As the newest program in Hockey East, UConn men’s hockey isn’t content just being in the best conference in college hockey. Mike Cavanaugh and his staff not only want to compete for conference titles but also national championships, and to do that, they need elite players.
For UConn’s other top programs, it usually started with getting a top player from Connecticut — or at least nearby. The football team snagged Dan Orlovsky from Shelton. Southwick, Massachusetts’ Rebecca Lobo helped start the women’s basketball team’s dynasty. Chris Smith, a Bridgeport native, was a critical part of the rise of the Huskies’ men’s basketball program with the NIT victory in 1988 and the Dream Season in 1990.
UConn men’s hockey does not have that luxury. Unlike the other three aforementioned programs, the hockey program has rivals located exclusively nearby. Every single team in Hockey East is within the six states of New England along with other in-state powers such as Quinnipiac and Yale.
The top prospects in the area aren’t going to an unproven program like UConn. Instead, they go to the likes of Boston College, Boston University or Providence, to name a few.
So the Huskies have to look elsewhere. And right now, the team is monopolizing the top prospects coming over from Russia. Last year, UConn brought in Ruslan Iskhakov, who those in the program believe can be a legitimate contender for the Hobey Baker Award, the college hockey equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
This year? The Huskies doubled their luck by adding forward Vladislav Firstov and defenseman Yan Kuznetsov from the largest country in the world. Kuznetsov is big, physical and more than willing to throw his body around. Firstov? He’s more like Iskhakov - smaller, quiet and unassuming. But put him in front of net with the puck and he’s an ice-cold assassin.
The only thing is that hockey isn’t the tough part for Firstov. He was drafted in the second round (No. 42 overall) to the Minnesota Wild for a reason. Instead, the biggest adjustment for the young Russian will be acclimating to life in America — the style of play, the language and the food. Especially the food.
“I like more Russian food. I like Russian food more,” he said.
So how is Firstov adjusting to his new diet? He’s trying new things and is beginning to enjoy one of the staples of American cuisine: Chinese food.
“What food do I like here? I like Panda Express. I like Chinese food. I like Sushi — we have in Russia too,” he said with a smile.
The language is a pretty major adjustment too, though having fellow Russian-speakers like Iskhakov, Kuznetsov and Sasha Payusov on the team helps a lot.
“Last year was so hard for me because on my (USHL) team, I don’t have Russian guys,” he said. “Just talk English here.”
“If I don’t have Russian guys, because my English is no good here, it’s so hard for me talking here,” Firstov added later. “If I don’t understand, I ask Yan, I talk to him in Russian. It’s more comfortable. Ruslan and Sasha too.”
And really, Firstov is better than he gives himself credit for. He did the entire interview in English — even turning down the chance to use Payusov as an interpreter. And despite not knowing certain words or sometimes getting stuck while talking, Firstov knows English well enough to make jokes.
“We work right now. I need muscles. I need muscles here [in the US],” he said, giving a slight arm flex while smiling.
So Firstov’s English is a work in progress. But it’ll only get better with more time spent on campus, taking classes and talking to people. And luckily on the ice, he won’t need to do much talking anyways. Firstov can just let his play to do that instead.
If the program continues to ascend the way its going and Firstov’s as good as advertised, the trio of him, Iskhakov and Kuznetsov could be looked at in the same way the likes of Orlovsky, Lobo and Smith.