker than guys that are a little more shy and don’t really want to speak.”
In Green Bay none of the coaches speak Russian, so Dikushin is learning English through interactions with his billet family.
“We’re very fortunate that his billet family mother is from Siberia,” says Lalonde. “For him to be able to go home to someone that speaks his Russian dialect and [help him] learn his English.”
The language barrier may make life outside the rink a little more difficult for Dikushin and Tiffels, but on the ice the game itself is played the same whether you’re in Moscow or Cologne, Green Bay or Muskegon.
Hockey is the universal language spoken in the USHL, a language every teenager in the league struggles with, and that Dikushin and Tiffels are becoming more fluent in every day.
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