Some of the most demanding practices Valeri Karpov has faced in the NHL were conducted at the dining room table of his still-bare Irvine apartment, with his sticks propped in a corner near the front door and his other equipment lying outside on the patio.
“Imagine I’m a real estate broker, and you come in and tell me what you want,” said Dimitri Agratchev, a Walt Disney Co. translator and tutor. “How can I help you?”
“Do you have any house?” Karpov asked in a slightly halting voice.
Agratchev: “What do you do? For a living? What is your job?”
Karpov: “I work for hockey team, Anaheim?”
Agratchev: “You work for a hockey team? You are a player? Oh, wonderful! I have many houses for you. Are you looking to buy or rent?
Karpov: “Rent. I need three bedrooms, with a yard for my son?”
Agratchev: “How much would you like to pay?
Karpov: “As little as possible.”
Agratchev: “That is not always good. . . . Would you be prepared to go a little higher for a place ideal for a child with a big yard and a swimming pool?”
Karpov: “OK. Good deal.”
Agratchev: “How important is a swimming pool?”
Karpov: “Very important.”
Agratchev: “Can you live without a swimming pool?”
Karpov: “Better with a swimming pool.”
A swimming pool is not a necessity in Chelyabinsk, the industrial city Karpov is from in the Ural mountains. It’s known as the place where Siberia begins. A dishwasher and a “meek-row-wave” are other items Karpov wanted to have ready before his wife and 1-year-old son arrived this month.
Karpov’s world-class hockey ability has brought him to a new life in Anaheim at 23, along with two other rookies from the former Soviet Union. Nikolai Tsulygin, 19, is from Ufa in the autonomous Russian republic of Bashkiria, home to a huge oil refinery around which much of the life of the town revolves, and Oleg Tverdovsky, who holds a Russian passport but is from Donetsk, a mining town in the coal fields of economically strapped Ukraine.
Life is harder and more bleak in their cities than in the more cosmopolitan and European cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. If not for hockey, Tsulygin would probably have followed his mother and father into the road-building industry, for which he has a technical degree. Tverdovsky, asked what he might be doing, only beams. “I cannot really imagine life without hockey.”
To discuss what is different about their new world is to begin a conversation that would never end.
“Everything,” Karpov says simply, with a shrug and a smile. Here, there are bank machines at almost any corner or convenience store, ready to spew forth money. “How convenient,” Karpov notes in Russian. In all of Moscow, there may be three, he says. Here, there are cellular phones available in every stereo store--a definite threat to any budget--and an endless array of hockey highlight tapes and video games. How do you say video game in Russian? Karpov shrugs the shrug again and laughs. “Nintendo.”
Still, as fortunate as they feel to be playing hockey and making a living beyond their imagination in North America, the young Russian players are sensitive to the sort of post-Cold War American superiority they sometimes feel is a personal put-down.
“That is the sort of thing we have to deal with, that people sometimes dismiss Russia as a backward country,” Tverdovsky said. “Sometimes they hear us speak Russian in a store someplace, and they look at you in a different way as if you come from this really different and backward place. While it is true that Russia and the economy, in particular, are in decline, I feel that it has nothing to do with people as individuals and it’s very unfair to treat people in that way.”
They also notice the way people sometimes speak to them as if they are not very intelligent at best and children at worst--even though they know more English than those who look down their noses at them do Russian.
“To get away from that, one needs to learn English,” Tverdovsky says simply in Russian.
Russian players are no longer an anomaly in the NHL. The Ducks’ Anatoli Semenov, 32, is a five-year veteran and Vancouver’s Pavel Bure, 23, is one of the league’s biggest stars. But the adjustment to a new language and culture is still difficult for the new players who arrive--and one some players make more quickly than others.
Karpov, who is four or five years older than the other Russian rookies and players who played for Russia in the Olympics at Lillehammer, has had no trouble stepping on the ice, where he is on a line with rookie Paul Kariya and Semenov. And though he knew only the Cyrillic alphabet when he arrived in California this summer, he has now passed his written and driving exams to acquire his driver’s license after several attempts.
Tverdovsky is the youngest of the Russian rookies and, at 18, is here without any family, unlike the others, who are both married. But he has a playful, outgoing personality and--knowing where he was headed--he took English in high school, where he made almost all 5s, the equivalent of a near straight-A student. He is given to concluding translated interviews with a startling, only slightly accented comment, such as, “Next time we interview in English.”
Tverdovsky’s big accomplishment so far was passing the written test for his license on the first attempt--something many native English speakers fail to do. But the driving test?
“It takes certain skills that are not the way people drive on the road,” he said through Agratchev. “They want you to keep turning your head, like on a swivel. And go very slowly and keep looking at the speedometer.”
Tsulygin, a gangly youth whose slouched shoulders suggest an adolescent awkwardness, negotiated a contract that would allow him to return to Russia this season, and has been assigned to the Central Red Army team.
Returning home is not always an appealing option. Tverdovsky, who was born in Ukraine but chose Russian citizenship in order to play with the more competitive Russian national teams, hopes to live here permanently, bringing his parents and 9-year-old sister with him.
After signing a three-year, $4.2-million contract this summer, he must be wary of reports of extortion attempts by Russian organized crime.
“Yes, he is aware that it is a concern, and if he goes back he will go to the Ukraine,” Agratchev said. “He will not go to Moscow and spend time in Moscow because there he feels is not very safe. It is not as if you are guaranteed as soon as you come to Moscow you will be hit or something, but certainly it is not very safe.”
Agratchev, a former professor and high-level simultaneous interpreter, works for Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner as an international business development adviser. He tutored Karpov and Tsulygin extensively during the summer, and has helped Tverdovsky at the draft and when he arrived shortly before training camp.
He has taught them English from a text designed for practical living, from “Making Wise Purchases in the Grocery Store” to “Housing for the Family.”
One chapter they can skip is Unit 8: “Finding a Job.”
On the ice, the players rely on the universal language of the game, where a stick tapped sharply on the ice is calling for a pass, and a defensive pair learn intuitively which defender will take the man and which will chase down the puck.
New drills can be a challenge, which is why Coach Ron Wilson looks to see where the young Russian players are before starting a drill at a spot in the line well in front of them, giving them a chance to watch and imitate. Wilson was in Vancouver when Bure arrived speaking little English, and his attitude is that the players have no option but to immerse. He will not learn any Russian himself.
“I don’t know a word except, ‘Nyet,’ he said, and then added a teasing reference to his U.S. team’s victory over Russia in the World Championships last spring. “Whenever they’re getting too big, I just say, ‘USA 3, Russia 1.’ ”
The biggest challenges are the everyday ones, like understanding the American banking system. Karpov’s joke is that the best Russian bank is “in a stocking at home.” Buying a car is difficult, too, with the option to lease and the confusing absence of a hard-and-fast price (imagine the palpitations of a car salesman’s heart when he realizes he has a young millionaire who barely knows the language on his lot).
There are embarrassing moments, too, like the time when Tverdovsky saw a young woman in a store who had in her hand the exact item he was searching for. He pointed and tried to tell her he wanted something “like” that, only to have the girl think he was telling her he “liked” her.
Their feelings about life at home in Russia are mixed, because the political upheaval has brought both good changes and bad. Tverdovsky, who knew little of the Russian Orthodox church as a child, now wears a gold crucifix on a chain around his neck.
“When I was little in the old Communist days, I knew very little about it,” he said in Russian. “These were not things people talk about or things people did. I know I was christened, baptized in a church. Yes, I feel it is an important part of life to go to church. It makes you feel good to go.”
No matter the economic difficulties or the brutalities of the old regime, these players have been proud to play for Russian national and junior national teams and hope to do so again, even if most of their time is spent in North America.
“Of course it matters a great deal. It’s very important (that we are) Russian,” Tverdovsky said in Russian. “I think to anybody the country where a person was born and raised, it’s a great honor and privilege to represent that country on its national team.”
Karpov’s son was born in Russia, but will not be raised there.
“I think he’ll get a lot more opportunities, and an opportunity to get a better education certainly, than at home,” Karpov said through Agratchev. “He will be able to adapt much better to normal American life--much better than his parents. He will in many ways probably grow up to be American. I’m saying that because I know some other Russian kids who came over who were even older who are like Americans now. My wife and I will try to do our best to make him learn the Russian language and not ignore the place we are from.”
Foreign Farm System?
Players in the Mighty Ducks organization who are from cities in what was once the Soviet Union:
Moscow: Anatoli Semenov, Mikhail Shtalenkov
Donetsk: Oleg Tverdovsky
Chelyabinsk: Valeri Karpov, Maxim Bets
Ufa: Nikolai Tsulygin