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.”