After moving to North America at a very young age, Russian forward Denis Smirnov played statistically well in different leagues, most noticeably in the USHL, but with little exposure. This offseason Smirnov decided to play hockey for Penn State University, where he is having a great freshman season.
In this translated interview, originally appearing on Russian website sports.ru, NCAA hockey player Denis Smirnov talked about his early years, move to North America, and playing in different leagues.
* You can enjoy the original article in Russian language by Yegor Tutarikov here *
Denis Smirnov Early Career and Move to North America
Yegor Tutarikov: Denis, where did you start playing hockey?
Denis Smirnov: I started playing at the Silver Sharks in Moscow when I was two or three years old. My parents put me on skates and got me there. Then I moved to CSKA and after a little bit, I moved to North America.
YT: You were very young when you moved to North America. How did it happen? Was it hard to move?
DS: I was 14. I came here for a try-out and in the end, I was offered conditions that I could not refuse. Both on and off the ice. It was hard at first, but I had my sister here and then my parents arrived too. So I could settle down comfortably.
Penn State men’s hockey’s Denis Smirnov receives attention from NHL recruiters https://t.co/Ylc4HwtjKO
— FOPSMH (@mhbctweet) December 6, 2016
YT: You’re not the most known player out there. Can you talk about your strong and weak points? What are you planning to work on?
DS: I think that my strong points are that I read the ice well and can make quick decisions. Frankly speaking, I’m not sure about my weaknesses. I need to work on all the aspects of my game so that I will end up without weaknesses. I need to work on my speed, shot, and of course on my physical fitness.
YT: You also aren’t very big at 5’10”.
DS: I don’t feel like my height is a weakness. When I get to the ice I try not to think about it, just about showing my best game.
YT: You spent most of your career in North America. What sides of the North American game can you highlight?
DS: In North America hockey is faster and more physical [than in Russia]. You need to make decisions faster as you have less space compared to European rinks.
Playing in the USHL
YT: You spent two years playing for the Fargo Force. Can you tell us about the city, the atmosphere?
DS: It was a good team. The city isn’t big, in the nothern part of the USA, not far from the Canadian border. Sometimes it can be very cold, once it reached -30°C. The city loves hockey, everyone attends the games. Our games had an attendance of about 5,000 people, everyone was cheering for Fargo. It was a great experience, the club gave players the best conditions and playing for Fargo was truly exciting.
YT: North American Junior leagues are known for their long bus trips.
DS: Yes, when you reach the halfway mark of the season you start thinking that you’re tired. You start thinking stuff like: “Oh, no, another 10 hours.” On the other hand, the buses are comfortable, with beds, and when you win you’re always in good mood. Usually, away trips are fun.
YT: Last year you were your team’s top scorer with 61 points. Satisfied?
DS: Yes, I was satisfied with my game, I was consistent throughout the season. Of course, there were some slow moments, it’s impossible to play out an entire season without them. We didn’t reach the playoffs, therefore I don’t think that we deserve a positive grade for the campaign. But we tried hard, played our best and were a very united team. We were a bit unlucky and missed the playoffs.
YT: What can you say about the time you spent in North America?
DS: I can say that in North America I grew as a player. Moreover, in the US I learned to be more independent, as I am living far from home. Of course, I learned a lot of things on the ice. I spent a lot of time practicing with different coaches, with people who spent time the NHL, so I am trying to get something from every one of them and I have learned many different things.
YT: Do you follow the KHL?
DS: Yes, I constantly check the highlights, results, stats. I cheer for Metallurg Magnitogorsk from my childhood, but after I was drafted by Sochi and attended their camp I also started following them.
YT: You have some pictures of NHL games. Did you enjoy that?
DS: Attending an NHL game is always great. You have 20,000 people in the stands at each game. I attended a game of the Penguins as I’ve been a fan of the team for a long time. My idol is Evgeni Malkin and I try to learn from him.