At age 17, there’s a good chance Yan Kuznetsov is the youngest freshman in Division I men’s hockey. To make things even more difficult, he’s in a foreign land, playing a foreign game. It’s not just that the style of play is different in the United States compared to his homeland of Russia, but the game itself is altered.
“In Russia, we have bigger ice sheets, there are more tactical plays. Not as much back-and-forth, more positioning. You stay in one zone and go back. The sheet is bigger and not everything is that fast,” Kuznetsov said. “Here, if you have an opportunity to shoot, you shoot because it’s a closer distance.”
But while there may be plenty of differences between the two countries’ games, one thing stays the same: Hitting. And that’s right in Kuznetsov’s wheelhouse.
“When I play physical I play good, when I don’t it’s so-so,” he said with a smile.
In fact, there’s a lot for Kuznetsov to smile about. Back home, he wouldn’t have gotten much of a chance to play professionally with his club. So at age 16, he packed his bags and came to the US, joining the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL. Some players that age would’ve wrestled with the decision. But not Kuznetsov.
“It’s my dream to play in the United States,” he said. “It was an easy decision.”
Kuznetsov didn’t even experience much of a culture shock. According to him, the biggest difference between Russia and the US is that in Russia, everyone lives in apartments. And here, everyone has their own house. However, he did concede that finding healthy food that he liked was tough.
“In Russia we always eat soup for lunch, like every day, but you don’t have this in the United States,” Kuznetsov said. “I had some problems eating healthy. American food is usually burgers, hot dogs, Mexican food is very popular here. It was hard.”
But aside from that, Kuznetsov is enjoying his time in the US so far and is settling in to UConn. As one of the top prospects for the 2020 NHL Draft (mock drafts currently project him between the 13th and 30th best prospect), Kuznetsov has the talent to play anywhere in the country.
When he committed back in April, Kuznetsov became the third elite Russian player to join the team in the last two years along with sophomore Ruslan Iskhakov and fellow freshman Vladislav Firstov.
Kuznetsov said UConn first got in contact last fall and he took his visit in April. From there, it just felt natural.
“(UConn is a) good school. I like education, I want to be educated,” he said on why he chose the Huskies. “Very good hockey level. All the facilities — you just need to play and you have everything here to develop. Good food, good place to live, good dorms. It’s everything you need to play hockey.”
However, the fact that he’s going to be one of the youngest players in the league isn’t lost on him. Kuznetsov knows he needs to be ready.
“It’s a big challenge for me, so I need to put in the work every day, work hard to have a good season here,” he said. “I want to help the team to win.”