Every once in awhile Alex Burmistrov will stare into a throng of cameras, crinkle up his nose and shrug his shoulders at a question as something is lost in the translation.
It's in these moments -- and they are happening less and less as time passes -- when the transformation of the Winnipeg Jet centre from Russian prospect to burgeoning NHL star, just like his game on the ice, seems both incomplete and astonishing at the same time.
Incomplete in the sense that this is a kid who came to Canada to play for the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts in 2009 from Kazan, Russia, barely knowing more than two words of English but continues to work daily at improving his game while understanding his new environment.
And astonishing in the sense that he is still essentially 20-year-old stranger in a strange land.
"I know when he first came here for junior he said he couldn't speak any English," said Jets teammate Bryan Little. "He learned a lot just from watching TV and movies. I don't know how he managed that, because I'd never be able to learn Russian that way. And now... he talks quite a bit, actually."
An example: as Burmistrov chatted the other day about his first days in Barrie and making the decision to come to Canada, we asked him about his family. His dad, he explained, is a businessman. His mother stays at home and "keeps the house." He does have an older brother. And what does his older sibling do for a living?
"He is also in business," Burmistrov explained. "He is pretty smart guy... not like me."
And with that Burmistrov flashes a grin, a grin that was absent when he was first introduced to a handful of local media at the MTS Iceplex back in August. Back then Burmistrov seemed so much less confident and much more uncomfortable under the bright lights. In fact, it was on that day that Jet prospect Carl Klingberg also spoke for the first time and, while spitting out terms like "dude," "sick" and "awesome" seemed so much more NHL ready.
Fast forward to the present and Klingberg is in St. John's while Burmistrov, who has three goals and two assists in his last six games to boost his career-high totals to 12 goals and 11 assists, seems on the cusp. Buoyed by an increased role centring the Jets' second line along with Evander Kane and Kyle Wellwood, he has shown dramatic growth both in his game and as a person.
"You feel confident when the coach give you that ice time," he said. "It's a big difference between the middle of the season and right now. He give me more and I can do some stuff on the ice and I'm not scared. And when you're not scared it gives you comfort.
"I feel comfortable and I'm still learning. The NHL is a big school and you have to learn a lot in your first year and then keep going. Right now I try to learn every game and I watch other players and how they play and take something from them and then practice that stuff. It's all different between the first and second year. Everybody looks at you differently, you're not any more a rookie. You need to be better, you need to be a leader on the team."
Again, perhaps some perspective is in order here. It was roughly 21/2 years ago when Burmistrov left his family in Kazan for Barrie because "all the stars play in the NHL and it was my dream."
But he couldn't speak a lick of English. He had a tutor that helped him twice a week for three months -- "I even had homework", he admitted -- but most of his learning came in the dressing room, from watching movies and TV and just hanging out with his Colts' teammates.
"I only knew a couple words when I came to Canada," said Burmistrov. "That's really rough, but you have to battle through this. After three weeks you wonder what is going on. But my teammates were great. We'd do out all the time to dinner or movie and they tried to be with me all the time and give me a good time. My roommate in Barrie and my billet family were great to me. That year was unbelievable for me enjoying it. I have a lot of friends from then.
"It helped me that there were no Russians in Barrie at the time. It was English, English, English.
"I watched TV and in the locker-room the hockey language made it easier for me to learn. I tried to understand coach... he didn't really talk to me, but tried to show me stuff on the board. Sometimes when I didn't understand I'd stay at the back of the line in a drill and learn from them."
That still happens occasionally, Burmistrov will admit. He'll be spotted sidling up to Nik Antropov for an explanation of a drill or when a teammate says something he doesn't understand.
"Hey," Antropov said, "I still have to ask sometimes because I don't know some words, especially slang.
"Alex, he's picked up his game so much from last year. He's more mature... he's still only 20, but he plays like a growing-up man right now. He's listening to what the coaches or older players tell him and he takes that information and uses it to his advantage. There are a few young guys that I played with, they don't listen, they just do whatever they want to do. I like the way he's carrying himself off the ice and he's willing to learn from everybody.
"Every year he's going to improve so he's going to get better and better each year. In the next couple of years he'll be a really, really good player."
That part, Burmistrov is just now starting to realize.
"I like it here," he said. "Lots of fun, I am having."
And then he grinned. And there was absolutely nothing lost in the translation.
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