When Overseas Hockey Players Can't Chitchat With Their Teammates Or Even Order a Pizza

When Jaromir Jagr came to the United States as an 18-year-old to play hockey for the Pittsburgh Penguins he could speak only Czech. No English, just Czech.

He couldn't joke around with players in the locker room after practice. He couldn't read about how he played in last night's game. He couldn't even order a pepperoni pizza.

He was a teenager living in a country he didn't understand, surrounded by people who couldn't understand him. He was miserable, and it showed on the ice.

One of the top-rated players in the 1990 draft, Jagr got off to a slow start, and then proceeded to get worse.

"He was getting homesick," says Tom McMillin, then a reporter covering the Penguins. "There weren't any Czech friends for him on the team. He was younger and isolated by his language."

Six years later, Jagr is a different man. He leads the National Hockey League with 42 goals and is considered one of the best players in the game today.

And although his English is still far from perfect, he chatted amiably with reporters after a pre-game practice in Boston while waiting for the bus to arrive. He is now comfortable, in control of the situation.

Back in 1990, the Penguins were faced with a problem that has challenged many teams since the Iron Curtain fell: how to acclimate players who don't know the English language or anything about Western culture. Clubs have been left to sort out these problems on their own, as the NHL has no program to help foreign players with the transition.

But even so, Jagr was an extreme case, McMillin says.

His youth, coupled with his love for his homeland, made adapting to life as a professional hockey player in the US all the more difficult. (He wears jersey No. 68 to commemorate the Prague Spring, a Czech nationalist revolt against the USSR in 1968.)

But others have had to cope, too.

As glasnost took hold of Russia, the National Hockey League - comprising mostly of Canadians with a few Americans and Swedes thrown in - became more familiar with Russians.

A Jan. 30, 1988 Sports Illustrated cover proclaims, "The Russians Are Coming!" One of the two vanguard Russians pictured in front of the red and gold of a hammer and sickle is Alexander Mogilny. When Mogilny joined the Buffalo Sabres at 20 years old as a well-seasoned veteran of the famous Russian Red Army team, he had a goal that helped him fight through any obstacles.

"He knew he wanted to make it in the National Hockey League," says Don Luce, a scout for the Sabres who lived with Mogilny for the first few months to help him cope. "He had traveled the world playing for the Russian team, but now he was here to do his own thing."

Mogilny, now with the Vancouver Canucks, says learning English was the hardest part.

"I'm still learning - I learn everyday," he says. "You make mistakes, but in the end you figure it out. [I] just watch the guys and do what they do."

Luce says, at the very beginning, Mogilny learned from a combination of intense English classes and, perhaps more important, from gangster movies he called "shoot 'ems."

Jagr says he learned much the same way: As the 30-hour-a-week preseason English classes became too much to handle, English came from video games and MTV.

But the breakthrough really came when the Penguins traded for Jiri Hrdina, former captain of the Czech national team, in December 1990.

"It was perfect, [Hrdina] was an older guy who Jagr knew of and would respect because of what he'd accomplished," McMillin says. "There was a dramatic upturn in Jagr's attitude and he really started to play well."

Even Jagr, who was living with a Czech-speaking family and his mother at the time, says the trade was the key to his change in form.

"[The Penguins] tried very hard, but the first three months didn't go very well and I got frustrated and I wanted to go home," he says. "After that they traded for Jiri and it turned around."

Fellow Czech Petr Klima, who joined the Penguins this year after many years with other teams in the NHL, says it would have been much easier for him and Jagr to get used to the transition today.

"My first couple years [in Detroit], I was the only European on the team. Now on almost every team you've got a Czech or someone else," says Jagr.

Since Klima joined the NHL in 1985, the number of Europeans in the league has doubled.

Today, more than 20 percent of league players are Europeans.

The Detroit Red Wings have used this trend to their advantage, creating one five-man line comprising only of Russians - hoping that the common bond would help the players cohere.

Jagr says this is key. For him, it is still important to have his fellow countrymen like Petr Klima and Petr Nedved on the team.

"It's perfect, he says, "there's someone to talk to."

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