The journey to become a professional hockey player does not always follow an expected course.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Dennis Yan can attest to the fact that the path to professional hockey does not follow a straight line.
Any player who reaches the upper levels of the game knows that the journey does not come with a compass, a map, or even directions. Most fans assume that players come through either junior hockey in Canada, college in the U.S., or one of the European leagues, but it’s not always that simple.
Hockey, like life, is unpredictable.
Yan spent the better part of his childhood growing up in Russia, where his parents lived before work brought his father to Portland, Ore., the birthplace of both Dennis and his younger brother Andrew (less than two years separate the boys).
When he was five, Yan and his family moved back to Moscow. It was there that hockey became part of his life.
“When my father put me on the ice, I fell in love with the game pretty quick and it just felt natural,” said Yan, whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Korea to Russia. “There was a lot of practice and I kept getting better and better until I realized that it was my passion.”
Like many young Russian players, Yan was indoctrinated to the sport in a fashion that focused his attention on hockey, almost to the exclusion of others. Sports outside of hockey are only encouraged in a way that benefits the primary directive.
Growing up, it was school, hockey, school, hockey. “I was always busy with those two things,” he said. “In Russia, you play a lot of different sports with the team, sports like soccer and handball to give young athletes a different vision of the game. The idea is to see the same game differently and to improve your skills.”
Yan said his hockey team would play other sports once a week.
“In Russia, the game is more about the possession of the puck, trying to hold onto the puck as much as you can until you can make a play out of it,” he said. “So playing together as one unit like a soccer team is important. Although you don’t have a stick in your hands, other games can help with your vision even when you’re playing with your feet or your hands.”
Yan attended a hockey camp that was run by Pavel Datsyuk, the PD13 Hockey School, where his play reportedly earned high praise from camp organizers. Taking part in drills designed by the Detroit Red Wings superstar, Yan displayed the gifts that would eventually earn the attention of NHL scouts.
Staying in the Soviet-styled system could have been an option, but Yan’s family opted to have him play elsewhere.
“Every family in Russia has their own life and we grew up in pretty good conditions. We had a car, a home, food, and everything we needed. Life was pretty good,” he said. “I continued to play [in Russia] until the age of 14, when my parents decided to fly me back to North America to start my career here.”
Yan played minor midget AAA hockey for the Lambton Jr. Sting in Sarnia, Ontario. His billet family was Hockey Hall of Famer and former Red Wings star Dino Ciccarelli’s brother Larry, whose son Matteo was also on the team. “They took me in and treated me very well,” he said.
Although he held dual Russian-American citizenship, Yan said coming to North America was a big adjustment. “It was the toughest time for me because I was a really young guy and I didn’t really know English,” he said. “The first three months were especially hard, going to school and everything, but hockey kept my head in things.”
Alone in a foreign country, Yan might have felt isolated and alone, but he trusted that his family had his best interests in mind.
“My parents made the decision for me because I was really young,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to be my path, but once I came over and started playing hockey in juniors and then getting drafted, I realized that this is my path.”
In the moment, Yan admits that he was not thinking about his future, only the present. “At first, I went day by day, then month by month, then season by season,” he said.
The more physical side of North American hockey also exacted its toll. “I got a concussion during the first year because I think I wasn’t used to the style of play,” he said.” It took me some games to get used to it, but I still had a lot of fun. If you’re good in youth hockey, it’s still enjoyable because you’re just playing the game and having fun.”
Yan learned that he had to adjust the way he played the game. “With the smaller rink [in North America], there’s way less space and it’s a way faster game,” he said. “In those early days when I was 14 or 15 years old, it took me a full season, but later I understood how the game is played and now I am used to it.”
In his second year, he entered the Belle Tire program for the 2012-13 season and recorded an impressive 30 goals in 40 games. “It was another step higher, playing U18 as a 16-year-old kid,” he said. “I was always playing a little underage, so I had to push myself to progress.”
It didn’t hurt that he was being mentored at the time by Russian hockey legend and former Red Wings center Igor Larionov. “I was practicing with him during my time with Belle Tire,” Yan said. “He is a very smart guy who helped me out a lot. He gave me some great advice during morning skates and extra skill practices during the season. He was part of my success, for sure.”
After the 2013-14 season, Yan had hoped to play in the Ontario Hockey League but his immigration status derailed those plans. “I was supposed to be in the OHL draft because I have dual citizenship,” he said. “I think they got it wrong when they didn’t include me in their draft. I had to wait an extra year, so I ended up playing in the U.S. program.”
He spent a season in the U.S. National Team Development Program, playing for the U17 team that included future NHL stars Auston Matthews (Toronto), Matthew Tkachuk (Calgary), Charlie McAvoy (Boston) and Zach Werenski (Columbus), along with several other future NHL players.
In 48 games, Yan scored 12 goals, matching the total potted by Matthews, who naturally scored his dozen in half as many games. Nevertheless, it was an impressive enough showing to get him drafted by the Shawinigan Cataractes of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Yan tallied 208 points in 185 games during his three years in Shawinigan, where he enjoyed 33-, 32- and 46-goal seasons. “I really liked it there,” he said. “I learned a little French, listening to people to the point where I could understand what they were talking about – not like 100 percent, more like 80 percent. “Being there for three years, you can’t help but learn. Of course, you forget it all if you don’t practice.”
It was after his first year in Quebec that the Tampa Bay Lightning used their third pick (64th overall) in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft to select the 6-foot-2, 192-lb. winger, whose offensive talents suggested that he had a high ceiling as a prospect.
“Getting drafted meant I was able to get an NHL camp under my belt, which helped for sure,” he said. “It made me better as an older player in the league when I went back to Shawinigan.”
Following his time in junior hockey, Yan joined Tampa’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse. As a member of the Crunch for three seasons, he worked alongside several players who would become important pieces of the Lightning’s back-to-back Stanley Cup championship teams, along with future Red Wings players Adam Erne and Mitchell Stephens.
“In Tampa, the development process is really top-notch for top prospects, not just on the ice but also off the ice,” he said. “I became a man in terms of understanding and playing the professional game. Being a pro is way different from juniors. The time you put in, the work you do, requires hours and hours. I thought they did an unbelievable job of giving me everything I needed to succeed and grow as a player.”
Yan registered double-figure goal totals (13, 11, 10) each season in Syracuse but was not re-signed after his three-year entry-level deal expired. He suddenly found himself in limbo without a deal during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I went back to Russia and spent time visiting my father, waiting for things to unfold in terms of where I was going to play,” he said. “I was a free agent and I was practicing by myself, just waiting for a contract. I didn’t want to skip the whole season, so I finally decided to finish the season in Austria to at least get in some games in.”
Yan played 13 games for the Steinbach Black Wings in Linz, Austria, to finish the 2020-21 season. “It was a different experience because Europe is another style of hockey,” he said. “I wasn’t there that long, maybe a couple of months, but I was happy that I played those 13 games.”
He was thrilled to change the color of his wings for the 2021-22 season, signing a one-year deal in September 2021 to play for Detroit’s top minor league affiliate. The chance to play for Grand Rapids meant he was back under the gaze of Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman, who had inked him to his first pro contract.
“I was very excited,” he said. “It was very special for me because I had spent a couple of years living in Michigan and I knew some people in the organization. I know it was a late signing but it was exciting knowing that they wanted me.
“It was also exciting knowing how many fans come to the games in Grand Rapids. It’s very special to play in this city compared with other places in the league. I’m still pursuing my dream, so I am excited to go wherever my path takes me, but Grand Rapids is an especially good place to play.”
Yan, who already knew Luke Witkowski from his days in Tampa, quickly acclimated himself to his new city. “When you come to a new team, it helps for sure, but all of the guys here are very nice,” he said. “It’s a good group of guys, so it was easy to come into this situation.”
He is doing his best to contribute to the Griffins’ push to the playoffs.
“Over the years, I’ve been put into different roles,” he said. “Mostly, I am successful when I play a hard, gritty game and show that defensive side of my game. If I play hard and compete, that’s when I am successful.”
He is confident that the Griffins can be the kind of team that others will fear in the playoffs. “We’re going to make a good push,” he said. “We’ve already shown that we can win games, but it’s going to be tricky. Hockey is unpredictable, so anything can happen.
“We can definitely be in the playoffs, but it will take some effort.”
In the meantime, he stays in touch with his family. While his parents remain in Russia, his brother is a U.S. Marine with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion stationed at Camp Schwab in Okinawa, Japan.
“We came back to North America at the same time, but he went back to Portland, where we were born, because our grandmother was still living there,” he said. “He played a little hockey, but we had different kinds of bodies, so he played American football and wrestling.
Yan talks to his family in Russian, which is still his first language. “My English is pretty good, except for the accent,” he said. “We were taught English in school, but when I first came over, it was like I didn’t know any words at all.”
Going from one place to another has made Yan feel like he’s “Mr. International.”
“If someone asks me where I am from, I don’t even know how to answer,” he said. “Most players have a simple story. They were born in this town in the U.S., Canada, or Sweden and they grew up, but me, I feel like I’ve been moving all the time, never feeling like I had a place that I could call home.
“For me, home is where my family is. That’s where I am most happy. I have definitely enjoyed the ride and I am excited going forward.”