Twenty years ago, Russian players in the National Hockey League were still relatively rare; today, they and other Eastern European players are among the best represented foreign-born players in the league.
Unlike, say, Major League Baseball, whose website offers content in a mere four languages, the NHL offers it in eight: English, Russian, French, Finnish, Swedish, Czech, Slovenian, and German. In places like L.A., home to a large Russian immigrant population, the league has reached out to fans with events like the Kings' "Russian Heritage Night."
There are also 1.5 and second-generation fans like Sergei Miledin, 26, who edits an English-language site for fans of Russian players called From Russia With Glove. Miledin posts updates on Russian players in the NHL and elsewhere on the site and on Facebook, sometimes with endearing post-Cold War quirks, like referring to a player as the "comrade of the night" ("People have this weird perception that everybody in Russia calls each other 'comrade,' " he says).
Born in Moscow, Miledin's Russian American story began when his mother traveled to Southern California to visit her father, who had already emigrated, and decided she wanted to live in the U.S. as well. She packed up her young son and returned permanently in 1992, when Miledin was six. The family eventually settled in New Jersey, where he was raised and where he lives and works today in Jersey City as a freelance writer.
Here Miledin explains his site, the appeal of Russian NHL players to Russian immigrants and non-immigrant fans alike, their cultural influence within and beyond the game (hint: there's a hip-hop song) and why kids in his school assumed that a boy named Sergei must play hockey.
That, and his hopes regarding the L.A. Kings-New Jersey Devils matchup that begins tonight at Staples Center downtown, as games three and four of the Stanley Cup Finals get underway. And please forgive him for rooting for the Devils, he can't help it.
M-A: The NHL’s website features content in eight languages, among them Russian, Slovenian and Czech, presumably for both international fans and immigrant fans in the U.S. Your site is different: Everything you ever wanted to know about Russian hockey players, but in English. What inspired you to create it?
Miledin: When I first started it, I felt there wasn't enough material about Russian hockey players out there that was in English. I figured, why not give it a go and see what happens? Sure, some websites mentioned players, but I felt there was an interest of bunching together all the stories onto one site, (and) that was exactly what I did.
Any website that advertised itself as a true Russian hockey site left me wanting more, and so instead of joining forces, I figured I could just beat them at their own game.
M-A: You’ve mentioned that you always encounter Russians at hockey games. Are these immigrants, second-generation types, both? Tell us a bit about Russian Americans’ connection to hockey.
Miledin: Whenever I meet Russians at games, they are generally immigrants, and most of the conversations revolve around where they came from and how they ended up in New Jersey.
I suppose the whole hockey aspect is second nature. I remember moving to a new school and during roll call, someone heard my name and asked if I played hockey. I'm not sure if it's a stereotype or what, but I don't mind people assuming that I'm gaga for hockey.
M-A: Any idea who your audience is? First-generation Russians who speak English? Russian Americans raised in the U.S., like yourself? Americans who are fascinated with Russian players? All of the above?
Miledin: I feel like all of the mentioned types are the people who visit my site.
I don't really know many second-generation Russians (like myself) personally who love hockey to begin with, but I know through the social media interactions that they do exist. People love telling me they have Russian roots, or know someone who is Russian that loves hockey, so there is always some kind of connection to Russia.
I think the majority of my readers are Americans for a couple of reasons. First, the lack of all English websites that focus on Russian players, as well as the perception of how flashy a lot of Russians play. This is a far cry from the Red Machine players who showed little to no emotion on the ice. Now, the Russians of today are hooting and hollering and jumping off the boards when they score big goals.
Plus, Russians have a great sense of humor and you can see them trying to relay that in their English interviews despite not having a full grasp of the language. I just try to capture all of these things.
M-A: On that note, to say that Russian players are well-represented in the NHL is an understatement. You’ve mentioned that their fan base in the U.S. goes far beyond the Russian diaspora. Why is this? Does Cold War nostalgia play a part?
Miledin: I'm sure it has a lot to do with the Cold War and the Soviet ice hockey team. They were one of the things that was actually known about Russia at the time, and since they were so dominant, maybe people assume everyone cares about the sport.
There seems to some kind of aura around Russian hockey players and how they came to the NHL, and how they often return home without honoring contracts. Despite living and assimilating, there is still a cloud of mystery that surrounds them.
M-A: What’s your own hockey story? Did you play and/or grow up with it? Were your mother and grandfather fans? (And for that matter, how popular is hockey in Russia?)
Miledin: I was never allowed to play ice hockey as a child, so I grew up playing roller hockey until I was old enough to take my talents to the ice. I spent hours playing hockey outside, hockey video games inside, and watching as much hockey as I could. It just became a passion of mine which has only grown over the years.
I come from a very non-athletic family full of writers, doctors, and anything not related to sports, so I'm not really sure who got me into it. My grandfather would take me to games growing up but he did it simply for the "being with family" aspect. Same with my mother, who to this day doesn't understand where my love for sports came from at all. She too would take me to games, albeit completely disinterested, but I can't discredit her for supporting my fandom, or however you want to put it.
But I watch and attend games with my soon to be 80-year-old grandmother. She joins me once a year and has yet to see the Devils lose, thus becoming a lucky charm in my book. She owns several hockey shirts and watches most the games with or without me. Overtime or not she watches till the end. In short, she's not your average grandma.*
Hockey is actually not that popular in Russia, soccer is king. While the country boasts the self appointed "second best league in the world" more people go to soccer games and follow the national team rather than hockey. It makes little sense, since the national hockey team is by far more successful, but soccer is the world's game and Russia will be able to showcase itself for the World Cup in 2018.
M-A: You’ve hinted at the cultural influence of Russian players in NHL hockey, along with something about the Devils all heading to a Russian bathhouse in New Jersey, or something like that. Please elaborate.
Miledin: I received a phone call from a fellow Russian, telling me that the New Jersey Devils happened to be in his town of Fair Lawn, NJ celebrating a recent playoff series victory. The town is home to the largest Russian population in all of New Jersey, and everyone knows everyone. Someone texted someone, and word spread like wildfire.
The Devils have the most Russian-speaking players of any team in the NHL. They have two Russians, one Ukrainian, and a Lithuanian, who are all kind of veterans despite being no older than 33, which is pretty young in terms of hockey. I imagine one of them suggested the Russian bath house, and they all went and bonded.
Another example of the cultural influence: There is a popular rap song by J. Cole that makes a reference to Alex Ovechkin, which blows my mind every time I hear it on the radio because it is just so random. It just goes to show how big of a star he is.
Also, there are several NHL teams that offer player shirts with the last names spelled in Russian. I feel like this just captures how much of an impact Russians have on the sport. It's truly unique, as no other European players are marketed to this extent.
M-A: I’ve heard it said that unlike the rough-and-tumble North Americans who gave hockey a blood-sport reputation, the Eastern (and other) European players have a different playing style. I’ve heard them described as more orderly, disciplined. Is this true? Is there something that sets these players apart?
Miledin: I feel like Russian players from the old guard were like this, but today's stars seem to be more free-spirited. A few years ago, Alex Ovechkin scored a goal while sliding on his back and looking away from the goal. This goal displayed two things: one, that no Soviet player would even dreamt of attempting such a wacky play. But it also showed the willingness to score, no matter how hard it might seem. The highlight of the entire thing was the goal came against a team coached by Wayne Gretzky, who is arguably the greatest hockey player of all time and even he couldn't help but watch the replay.
What is more amazing is that he was only 21 years old when he scored the goal. Guys my age scoring highlight reel goals is something to be proud and envious of, for sure.
M-A: Lastly, who do you think is going to win the playoffs? Placing any bets?
Miledin: I am a big time Devils fan. I actually went to both Stanley Cup games here and left feeling pretty dejected. I can't give up all hope just yet, so I'm hoping they turn things around in L.A. in games three and four.
Okay, so we're not quite with you on that last one, Sergei. But if the Devils get pounded and need a place to recover, I'm sure someone can direct them to a great banya spa in L.A.
*Added as afterthought, because forgetting to mention one's hockey-loving grandmother won't do.