Sitting in the stands overlooking the place where he most frequently terrorizes opposing defences, Andrei Svechnikov is out of his element. He’s still mastering English and in conversation he restricts himself to short answers — no more than a couple of sentences — bursts of laboured expression that are nothing like the long, effortless strides that make him so dangerous when he’s on skates.
It’s just weeks before both the end of the OHL regular season and Svechnikov’s 18th birthday, and the Barrie Colts right-winger is about to wrap up a campaign that will see him win the league’s rookie of the year award on the strength of the 40 goals he scored in just 44 games. He may struggle to tell the story of how he got to this point — setting the scoresheet on fire in his draft year — but ask for the secret to his success and the answer comes easily: “I drive for the net every time with the puck. I can score from everywhere. I play a physical game. I play well in the defensive zone,” he says.
Yup, that about sums it up.
It’s Svechnikov’s all-around ability that’s made him the smart bet to go second overall in the 2018 NHL Draft behind Rasmus Dahlin. There was never any catching the Swedish defenceman for the No. 1 spot, but Svechnikov has separated himself from the rest of the pack. He finished the regular season on a 23-game point streak and has since garnered comparisons to figures as lofty as Alex Ovechkin and even Gordie Howe for his willingness to crash the net with the puck on his stick. And he has scouts enthralled by his superstar potential. Carolina Hurricanes GM Don Waddell has already gone on record saying he’s targeting the six-foot-three, 184-pound forward if his team keeps the No. 2 pick.
Safe to say, then, that Svechnikov has the hockey world at his fingertips. But getting to the point that he’s pegged as the next Russian star was, at times, as difficult as telling the story in his second language.
Svechnikov could have known a more comfortable life if not for a traumatic event that happened before he was born. His father, Igor, had been a pediatrician for more than two decades when, in May 1995, a deadly earthquake struck the town of Neftegorsk on Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia. The disaster killed roughly half of the oil town’s 4,000 citizens. According to Svechnikov’s older brother, Evgeny, their father was one of only two doctors in the region. The suffering he witnessed was too much for him to bear; he gave up medicine in the aftermath.
Igor and his wife, Elena, moved the family off the island after Evgeny was born. They settled in Barnaul, an industrial city north of China, between Kazakhstan and Mongolia, and Andrei came along in 2000. Igor got a job selling cakes, which required him to regularly travel as far as Siberia — more than 1,200 kilometres away. Elena worked two jobs, cleaning floors at night and manning the reception desk at the local rink during the daylight hours. “We didn’t have money,” Evgeny says. “We didn’t have much food. It was tough, but we got through it. It made the relationship with my family even better.”
The tough times strengthened the bond between the brothers. They became inseparable despite their three-and-a-half-year age difference. “We’d eat from the same plate,” Evgeny says. “We’d be together everywhere. He was young, but he’d be following me in my steps.”
With their mom at the rink, the boys spent many hours there. Svechnikov wanted to play hockey because his big brother did. He first started skating when he was three and was playing in organized games twice a day by the time he was four. He was a natural. Evgeny could tell he was destined for greatness almost instantly. “I knew since he was five years old,” he says. “He was just talented. He was skating with my age group of guys — four years older — and beating those guys.”
Svechnikov’s explanation of that early talent is simple: “I watched my brother and how he plays.”
When he was nine, Svechnikov’s family moved to the bigger, hockey-mad city of Moscow. He had more access to ice time, which he says helped him flourish as a player, particularly in the offensive end. A year after the move, the brothers were recruited to play for Ak Bars in Kazan — one of the more highly regarded programs in Russia. Igor opened a hockey store there and began selling equipment.
In 2014, Evgeny he was selected in the CHL import draft by the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and left Russia. He starred in Nova Scotia and was taken in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings after that first season. A year later, he was bound for the AHL in Grand Rapids, Mich. That gave then-Muskegon Lumberjacks GM John Vanbiesbrouck an idea.
Svechnikov had just finished competing at the world under-18 championship. He was called upon as a double underager because Russia’s national team was engulfed in a doping scandal and fill-ins were needed. He scored two goals in five games and helped save his country from relegation. After watching the performance, Vanbiesbrouck contacted Mark Gandler, the agent for both brothers. Muskegon is only 65 km from Grand Rapids; if Svechnikov signed with the USHL’s Lumberjacks, he and Evgeny could see each other frequently, the GM noted. The pitch worked. “It was a good fit for Andrei to give it a try and see what he could achieve at this level,” Vanbiesbrouck says.
To say Svechnikov arrived in Muskegon with a rudimentary understanding of English would be an understatement. “I knew ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’” he says. That’s it. The first couple of months were difficult as he adjusted to a new culture, language and style of play, but it helped that his mother had moved to America with him. The team set them up with a billet family, and Elena cooked for him — including his favourite, borscht — and generally made life easier.
Evgeny was also a crucial presence early on. He skated with the Lumberjacks before leaving for Detroit’s camp and served as a translator. “It was great to see those two work together,” says then-Lumberjacks coach John LaFontaine of the bond between the Svechnikov boys. “He wanted to help out his brother. He would be out there setting the tone in terms of what he expected from him.”
Given the proximity between Grand Rapids and Muskegon, Svechnikov saw his brother almost every weekend. Pro tips were conveyed at each visit. “He tells me if you wanna get to the NHL you have to work hard,” Svechnikov says.
LaFontaine adds: “[Evgeny’s] main words [to the coaching staff] were, ‘Don’t be easy on him. Push him.’ You didn’t have to push him much because he was always pushing himself to be better.”
Both Vanbiesbrouck and LaFontaine describe Svechnikov as a gym rat who never missed an optional skate. “You basically had to give him a key to the rink,” LaFontaine says. “There were times when you had to tell him, ‘Andrei, we have three games coming up. Rest.’ Otherwise, he would just keep working.”
The language barrier was a challenge, but Svechnikov and his teammates had an app on their phones to translate messages. On the ice, there was little translation needed. “It’s amazing how in hockey you can communicate non-verbally and know what each other’s doing,” Vanbiesbrouck says. “He knew the game well enough to know drills without having to be told what they are.”
Svechnikov recorded 29 goals and 58 points in 48 games for the Lumberjacks. He also earned MVP honours at the World Junior A Challenge in December 2016, scoring eight goals, a tournament record. “He had a special gift the way he could put the puck in the net,” LaFontaine says. “He could score in all different ways. It seemed like when one goal shocked you, the next week he was doing something different.”
LaFontaine sees Svechnikov as a cross between countrymen Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov, a mixture of raw power and creativity. Vanbiesbrouck compares him to Los Angeles Kings centre Jeff Carter because of their physiques and the release on their shots. Vanbiesbrouck also likens the way Svechnikov controls the puck and takes it to the net to Mr. Hockey himself. “I don’t want to put him in Gordie’s category just yet, but just that raw talent of size and strength and being able to have the puck on your stick so strongly — that’s unique. I don’t see a lot of that.”
Svechnikov’s skill and power are on full display with his Colts in Mississauga for a January OHL game. He corrals the puck along the right side, just inside the Steelheads zone. He’s well contained and far from an optimal scoring area. For now.
Svechnikov fakes to the inside and then, in the blink of an eye, pulls the puck to his backhand. Mississauga defenceman Thomas Harley flails his stick in a desperate attempt at a poke check. The Russian Colt has a step on him and uses his left leg to protect the puck. In less than two seconds, he dips to the goal line, cuts hard around the edge of the Steelheads crease and beats goaltender Emanuel Vella to the far post.
It’s a goal reminiscent of Pavel Bure in his NHL heyday. Svechnikov grew up idolizing Bure. The Russian Rocket retired when he was just three, but there were plenty of YouTube clips to study. “There’s not a lot of guys that have the ability and the edge work to get to the other side of the goalie and slam dunk the puck in the net. He does that a lot,” Vanbiesbrouck says. “That’s a hard thing to defend for a D-man. It’s courageous by a forward. Every coach is trying to get his players to drive to the net.”
Colts coach Dale Hawerchuk says Svechnikov is “fearless” in this regard, and scouts and fans saw plenty of proof of that in the second half of the OHL season. But the start to Svechnikov’s tenure with the Colts — who selected him first overall in the 2017 CHL import draft after his lone season in Muskegon — was a frustrating one. He missed almost two months because of a broken middle finger on his right hand that came just 10 games into the year. He made it back in time for the world juniors but saw limited ice time under veteran-leaning Russian coach Valeri Bragin. Svechnikov still managed five assists in as many games.
Going to Barrie had been a family decision, made in consultation with Gandler. Once again, Elena came with him. They rented a house near the rink. And there’s no question Evgeny’s past major-junior experience played a significant role in the decision. “We thought the CHL would be better for him,” Evgeny says. “He was on a different level. It was a better league for him at this time. He was a little bit ahead of the USHL.”
Although visits were far less frequent than when they lived in the same state, the siblings talked every day. Evgeny provided good-natured ribbing, teasing his younger brother about how he wouldn’t make it to 50 goals, while also offering plenty of encouragement. “It’s important. That’s how we were raised,” Evgeny says. “We love each other. We wish the best for each other.”
Despite the joy of having his brother close by last season, there was little hesitation from Svechnikov when the Colts came calling. “I wanted to play with guys who will play in the NHL in the next couple of years,” he says.
His linemates for most of the season were Minnesota Wild prospect Dmitry Sokolov and Ottawa Senators free-agent signee Aaron Luchuk, who were acquired before Christmas in separate trades by Colts GM Jason Ford. The trio clicked right away, carrying Barrie to a Central Division crown after they finished last in the league in 2016–17. Although he was suspended for the first four games of the 2018 playoffs for a high hit in the regular-season finale, Svechnikov managed five goals and 11 points in eight post-season contests before Barrie was eliminated. “The one thing that stood out [about Svechnikov] when I got here was his drive to be the best he could possibly be and help his team win,” says Luchuk, a 50-goal man and the OHL’s top scorer this season with 115 points. “His first three steps are incredible. You think he’s dead in the water and he’s able to get out of tight spots and create more for himself and his linemates.”
Svechnikov not only pushes the pace on the ice, Luchuk says it’s next to impossible to keep up in the weight room when he’s at his top form. And thanks to weekly English lessons, his personality started shining through, too. Ford describes him as a joker, someone who’s jubilant and positive. He’s quick with a smile whether he’s among teammates or talking to a reporter in the stands on an off-day. His motto, “Svech is ready,” is something he says to Hawerchuk before he steps on the ice. “If something doesn’t go right in practice, I’ll say, ‘Oh, Svech not ready.’ And he says, ‘Svech always ready,’” Hawerchuk explains, laughing. “He’s just a personality. It’s infectious. He’s always on.”
The draft marks the huge payoff for Svechnikov. It’s just hard to tell when you talk to him. “It would be really easy for a player that good to get a big ego,” Ford says, “but there are no signs of that whatsoever.”
That is noteworthy in a player ranked No. 2 overall by every major outlet and No. 1 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. Where will he go from there? “I see him as a regular 40-goal scorer [in the NHL] — in that range — and a point a game,” Ford says. “If he keeps on developing, he could be even more.”
That can wait. For now, Svechnikov is solely concerned with joining his brother in the pros. Svechnikov was in attendance when Evgeny scored his first NHL goal on March 20 against Philadelphia and was beaming with pride. “The most important thing is just to play with him in the NHL,” Svechnikov says.
Adds Evgeny: “It would be a dream come true — me and him in the NHL. To make this league we’ve been trying to get to our whole lives … it will be an unbelievable feeling. I can’t wait. It’s going to be fun.”
It was a momentous day for the whole family when Evgeny signed his first contract with the Red Wings, especially since he gave part of his signing bonus to his parents. With Igor back in Kazan and Elena not working, you can bet Svechnikov will follow his brother’s example one more time. “He’s just a great young man that inspired everybody. You really root for those players that come from humble beginnings and appreciate everything they have,” LaFontaine says. “He’s one of those players that appreciates what he has because he’s not used it having it as good.”
That’s all about to change.
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