Simeon Varlamov: Stranger in a Strange Land

Varlamov contemplates his future

Varlamov contemplates his future


Simeon Varlamov is an exceptionally driven competitor, and like all of his prospect peers, passionate about his sport. But today he is very much a stranger in a strange land. We hope that our video of his first formal press conference in Washington yesterday illustrated how isolated he is here. According to Varlamov, his father will be coming over at some point to offer support, but today he speaks zero English, and he told us yesterday that he can receive precious little instruction and guidance from anyone affiliated with the Caps, on or off the ice. That’s a remarkable realm of isolation, and frankly, I find it deeply lamentable.
As a native Washingtonian, I abhor the thought of any young man or woman seeking some manner of the American dream, however that’s defined,¬†so isolated. This existence highlights the global origins of elite hockey talent, but also, from my vantage, the dire need for some manner of warm welcoming to be institutionalized not just by the Capitals but by all NHL clubs.
During yesterday’s presser,¬†I imagined ahead to Varlamov being on the Hershey Bears’ long bus rides this coming season. I¬†thought it harrowing for him to be riding those linguistically isolated from his teammates. It’s a real challenge I think for the Capitals’ organization. But I don’t think that hockey clubs should be singled out for more or less “hoping” that a foreign player’s presence here and immersion in our culture will eventually render them, at some point,¬†comfortable; I think it’s a part of¬†a long-standing¬†American creed ‚Äì a “tough love” expectation, a rough “rite of passage” into America for our newcomers. But I also believe it’s one that we ought to rigorously revisit.
Simeon expressed his intent to enroll in English classes yesterday, and hopefully he will arrive in Hershey this autumn with at least a rudimentary command of English basics. But like every other member of the Capitals’ organization, he ought to feel every bit as welcomed in the room as the right wing from Connecticut. How can one, though, when the most basic communication with teammates is impossible?
Our friend Dmitry Chesnokov was 14 when he moved from Moscow to the UK to study. “The first few weeks away from home were the toughest in terms of the language barrier, even though I had, what I thought at the time, was a very good grip on English. It wasn’t,” he told me.¬† Chesnokov found that adjusting to the culture took much longer.
“It was still somewhat easier for me, than what Varlamov will have to go through,” he added. “I came from a large city with a lot of Western influence — you know that Moscow is anything but a small Russian town.¬† Varlamov is from a much smaller Russian city. Thus, it will be harder for him.
“Language barrier is the most important factor,” Chesnokov noted. “Without¬†[command of English]¬†one cannot go grocery shopping, rent an apartment, buy a car, learn the rules of life in America. And most importantly, one cannot communicate with others here.¬†Communication is vital to learning the way of life in America, to making friends — which is important! –¬†and to get the job done well in net because one would not be able to understand coaches’ instructions.
“In Russia each team holds camp for a couple of months. They live together, train together, travel together, etc. A lot of times before games Russian teams do not live at home with their families, but at a hotel adjacent to or incorporated into their practice facility. It might be changing now, but it is still very different from the NHL. Varlamov will have to learn to train on his own, get ready for the season alone: rent a rink, hire a personal trainer, etc.
And last but certainly not least, Chesnokov pointed out, there is the issue of homesickness.
“Living in a different city in the same country could be lonely, let alone half across the world where food is different, people have different habits — like smiling to others, as weird as¬†that sounds.
“After the official presser when I asked him whether he was staying in the U.S. to look for a house, buy a car, etc., he told me there was no way, because he would “die” of boredom¬†with no one to talk to.”

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30 Responses to Simeon Varlamov: Stranger in a Strange Land

  1. maruk says:

    “today he speaks zero English, and he told us yesterday that he can receive precious little instruction and guidance from anyone affiliated with the Caps, on or off the ice.”
    Why exactly is this? Because it’s always been that way? This doesn’t make much sense to me. It strikes me not only as deeply lamentable, but very much against the Caps’ own self-interest.

  2. I think “because it’s always been that way” is as good an explanation as any. Others: to a degree that’s true perhaps with hockey moreso than any other sport, on the playing surface, the United Nations assembly of athletes excecute their actions often wordlessly — the notion of hockey itself being a vocabulary. Obviously, though, that has its limitations.

  3. Grunthos says:

    But for a team that keeps investing in young Russians, not having any infrastructure for acclimatization is just shooting yourself in the foot.

  4. Meg says:

    Surely there is someone in DC who speaks russian and is a Caps fan? I would think the capitals would be smart to reach out to people like that to get him some help (with off ice things like grocery shopping, making friends etc) – after all if he’s miserable he’s not going to play as well.

  5. fauxrumors says:

    1) The kid seems extraordinarily introverted or naive to have such a perspective. Certainly he can’t be the only player in his position?
    2) He was drafted 2 years ago. If he intended to play here someday perhaps he should have taken some initiative to learn the language here? One is only as isolated as they allow themselves to be.

  6. Andrew says:

    The Caps should at least find someone to help him out and provide some basic translations.
    On the other hand, he should have taken a little initiative to learn some basics.
    Two way street, but I don’t see either party helping out.
    Agree, this is shooting one self in the foot.

  7. rajeev says:

    Great, great post, pucksandbooks. Too often fans forget the players their cheer and jeer are regular people with very human fears and desires and joys. If you can’t feel for the Russian players that come over to North America to make a living, as well as the North Americans that go the other way for the same purpose, then you have truly shut yourself off to the compassion of the human condition.

  8. Faux — A couple of reactions to your jingoistic, backwater, and less than inclusive sensibilities: you seem to make a presumption that individuals’ faculties for foreign lanuage acquisition are identical, and that that acquisition is merely a matter of commitment to it. In point of fact, just as some struggle with mathematics, so too do some with mastering foreign tongues. Additionally, while English is seemingly easy to us natives, from a global perspective it does rank as a difficult language to master for non-native speakers. Not perhaps as tough as say Mandarin or Russian, but it’s tough. It’s use of idioms is especially challenging (this is why the French seldom laugh at Mark Twain novels). I would go further and suggest that a majority of ESPN broadcast personalities have yet to become fluent in English.

  9. Leigh says:

    I think some of the blame has to fall on the shoulders of the players and their families. Sure, it’s without a doubt a difficult situation moving to a new country where you know no one and have no grasp of the language. But…..it’s not as if Varlamov rolled out of bed a few days ago and decided, “You know what, I want to play in the NHL.” Most of these players’ goal from a young age is to play at the highest level, so you would think one of the things they would do to prepare themselves would be to learn atleast a little English leading up to their big life change.

  10. b.orr4 says:

    While it’s certainly not great to be so isolated, I think it also speaks volumes about how much he wants to make it in the NHL that he’s willing to leave the Motherland for Hershey. And while it is tough to not speak the language, he’ll be an important part of the Bears and my guess is the guys will go out of their way to make him feel welcome. Let’s not forget, the kid’s got a big contract. As long he keeps buying dinner for his teammates, he’ll have no shortage of friends. 🙂

  11. SovSport says:

    Go easy on me for saying the following (language = English).
    1. The language we were taught in Russia (back in the day at least) is purely academical. One of my former teachers called it “Russian English.”
    2. The language that is/was taught was based on British grammar/vocabulary/usage.
    3. Accents make all the difference. Even someone who might have a good grip on English might be lost due to the American accent, as well as the speed at which we talk here.
    4. “Technical” vocabulary (i.e. purely hockey related terms) is not something that is taught widely.

  12. dmg says:

    SovSport makes some very good points, especially about the problem of accents. I remember when I was studying French I found it very easy to understand what Americans were saying in French (no matter how fast or complex) but would be completely overwhelmed when hearing native French speakers (as an aside, they were always the worst: Swiss and Quebecers were not as hard to understand. Anyhow…)
    It’s also easy for us Americans to forget that in the grad scheme of things English is actually a rather hard language to learn and having to learn it while also trying to establish yourself as a professional hockey player at 20 years old must be a nightmare.

  13. Jordan says:

    Let’s all pitch in and buy him the Rosetta Stone software!
    It’s helping me with Swedish.

  14. TG says:

    Of course, how long has Semin been here, and he supposedly still doesn’t speak English. But you figure that someone with the team (Ovechkin, Fedorov, etc.) would be around and be able to help explain stuff to him, at least during the development camp, or that the team would hire a translator.

  15. Hooks Orpik says:

    Good post. On the whole I think NHL teams are pretty terrible with communication, even for players that speak English. A lot of times coaches and management are not direct with players; Steve Eminger’s situation last season is but one example that comes to mind.
    Compare the NHL to a corporate setting and I think the lack of communication is a huge deal and a seemingly simple mindset to get in that would benefit the whole organization.

  16. SpartyCuse says:

    English is a VERY hard language to grasp. Take this sentence: “I do not know whether the weather will change”
    I a word with the same pronunciation in 2 ways. Wheather and Whether. They mean 2 different things.
    Or: “I too, took two pucks to the rink” To, too, and two. All sound the same. All mean different things.
    English is one messed up language.

  17. chanuck says:

    The NHL has always had a language issue. Even for French Canadians playing in Montreal.

  18. Chimaera says:

    Ovechkin will take the kid around all through training camp. In Hershey, the other young players will make an attempt to keep the guy level and not so isolated.
    I do think this will be an awkward situation for him, but at the same time, it is one that occurs often in other countries in different sports. Youth Academies for football (soccer to us I guess) often bring in boys at 14-15 who don’t speak any of the language they will be immersed in, and they have to learn it fast. I don’t think it is an isolated hockey only incident.

  19. puddin_an_semin says:

    I don’t know about anyone else but I want to give the kid a hug! I don’t think I would be able to move to Russia to country that far away from my friends and family in a different culture, with as different language at his age. I have a lot of respect for all the young kids that do this not only to play sports but also to just go abroad and study, it takes guts. How many of you at 18-19 years old could pick up and move like that? I am 30 years old and I am not sure I can do it!
    I do agree with Pucksandbooks and some of the other posters it has always struck me odd that the NHL and especially individual teams don’t do a better job helping players from foreign countries adjust officially. They seem to assume these kids will find their way on their own, but the truth is Ovechkin is not the norm, and Semin isn’t far from a disaster. Malkin is completely dependent on the Gonchar’s. This is really sad to me. Is it so hard for the teams to hire a English teacher for them at the very least just to help with basic needs…Going grocery shopping, asking for help/directions, and communicating basic needs and wants? I wish nothing but the best for this kid, I am really rooting for him to make it to the NHL sooner rather than later 🙂

  20. Puddin – I think you framed the matter rather poignantly. Maybe fans think so myopically about player salaries and the glamor of pro sports that they overlook the basics of a situation like Varlamov’s: friends and family abandoned 5,000 miles away. And while I don’t know that a hug from a complete stranger is the appropriate remedy, an outstretched hand, rendered with a broad smile and a “Welcome to Washington,” might go a long way to making the young man feel a little bit more at home.
    My friend Mike Vogel captured the connectivity that’s possible between hockey fans of varying cultures last May, writing about the trip Spike Parker and he and OFB took to Moscow:
    “One night, after hopping off the Metro train, I was encountered by a young Russian who grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye. I was startled briefly but it passed when he said, ‚ÄúHockey,‚Äù and pointed to the credential dangling from my neck.
    “Yes, Hockey,” I replied. “Alex Oveckhin.”
    “Ah, Ovechkin,” he beamed. “Washington Capitals. Ovechkin very clever man.”
    “Yes he is,” I replied.
    At this point, he hugged me and said, “Friends forever.”

  21. fauxrumors says:

    1) Pucks: ‘Jingoistic, backwater, and less than inclusive’? Are you kidding??? We didn’t say the kid should get the hell out of the country and go back where he came from. Geez!
    2) What we DID say was that if he knew he was going to live and work here that he should have taken some initiative himself to TRY to learn the native language. That would go for anyone from here who intended to live abroad for an extended period of time.
    3) To simply write it off as jingoistic’ to have that perspective perhaps shows that it is YOU who are a bit back water and non inclusive?

  22. Megan says:

    I wish I spoke Russian because I was certainly try to help this guy out while he’s in Hershey.
    I know there are some people who speak a little Russian. If he hooks up with them, he won’t be isolated.
    English is the hardest language to learn. Throw American English into that equation and it’s even tougher.
    He does need to immerse himself in the language and culture in order to make any headway though. All languages are like that.

  23. dcrock says:

    I have this awful image of something as basic as the poor kid trying to order some lunch from the Ballston Food Court. What the heck does he do?

  24. Bailey says:

    I can completely relate to what Varlamov is/has been going through so far. I had to go to Japan on a work trip for a few weeks, and I basically felt what it must be like to be completely illiterate and mute at the same time. It’s one thing to go to Europe w/o knowing any language there, as the alphabet is the same, so you can make out a word or two every so often. However, in places like Japan, Russia, China, etc. where even the letters/characters are unrecognizable, you feel even more lost.
    Luckily for us, a great deal of the world speaks a little bit of English so it’s a bit easier, but hardly anybody who is a native English speaker knows a language like Russian.
    So yeah, excellent point, pucks. We do sometimes overlook the “little” things like language in the wake of contracts, the future of the team, and the promise of a young player.

  25. hockeymomVA says:

    I feel really bad for the guy! English is a hard language to learn, especially when some of the slang that’s so frequently incorporated into the vocabularies of younger people seems to change by the week. Hopefully, he’ll get assistance from the team…

  26. SovSport says:

    I remember the first time I came to the States and went to a supermarket trying to buy “beetroots.” No one could help me because they didn’t know what a “beetroot” was. They’re called “beets” in America. I know it now.
    P.S. I needed them for borscht (…talk about food).

  27. Dezlboy says:

    @ SovSport – I love borscht! My grandparents were from Russia/Lavatia.

  28. odessa steps magazin says:

    Are there any other Russian players scheduled to be on the Bears this season?
    If not, would the Caps/Bears take a roster spot by signing someone who could both languages and act as an transition helper for Simeon?

  29. Wilbur says:

    pucksandbooks:
    Does our young Mr. Varlamov strike you as being as quiet and introverted as Alex Semin? I noticed that Simeon made a beeline for one of the linesmen at intermission during yesterday’s scrimmage and started talking. The linesman clearly knew Russian and they were so engrossed that it delayed the Zamboni driver from resurfacing the ice. While I would be shocked to see his English take off the way that Ovie’s has, I have to say that I am very impressed so far with his desire to play with the Caps. I suspect that Dave Prior and the Caps staff will do everything possible to make this happen by supporting him both on and off the ice.
    wilbur

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