By Justin Skelnik | Photos by Ross Dettman | Illustration by Christina Moritz
The end of the 2009-10 hockey season was a moment Chicago Wolves defenseman Andrey Zubarev had been waiting for a long time. His team, Atlant, was swept out of the Kontinental Hockey League’s playoffs in March, signaling the end of his seventh professional season in Russia. With his season over, he immediately made the career move he had waited years to make – signing a National Hockey League contract.
“I wanted to come over to play in North America sooner, but I had a contract in Russia I couldn’t break,” Zubarev said. “Right when the Atlanta Thrashers drafted me in 2005, I tried to come over, but I still had a few years left on my contract. I kept trying to talk to my teams in Russia to let me be released from my contract to come over to try to make it to the NHL but they wouldn’t let me.
“I waited patiently until my contract was over and I came over here to try and make the NHL. Now, it has happened and maybe I am late coming over here, but I can’t change it. Late is better than never.”
Leaving Russia to come to North America to play hockey was an easy decision for Zubarev. However, he knew that a difficult transition, both on and off the ice, awaited him in the United States.
“I knew it was going to be tough when I first got to the U.S. because I didn’t speak that much English,” the 24-year-old Zubarev said. “I could count and knew a few basic questions, but I needed to learn a whole new language. It was pretty difficult at the start, but now I don’t think it is that tough.”
When Zubarev arrived to the Thrashers training camp in September, he was happy to meet fellow defenseman Arturs Kulda. Kulda went through the same process when he moved from Latvia to Canada to play junior hockey in 2006.
“Kulda helped me a lot this year,” Zubarev said. “It is so much easier when guys help each other out. He helped me so much because he speaks Russian and knows a lot about American hockey and the lifestyle here. He has already gone through what I am experiencing now.”
Kulda was happy to help Zubarev get accustomed to his new surroundings in Atlanta and eventually in Chicago.
“I was happy to help Andrey with his transition when he got here,” Kulda said. “We are a team and everyone tries to help each other out. He didn’t speak English when he came here but he could communicate with me since we both speak Russian. I went through a similar situation so I was able to help him understand how things work here in hockey and in life.
“At the beginning of the year, I would translate what the coaches would say into Russian for him and when we are paired together in games, we speak Russian to each other because it is easier for him to understand. I think he has handled the transition very well so far.”
Even though Zubarev had Kulda helping him out with the language, he also tried to be proactive in speaking with everyone else on the team. He knew that often times they wouldn’t understand certain things he was trying to say, and at times he was frustrated. But Wolves forward Fredrik Pettersson, who is
also playing his first season in North America, advised him to listen a little bit more when American players spoke to help him understand how to say things.
“I was frustrated a bit when I thought I was speaking correctly but the guys didn’t understand,” Zubarev said. “It turned out I was saying certain phrases backwards. But I took Freddy’s advice and the more I listened, the less times I found myself saying things with words out of order.”
In addition to living in a new country and learning to speak a new language, Zubarev also had to learn a whole new style of hockey. In Europe, hockey is played on international ice, which is 210 feet long and 98 feet wide and goal lines are 13 feet from the end boards, compared to a standard NHL/AHL rink which is 200 feet long and 85 feet wide, with goal lines 11 feet from the end boards. Playing on a smaller ice surface, Zubarev found himself with less time to make decisions with the puck.
“Because the ice is smaller here, you have to do everything a little quicker,” Zubarev said. “Now I don’t have the time to look around like I used to and
I have to make quicker decisions. Also, I had to learn to always keep my head up because someone can level you with a hit here. But overall, I like this type
Zubarev skated in eight of the Wolves first nine games this season but wasn’t pleased with his on-ice performance. To make matters worse, he suffered an injury in a game on Oct. 28 that kept him out of the lineup until Nov. 23. Not the start to his North American career he was hoping for.
“I wasn’t happy with the way I played at the beginning of the season,” Zubarev said. “I just made too many mistakes, plain and simple. Then I got injured the first time and I thought, what’s next? I’m already playing in a foreign country, learning a new style of play and now injured. But I stayed positive.”
He missed 11 games because of his injury but in his first game back, he suffered another injury that caused him to miss another four weeks of action.
“When I got hurt again in my first game back after injury, I really thought what could go wrong next. It was really tough to be in Chicago alone, rehabbing, while the team was on the road. But I just kept telling myself that this wouldn’t last long and to fight through it. I think the two injuries really helped me grow as a player. Now I know how to deal with adversity.”
Once Zubarev got back on the ice after his second injury, he admits he was a changed player. While he was out with his injuries, he reflected on his earlier games with the Wolves and realized that he was thinking too much during games and trying to make the perfect play every time he was on the ice. Since the injuries, he has relaxed more during games and knows that mistakes happen and he just has to have a short memory and move on to the next play.
“After my second injury, I think I started to play a different style of hockey,” Zubarev said. “I started to play like I play in practice. In practice, I just go out and play like I know how to. In the games, I used to grip the stick too tight and get really nervous. Now I am playing more relaxed and I think it has really improved my game.”
With his comfort level and confidence growing each day, Zubarev has his sights set on achieving another milestone in his pro career – making his NHL debut.
“I feel really comfortable playing in North America right now,” Zubarev said. “I know I still need to keep working hard and improve some parts of my game but I know what I need to do to get to the NHL.
“Hopefully, it won’t take as long as it took me to get over here.”