Lost in translation: How players bridge hockey's language barrier

ByEmily Kaplan via ESPN logo
Thursday, November 2, 2017

During their two seasons together, Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin were lauded for their chemistry on theChicago Blackhawks' second line. Kane, who won the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2016, racked up a league-high 195 points during that two-year span. Panarin led all rookies in scoring in 2015-16, and was among the first people Kane thanked upon winning the Hart. The duo dazzled with their slick, no-look passes and countless one-timers. There was only one problem: They could barely understand each other.

Panarin, a Russian, spoke so little English that the team hired an interpreter for him. Kane was born in Buffalo, New York, and his Russian was limited to davai, which means "let's go," and a few curse words. So when Kane needed to speak to his linemate -- on the ice or in the locker room -- he devised a plan.

"If I was talking to Panarin," Kane said. "I would speak to him in [English, but with] a Russian accent."

Their third linemate,Artem Anisimov, served as de facto linguist -- being that he is Russian and proficient in English. "Yeah, [Kane] try the fake accents," Anisimov said. "[Jonathan] Toewsdoes the fake accent too sometimes. It gets worse, honestly, I don't understand them when they do their accents sometimes. But they try anyway."

Such is the byproduct of today's NHL, which has become increasingly international. In 2015, for the first time in NHL history, Canadians did not make up the majority of the league's players. (Canadians checked in at 49.7 percent two years ago. It's now down to 44.8 percent). At the start of the 2017-18 season, 16 countries were represented on NHL rosters, including 109 players from Sweden, 66 from Russia, 44 from the Czech Republic and 30 from Finland.

"You see so many personalities and languages," says Arizona Coyotes center Max Domi, who is Canadian. "Sometimes it clashes, but somehow it all meshes together, and that's what makes our sport so cool."

It can lead to some lost-in-translation moments, however, as well as communication disadvantages -- or advantages, depending on who you ask.

Anisimov's story is emblematic of many NHL foreign imports, especially from Russia. He arrived in America at age 19, reporting directly to the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack. How much English did the Yaroslavl, Russia, native know?

"Zero," he said. "I spoke zero English."

Only one player on the Hartford roster, Darius Kasparaitis, spoke Russian, but a few weeks into the season, Kasparaitis was loaned to the KHL, which left Anisimov without an interpreter. He said some North American teammates took the time to teach him words, and he listened to conversations until he began picking up English.

"The living stuff was hard to learn," said Anisimov, now 29. "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.'"

Some teams don't assign interpreters on purpose; they want players to be forced to learn the language in the country they'll be living in.

"Just as if you went to Russia, you are not expected to speak English, you would need to learn Russian," Anisimov said. "It is the same here, where English is the language."

The Washington Capitals are an example of this. Sergey Kocharov, Washington's media relations director, is fluent in Russian. Though he stands near players such asEvgeny Kuznetsov during initial media interviews to ensure they are comfortable, Kocharov elected not to interpret after that. Kuznetsov, now in his fifth season with the Caps, is so proficient in English that he feels comfortable cracking jokes.

Ottawa Senatorscaptain Erik Karlsson said his English is "10 times" better than it was when he first moved to North America from Sweden in 2009, and he now dreams in English. (It helps that Karlsson's wife, Melinda, is Canadian, and he says they speak English at home.)

The general rule on teams is for all players to speak English when it pertains to hockey. There's not much that needs to be said on the ice, so even if a player's English isn't great, he can find a way to get his point across.

"We're not Ernest Hemingway out there," Capitals goalie Braden Holtby explained. "We're like cavemen, really, with one-word answers. We're really dumbing things down here."

When English isn't your go-to language, in the heat of the game, the reflex can be more difficult.

"It took me probably a few months to say the right words," saidBoston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, who is Finnish. "It's just a couple words you need to say, but you're thinking Finnish words instead of English words."

That's why some players, no matter how conversant in English they become, still revert to their native tongue.

Consider the Capitals, who have several Russian players, many of whom are linemates. "On the ice, they're talking in Russian about a play,"Dallas Starscaptain Jamie Benn said. "And you kind of wonder what they have going on."

The Capitals also have a Swedish faction. Last season, Washington's top power-play unit often featured Swedes Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom. Winger T.J. Oshie, an American, was on the ice too.

"They spoke in Swedish when they were running their little plays," Oshie said. "So before the faceoff, they didn't tell me at all what's going on. I'd just stand there and wait for them to make their plays. I'll just go to the same spot. I'm like, 'I'll just be ready when it comes to my stick.'"

Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichelwondered if his teammates are talking about ... him.

"We have a couple Swedish guys on our team," Eichel said. "And they're always yelling at each other in Swedish. You want to know what they're saying, but they could be talking about you. You don't know."

Most of the non-English words heard on the ice are uttered in the heat of the moment.

"I played with Ales Hemsky in Edmonton. He'd always come to the bench and start swearing in Czech," New Jersey Devils winger Taylor Hall said. "I couldn't tell if he was yelling at me, or himself, or what. Eventually I started learning the swear words, so I knew when he was talking and when he was swearing. I didn't know what they meant, I just knew by the tone of his voice."

When it comes to language off the ice and in the dressing room, the norms become trickier.

"Guys always talk in different languages," Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin said. "Sometimes you just put your foot down. We're in North America, we're not going to have a team of cliques."

New York Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk is OK with teammates speaking in their native tongue, depending on the situation.

"You have to respect the fact that a lot of times it's just easier for them to communicate that way," Shattenkirk said. "But it also goes outside the rink. You'll see them going to dinner together on the road. There's a comfortability factor -- being able to speak their language gives them a sense of home. You can't take it as them not wanting to hang out with you."

Anisimov and Panarin were the only Russians on the Blackhawks' roster last season. In Chicago, Anisimov said, the two had "separate lives." Anisimov is married with two young children; Panarin had his own set of friends.

"We [would] hang out on the road, go to dinner, talk about stuff," Anisimov said. "Yes, in Russian."

And on the ice, they used their native tongue to communicate, too. And for the first time in his hockey career, Kane was the one left out.

"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 said. "And I would just get up and walk to the other side."