The Chicago Blackhawks are an international team with players hailing from six countries. It’s no surprise that leads to challenges in communicating with each other, so everyone has to find different ways to get on the same page, even if they speak different languages.
ESPN’s Emily Kaplan wrote a fantastic story about this aspect of hockey Wednesday, and it begins by noting how Patrick Kane had tried talking with Russian winger Artemi Panarin when the two began playing together in 2015. One of Kane’s answers? Trying to talk to him in English with a Russian accent.
"If I was talking to Panarin," Kane says. "I would speak to him in [English, but with] a Russian accent."
This is one of the unique challenges that NHL players face on the job. Most players come from North America, so English is their first language, but others such as Gustav Forsling, Jan Rutta, and Artem Anisimov grew up overseas. Even Anisimov, who had helped Panarin adjust to life in Chicago as a fellow Russian and NHL veteran, has trouble sometimes.
"Yeah, [Kane] try the fake accents," Anisimov says. "[Jonathan] Toews does the fake accent, too, sometimes. It gets worse, honestly, I don't understand them when they do their accents sometimes. But they try anyway."
Okay, so maybe the fake accents don’t actually work that well for everyone, but at least they’re trying.
Anisimov told Kaplan that he couldn’t speak English at all when he joined the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack as a 19-year-old. He was forced to pick up the language on the fly after his only Russian teammate was loaned to another team during his rookie season. That can’t be easy adjusting to life in a new country that speaks a different language while trying to make it as a hockey player at the game’s highest level.
"The living stuff was hard to learn," Anisimov said. "Like finding good food, finding good restaurants, gas stations, how to pump your car, all little things you have to do every day. The hockey stuff was easier. You only need to know certain words: Heads up. Time. Chip. Over."
It clearly helps these players to have others on the roster who come from the same area. Anisimov is the only Russian player on the Hawks right now, but he had Panarin and Viktor Tikhonov when he first arrived. Michal Kempny had fellow Czech defenseman Michal Rozsival when he joined Chicago last year, and Rutta had Kempny and Rozsival to help him adjust this year. Forsling had fellow Swede Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Teuvo Teravainen had Kimmo Timonen as a mentor for part of his rookie season. Time after time, the Hawks show they value this kind of supportive relationship.
Sometimes, that might mean leaving someone like Kane out of a conversation. "There would be times I would sit in the middle of them on the bench and they would be talking Russian to each other," Kane says. "And I would just get up and walk to the other side."
But being able to talk to someone off the ice, especially on the road when away from your friends and family, can be really helpful for players. It’s a great article from Kaplan that’s worth checking out in full.