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Coping with Language Barriers, Culture Shock, and Isolation: Strategies of NHL’s Most Isolated Players

Alexandre Carrier looked over at the stone-faced new guy to his left on the Gatineau Olympiques bench and noticed that he had another teammate’s stick in his hands. Ever the helpful sort, Carrier politely pointed out Yakov Trenin’s mistake. Trenin turned his head, stared at Carrier for a moment, and responded.

“Yes.”

Confused but also curious, Carrier then asked Trenin another question, one in which “no” was the only possible answer. Trenin again eyed him, expressionless.

“Yes.”

“I’m like, OK, he has no clue what I’m saying,” Carrier recalled with a laugh. “This was going to be a work in progress.”

Trenin was 17 years old when he left Russia to pursue his hockey dreams halfway around the world in North America. He had done his homework, taking classes to learn some rudimentary English so he at least could have a hope of understanding his coaches and fitting in with his teammates. The whole situation was terrifying.

Then he showed up in Quebec.

“I didn’t know they only speak French there,” Trenin said. “I was preparing for English and I get there and they all speak French.”

Trenin can laugh about it now, nearly a decade later. His English is excellent, and he’s in his fifth season with the Nashville Predators, with perpetual teammate Carrier owning the stall just across the Bridgestone Arena locker room. But when Trenin first showed up in Gatineau, he was the only Russian on the team — quite literally a stranger in a strange land. He knew nobody. He didn’t understand anybody. It was hard to make out the words the coaches were saying in team meetings. It was hard to communicate with his teammates on the ice. It was hard to fit in, to make friends, to hang out with the guys.

Carrier and the other Olympiques did their best to make Trenin feel welcome. They coaxed him into a volleyball match after a practice. They invited him to the movies “even though he didn’t understand a thing,” Carrier said. They spoke to him in their own sometimes-broken English, and Trenin – who was still new to that language and not very comfortable in it – found it easier to understand them than native English speakers because he found their accents similar to his own.

“You can’t really have a big conversation with him, so you try to just do stuff with him to make him feel part of the team,” Carrier said. “Just get him out of the house.”

Hockey is a global sport, and every time you walk into an NHL locker room, you’re liable to hear three, four, five different languages being spoken at once. Inevitable cliques form, too. The Russian players will have their locker stalls clustered together. The Czech guys on every team will all hang out away from the rink, piling into Bistro Praha for a taste of home when they roll into Edmonton. The Swedes and Finns are taught English throughout their childhoods and are usually at or near fluency, but they still congregate together and hide their conversations from prying ears by speaking their native tongue…

(continues)

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