ST. PAUL — Evgeny Svechnikov has learned to take things in stride and not sweat the small stuff. A tough childhood in Russia, a series of injuries early in his pro hockey career and being cut loose by the organization that drafted you in the first round has a way of humbling a person and giving you a healthy perspective.
And so, last week, after learning he’d made the Winnipeg Jets out of training camp, Svechnikov had no problem with having to make his own way to southern California while the rest of the club flew on their private charter. It was a mechanism of some salary-cap juggling by the club, which couldn’t make his NHL contract official until after they’d submitted an opening-night roster that didn’t include him but did have defenceman Ville Heinola, who was promptly sent to the Manitoba Moose.
"I just had to follow the rules, you know," Svechnikov, 24, told the Free Press. "I just flew later that night on a commercial flight. Vancouver, couple hours flight, then the next morning (of the first game) to LA. You know what. People sacrifice so many things in life, and those are nothing. You get to the place and play the game, so that’s all I was thinking. Nothing else was bothering me."
Svechnikov played in the season-opener in Anaheim on the fourth-line with Riley Nash and Kristian Vesalainen — former first-rounders just like him — then was relegated to the press box Saturday night in San Jose as a healthy scratch to make room for Mark Scheifele’s return from suspension. Whether he returns to the lineup Tuesday night here in Minnesota or has to wait a bit longer, you won’t be surprised to learn Svechnikov isn’t losing sleep worrying about it.
He’s just excited to have a new lease on his hockey life, especially after shoulder and knee injuries limited him to just 42 games over five seasons with the Detroit Red Wings organization, which drafted him 19th-overall in 2015 only to not tender him a qualifying offer last summer, rendering him an unrestricted free agent.
"I went through the toughest time of my life," said Svechnikov. "That’s where you get better, as a person, as a hockey player. You just think of everything differently. The mindset is different now. My injuries are great, I’m healthy, my shoulder has been awesome, my knee has been awesome for the last three years. I feel healthy and ready to go and will work hard every day."
The 6’3, 208-pound Svechnikov, whose younger brother Andrei stars for the Carolina Hurricanes, stood out in camp with the Jets after attending on a pro tryout. He played five of the six preseason games and parlayed that into a one-year, two-way contract that pays him the league minimum of US$750,000 at the NHL level.
"I think I deserved it. I did everything I could, worked hard in camp since Day 1. I came in and I said I would just come in every day, put my head down and work hard," said Svechnikov. "I’m really happy, I showed up and worked hard, produced a little bit and showed myself that I could be on the team and help the team. That’s the most important part thing for me. I want to help this team and I know I can do that."
His drive and determination is obvious. At last Friday’s practice in San Jose, Svechnikov and teammate Pierre-Luc Dubois were engaged in a battle drill that ended with both crashing hard into the boards.
"Unfortunately he was in my way. I didn’t mean to fill him. Ice was getting bad at the end of practice, I kind of pushed him a little bit and he fell down," said Svechnikov. "Never want to hurt anybody, he’s one of the best players on our team. But if it comes down to the battle I’m going to do my best to get out of the corner with the puck."
Unlike plenty of Russian players who either stay in their home country, or head over to the KHL if they’re not happy with the situation in North America, Svechnikov said that’s never been on his radar. He’ll get an up-close look at one player who delayed coming over here in reigning NHL rookie of the year Kirill Kaprizov, who took the league by storm last season with the Wild at the age of 24.
"I think it’s more personal. It’s how you choose to go in your career. For Kaprizov, he chose that way and everything was fine for him in Russia. For some guys, it doesn’t go very easy, you know?" said Svechnikov. "And obviously he’ a very talented and good player but when he comes in and became a star. But I think everyone’s a different way. It’s too easy to turn around and just say I don’t want to go and work hard there. But that’s where you grow. That’s where you grow your mentality, toughness, and everything else. And, like I said, it’s your choice. If you want to go. And some guys choose to do that, some not, so."
Although English is not his primary language, the easy-going Svechnikov is often seen yukking it up with teammates on the ice and keeping things loose. It’s what you’d expect from a guy truly happy to be here.
"I just think it’s my personality. I’ve always been a fun guy, being in the locker room and enjoying things. Like I said, I went through tough times in my life and it turned me into a way more positive guy," said Svechnikov.
"I learn a lot from the guys as well. From the older guys. When you have (Henrik) Zetterberg, (Niklas) Kronwall, (Jonathan) Ericsson (on the Red Wings), you just watch and learn every day. And every day I would. But I don’t know. It’s just me. I love to have a smile on my face every day. Bring excitement, bring energy. And I know, toughness as well."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.