Highly touted Red Wings prospect Evgeny Svechnikov has come a long way in his hockey career.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Evgeny Svechnikov is on a journey.
At the age of 19, he has traveled farther than most to pursue his dream, and yet he still has miles to go before he reaches his ultimate destination – the National Hockey League.
The saga of Svechnikov starts in Neftegorsk, Russia, an oil-producing settlement on the northern end of the island of Sakhalin where his family lived until 1995, the year a devastating 7.5 magnitude earthquake killed nearly 2,000 of the town’s 3,500 inhabitants, including all but one of his grandparents.
His parents moved 480 miles south to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, a city that had been called Toyohara until Japan lost control of that portion of the once-disputed island in the final days of World War II. It was in this Soviet outpost that Evgeny was born on Oct. 31, 1996. His family soon moved again, heading some 3,783 miles west to Barnaul, or roughly the distance from Detroit to Anchorage.
Located on the West Siberian Plain, not far from the borders of Mongolia and China, Barnaul is where young Evgeny’s dream really started. His parents, Elena and Igor Svechnikov, bought him a pair of figure skates when he was about 5 years old.
“I just loved those skates,” he recalled. “It was a long time ago, but I remember crying because I was running around the apartment in skates and my mom kept yelling at me to take them off.”
Although his father never played hockey, his godfather had. Soon, little Evgeny was on the ice learning the game that would eventually become his passion.
“I was really bad in the beginning,” he said. “The coaches told me that I would never be a hockey player, but I was going just for fun. At some point I started to get better and better. By 7 or 8, I was one of the best at my age.”
He found the perfect foil in his brother Andrei, who is three-and-a-half years his junior. “We would play with (hockey) sticks in our small apartment,” Svechnikov recalled. “We’d fight sometimes, of course, but we loved each other – we’re brothers. We’d do anything for each other.”
It wasn’t long before the play of the Svechnikov brothers in Barnaul began to attract the attention of adults beyond the local rink. The boys’ talents were soon coveted by hockey clubs far and wide. They caught the eye of Evgeny Larionov, a brother of Igor Larionov, the Hockey Hall of Famer and former Detroit Red Wings center.
Larionov, a friend of Svechnikov’s coach at the time, saw great promise in the then-11-year-old and his younger brother. He persuaded the family to pack up their belongings and move to Moscow to further develop the boys’ skills.
“We drove from Barnaul to Moscow,” Svechnikov said, remembering the 2,200-mile trip west. “It was three days, my whole family in a car.”
Moscow was an eye-opening experience.
“It’s crazy busy,” he said. “It’s huge, the capital of Russia, but it’s different for everybody. We lived 30 minutes outside Moscow. Even though it’s a real nice city, I didn’t really like it as a kid. You can stay in traffic sometimes five or six hours.”
The time there proved invaluable.
“If we didn’t move to Moscow, I don’t know where I would be right now,” he said. “It was a big step for my mom and dad. From every city, they moved from job to job and it was really hard on them. They sacrificed so much for us.”
His mom worked two jobs, serving as a receptionist at the rink during the day and cleaning floors at night. His dad, who had delivered cakes for a living in Barnaul, was now driving a hearse that picked up Moscow’s newly deceased.
“We had nothing in our family,” Svechnikov said. “My parents worked very hard so they had money to feed us. It was real tough on them.”
The boys, meanwhile, continued to improve, leading to another move. This time it was to Kazan, a city 500 miles east of Moscow that is called “The Istanbul of the Volga,” a place where European and Asian religiosity blend in a bevy of belfries and minarets. In Kazan, Evgeny was able to play in Russia’s top developmental hockey league for a couple of seasons.
He was quickly making a name for himself. He played for the Russian U16 team in the 2012 Youth Olympic Games then continued to excel in other international tournaments. He even played three games for Ak Bars Kazan in the KHL at age 16. “I was a kid, so of course I was nervous,” he recalled. “It was crazy for me to play pro so young.”
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League had chosen him in the second round (63rd overall) of the 2013 CHL Import Draft. It was a precursor to his biggest move yet.
“I signed a contract to play in the KHL, but I spent most of the year on the bench and I knew I needed to play to progress,” he said. “Once I got drafted by Cape Breton, I decided I would go to Canada because my next season was going to be my (NHL) draft year.”
Svechnikov came to Canada without knowing any English. He knew how to say “hello,” but nothing more. “At first, it was hard,” he said. “But I had a teacher the first week and I learned a lot in the dressing room and at my billet’s house.”
It also helped that Svechnikov had a buddy on the team. Maxim Lazarev, with whom he had played in Kazan, had come to Cape Breton a year earlier. “It helped to have another Russian guy to talk to,” he said.
While he was adapting to life in North America, Svechnikov was adjusting to the smaller ice surface and learning how to make plays in tighter quarters. He scored 32 goals in each of his two seasons in the QMJHL.
“I learned a lot about small details from my coach, Marc-Andre Dumont,” he said. “He was a very good coach. I love him. He taught me a lot about being a good person, too.”
Svechnikov had already been given a few lessons in character back in Russia, where the remnants of the Red Army team still cast a long shadow. “In Russia, they teach you about hockey, for sure, but there is more emphasis on character. They teach you how to be a man, how to be strong and never give up.”
He went to Miami with his whole family for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. “Just remembering it makes me smile,” he said. “It was a dream come true. I remember thinking of my parents’ sacrifices and all we went through. I never expected to be drafted by a big organization.”
Although he watched little of the NHL growing up – “We only had like 10 channels on our TV,” he said – he knew about the tradition of the Red Wings and the organization’s history with the Russian Five: Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Vyacheslav Fetisov and the aforementioned Larionov.
“I cannot put it into words,” he said, trying to describe the emotions of being selected by Detroit. “You’ve got to be there at the draft to feel it. To be on that stage and then hear your name with the Red Wings and their whole story, it’s hard to explain.”
When his three-year contract was finalized in October 2015, he sent his signing bonus back to his parents in Kazan. “They did so much for me and I didn’t really need the money at the time,” he said. “My billets in Cape Breton were unbelievable. They treated me as one of their kids. I had food, I had clothes, so there was nothing I needed. My parents needed it more than me.”
Now, as he prepares to leave his teenage years behind, Svechnikov cannot help but think of Alexei Cherepanov, the former first-round pick of the New York Rangers who died of heart failure on the bench during a KHL game at the age of 19 in 2008.
“My first coach was his coach, too, so I got to know him when I was a kid,” Svechnikov said. “I skated with him a few times in Barnaul. My mom also worked with his mom, so I watched him a lot. He was a phenomenal player. I couldn’t believe it when it happened.”
Svechnikov was able to see action in two Calder Cup Playoff games with the Griffins last season after finishing his junior career in Cape Breton, earning an assist for his first professional point.
“I was a little nervous, but I knew I had to be ready,” he said. “Once I got the feel of the puck and the speed of the game, it was nice to play. It was playoff hockey, so I just tried to do my best and compete.”
In preparation for this season, Svechnikov worked out this past summer in Royal Oak with a group of guys that included Red Wings Danny DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson, Gustav Nyquist and Jimmy Howard. He drove an hour from Flint every day. “I put a lot of work into the summer in order to get ready for this season and to be able to compete with NHL guys,” he said. “I already can feel it. I’m stronger on the ice and I feel faster.”
Although each player followed his own workout program, Svechnikov benefitted from being able to talk with NHL-proven players. “It was real interesting,” he said. “They’re older and more mature, so there’s so much you can learn off the ice.”
The last month before training camp was spent skating together on the ice, which proved to be even more beneficial for Svechnikov. “I can feel how I got better, just the speed and how I can think in a game better,” he said. “I just feel better on the ice.”
He is looking forward to this season, not only because it will be his first full pro season. His mother is going to be living in Muskegon with his brother, now 16, who was signed by the Lumberjacks to play in the United States Hockey League this season. Andrei is considered one of the top prospects eligible for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
“Having them close will be better,” he said, anxious to be able to enjoy his mother’s cooking during the season. Her soups, he said, are the best. Nobody, it seems, makes borscht like Elena Svechnikov.
Svechnikov believes he is ready to make the transition to the AHL. “It’s already my third year in North America,” he said. “I feel comfortable playing here. Three years is a long time, so it’s time to show what I can do.”
The brothers talk every day – in Russian, of course. Like his older brother, Andrei came to North American not knowing any English. “He will learn. English is not that hard. It gets easier and easier every day,” said Svechnikov, who adds that his father plans to visit when he is able. He is currently sharpening skates at a hockey store back in Kazan.
In the meantime, Svechnikov will concentrate on doing what he can to keep moving in the direction of his dream to play in the NHL.
“There’s a dream in my mind, for sure,” he said. “I know this is a dream that I am never going to put away. I won’t say I will be a Red Wing soon because I know how tough it’s going to be. I’m just going to try to be myself and work really hard every day.”