24 April, 2014

Simeon Varlamov Isn't Speaking So Softly These Days in Hershey

Back in July we got an introduction to Simeon Varlamov and an appreciation for the remarkable challenges he faces in the 2008-09 hockey season trying to get acclimated — linguistically and culturally — in this his first year of pro hockey in North America. It was then, in a Capitals’ office conference room, that he first detailed for us how isolated he felt in his new homeland. Attending the Hershey Bears’ home opener Saturday night allowed SovetskySport’s Dmitry Chesnokov and me a chance to catch up with him and see how he was progressing. It’s a daunting and fascinating phenomenon, migrating across an ocean and immersing one’s self into an alien culture, as a kid, and being thousands of miles away from friends and family, in pursuit of a professional sports career.
First thing’s first: Varlamov loves his new teammates in Hershey. They aren’t merely accepting of his extraordinary circumstances but are being proactive in including him in activities away from the rink, and making him feel very much a part of the Bears’ room. Credit the Bear’s veteran leadership in this initiative, Dean Arsene in particular. But credit must also go to Varlamov himself. More on that in a moment.
In his very first week in Hershey after his assignment by the Capitals, Varlamov lodged in a Hershey hotel. The hotel offered him no Internet access. This was particularly debilitating for the North American newcomer, as like many other young Russian hockey players in North America, Varlamov is active on Russian social networks analogous to Facebook and MySpace. Instead he would turn on the television in his hotel room and understand nothing. Newspapers of course were useless to him. He had no automobile. No one in his hotel spoke Russian, so he couldn’t even have a conversation with another human being. It was a week of extreme isolation, and he was miserable.
Remember, too, that just a couple of weeks ago it was thought that Viktor Dovgan would be in Hershey this season and able to assist Simeon in his transition. He’s not. Dovgan’s in South Carolina, with the Stingrays, who just opened play this weekend.
Near the end of camp Varlamov’s father arrived in Hershey from Russia, and father and son successfully located and secured an apartment. That was a huge help, and obviously having the companionship of family was an immense tonic. Meanwhile, the young netminder embarked upon a courageous communications strategy back at the rink. In the room he would begin talking in halting and broken English, wholly aware that he was ever making egregious mistakes with his new tongue. He didn’t care. He pushed himself to be vocal, and his teammates, far from belittling or ridiculing the rookie for his mangled messages, returned his courage with patience and nods and smiles and encouragement. Saturday night in the Bears’ post-game locker room Varlamov smiled as he recounted this dynamic. It’s part of the reason he loves his new teammates.
“The team is really embracing me well,” Varlamov told me through Chesnokov’s translation. “I didn’t really expect it to be as easy to communicate [as it has been]. I did pick up some English in that hotel room.”
Young Simeon very much wants to buy a new car. Now, imagine the trepidation you and I typically feel on the grounds of auto dealerships, with every visit, with thousands of dollars at stake. Imagine if you didn’t speak English and how vulnerable you’d feel as Mr. Car Salesman sizes you up. Good news here, too, though: a Bears’ trainer has some contacts and connections with regional auto dealers and is confident of being able to help Simeon.
There is struggle for the young goalie on the ice. He has won his first two starts in a Bears’ sweater, but he is learning virtually a new position in his pads given how active the goalies are in North American pro hockey. The biggest adjustment for him thus far is with the lateral movement required of goalies here, something not commonly asked of goalies in Europe on the larger ice sheets. Simeon’s hamstrings and groin are sore from all the lateral skating, and on Saturday morning he suffered a recurrence of a recent leg injury that he believes will prevent him from making his scheduled Sunday start against Wilkes Barre-Scranton and could shelve him for a couple of weeks. He also has a lot to learn about handling the puck.
“The goalie here in North America has to play with his stick very well, to help out his defense,” Varlamov said. “If he doesn’t, then his defensemen will have trouble.”
Varlamov’s father will live with him in Hershey another month, return home, and then return to Hershey again toward the end of the year. The young goalie hasn’t been in North America long, but already he knows that he’s apprenticing in a very special hockey community, and that should he succeed he is poised to join a special collection of talent in Washington. He’s extremely excited by that prospect, and he wouldn’t use his favorite English expression he’s learned thus far in describing those feelings.
“Blah blah blah,” he said with a smile.


  1. b.orr4 wrote:

    Young goalies with leg problems. I don’t like the sound of that. It’s like hearing about a young phenom pitcher with arm issues. Not good.

    19 October, 2008 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  2. He’ll be fine, #4 — we’re talking soreness of tissue and not structural weakness. At least he’s skating on Hershey’s ice — the crispness and flatness of the passes on the Giant Center sheet by the home team are a thing to behold.

    19 October, 2008 at 5:02 pm | Permalink
  3. Russian wrote:

    Oh no, he did not have the internet access to be on myspace (or odnoklassniki how they call it in Russia). i feel so sorry for this guy, he is in the NHL feeling desolated…come on guys. He will find his way around.

    20 October, 2008 at 3:59 am | Permalink
  4. Sombrero Guy wrote:

    I’m a little surprised that the team wasn’t more proactive in helping him get situated. I guess its good for him to do things on his own than be coddled but given the language barrier issue, I would have thought they would have done a little more for him.

    20 October, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Permalink
  5. Katie wrote:

    It was evident Saturday night that he is fitting in quite nicely. My season tickets are behind the Bears’ goaltender for the first and second periods. On two instances when Machesney came up with big saves Saturday night I looked to me right at the Bears’ bench and saw Varlamov lean over the boards and bang on them with all his might to show his support for Machesney. The smile on his face was priceless!

    21 October, 2008 at 4:41 pm | Permalink