Tuesday October 13th, 2015

PHILADELPHIA – Deplaned in a country he had never before visited, surrounded by signs displaying directions he could not read and fellow travelers speaking a language he could not understand, the NHL’s oldest rookie tried his best to stand still. It was early August in Terminal 4 at JFK Airport, hardly the softest landing spot for the first leg of Evgeny Medvedev’s journey, and his ride to his new home had gotten stuck in traffic. He understood the steep challenges—culturally, linguistically, athletically—that awaited his arrival in the United States. Now, feeling the thick summer air, much hotter than where the 33-year-old had spent his entire professional career in Russia, it all felt real.

“He don’t know what hit him,” says Slava Kuznetsov, the professional skating coach who eventually plucked Medvedev from the airport and drove him to the Philadelphia Flyers’ practice facility in southern New Jersey. “Everything just, like an avalanche, hit him hard.”

Witness, then, the difference made in two months. On Monday night, Medvedev debuted at home during the Flyers’ 1–0 win over Florida when he joined a first-period rush and helped clear space for Brayden Schenn’s eventual winning goal.

Later, once he finished his standard 20-minute postgame workout, Medvedev returned to an otherwise empty Wells Fargo Center locker room, sat at a teammate’s stall, offered a handshake and said, in friendly and rhythmic English, “Hello. Good to meet you.”

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Ask if the cultural shift from his homeland was ever intimidating, and he shakes his head no. Ask if learning this new tongue seems like a second job, and he calls it a hobby. By now, he had obtained his driver’s license and Social Security. He had found a house and located the grocery. He knew where to drive and how to get there, what to eat and where to buy it. Communicating with teammates has been tough at times, silent hand movements often substituting for words, but it was just like the adage he heard in Russia.

“Like a dog, you can understand but can’t say,” Medvedev says, this time through a Russian journalist who interpreted the interview. “Everyone goes through it. I’m not the first. I’m not the last.”

He is, however, the second-oldest Russian/Soviet bloc player to ever debut in the NHL, according to ESPN, four years younger now than Helmuts Balderis was on Oct. 5, 1989. A towering, mobile left-handed shot skating on Philadelphia’s third pairing, Medvedev is a three-time KHL All-Star, two-time gold medalist at the world championships and, as of May 20, the owner of a one-year contract with Philly worth $3 million. He brings what Flyers GM Ron Hextall calls an upgrade in “skill level, skating and puck movement on the back end” to a team that was expected to be defensively challenged this season.

Medvedev was the reason a smile could found on the face of the Flyers’ first year coach Dave Hakstol several hours before the blueliner made his first regular-season home appearance.

“You find yourself in a meeting with a lot of hand gestures, and for whatever reason, speaking loudly,” Hakstol says. “None of those things help. But that’s what you find yourself doing. I give the credit to Evgeny. I think he’s made it easy for everyone around him because of his effort in wanting to learn.”

For this reason, Hakstol and the Flyers hold few concerns about Medvedev’s assimilation into the NHL, citing his high hockey intelligence and thirst to learn. Three times each week during the summer, Medvedev took lessons with an English tutor, and while the demands of the regular season often brush aside such non-hockey activities, his next one is scheduled for this Saturday.

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“The only difference is, when foreigners come to play in the KHL, everyone is trying to learn English,” Medvedev says through the interpreter. “When Russians come to America, no one’s trying to learn Russian. It’s [the Russian players’] turn to learn English. It’s the universal language. A lot of people in a lot of countries know it, but there are a lot of Russian speakers in this world too. It’s a large population. Educationally and intellectually, it’s really useful for me to learn English no matter what, even just for the future.”

So Kuznetsov, who also helped translate English-language interviews during training camp, advised Medvedev to crank the volume on his television, flip the channel to news stations and “build up your dictionary” that way. At the rink, Medvedev quickly adopted the basic terminology for Hakstol’s system—D-to-D passes, positioning on the hashmarks, handling pressure on puck retrievals—and an app on his phone helps fill in the gaps with fellow Flyers. Recently, he joked with Kuznetsov about a day of “great communication with the guys.” When Kuznetsov pressed for explanation, wondering how that was possible, Medvedev wiggled his fingers and joked that they hurt.

“You almost have to take yourself and envision going to Russia to play hockey, and nobody else speaks your language,” Hextall says. “You’re immersed in Russian culture, Russian language, and you don’t have a clue. It’s a big one. I think his commitment in terms of hard work in the gym and on the ice has been absolutely outstanding, but I’ve been equally impressed with his commitment off the ice.

“He’s not Americanized yet, but he’s getting there. He’s done a real good job.”

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Hakstol adds “When you think of it in terms of communication, you’re living in a little bit of an isolated bubble. The street signs, the newspapers, the language around you, nothing makes sense. Every little thing that we take for granted is not there and available to you. A good lesson would be to go over and spend a week in a foreign country where English is not the first language, go over and experience that, and then extend that to month after month.”

For now, as the regular season begins to chug along with its grinding rhythm, the Flyers and their new defenseman are taking “baby steps,” in Hextall’s words. Last week’s two-game swing through Tampa Bay and Florida, when Medvedev notched an assist in his Flyers debut and logged more than 18 minutes on both nights, allowed him the chance to join teammates for steak dinners. Defenseman Radko Gudas, Medvedev’s partner on Monday night, found some common ground between Russian and his native Czech, though he told ESPN they were “all bad words.” 

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Medvedev deliberately waited until after he played in the 2014 Sochi Olympics to make his NHL decision, calling it “more wise and more practical” to train in Russia anyway, and wanted his contract with the KHL’s Kazan Ak-Bars to expire before he signed elsewhere. Despite the lack of Russian speakers on the NHL roster, he chose Philadelphia because of the team's continual interest, and Hextall said the Flyers had tracked him for the past several years.

“So why would I say no?” Medvedev says. “I didn’t even have to think about it.” 

He consulted several countrymen about the move, including former Flyers Dmitry Yushevich and Ilya Bryzgalov, and asked around at last year’s world championships. But in hopping aboard that flight to JFK, Medvedev also left his wife and young daughter back home. They plan to join him soon in Philadelphia.

“Fifteen October,” he said, no translation necessary.

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