STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Denis Smirnov and Nikita Pavlychev were just like thousands of other freshmen on the Penn State campus in early September, eagerly awaiting their first football game at Beaver Stadium.
Smirnov and Pavlychev grew up in Russia but had spent hockey seasons in America since they were 14 years old. They’d learned a new language, adapted to a different style of their favorite sport and rode in cars and buses all over the mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions of the country.
But they hadn’t spent an afternoon with more than 94,000 people in a football stadium.
“It has been a pretty cool experience,” Smirnov said. “It took about 20 minutes to get in Beaver Stadium because it was jammed and everyone was trying to get in. We didn’t stay for the whole game because it was so hot outside.”
They came from different parts of Russia, but Smirnov and Pavlychev came together as members of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights bantam team.
The Knights’ coach, Alex Vasko, was a Russian native and he brought eight players from Eastern Europe to Eastern Pennsylvania to try out for his team. Five of them — four Russians and a Ukrainian — became members of the Knights, who went on to win a national championship in their age group.
Ivan Provorov, a first-round pick by the Philadelphia Flyers and one of the most promising young defensemen in the NHL, was also on that team.
“Ivan and I used to play hockey together back in Russia,” Pavlychev said. “We grew up together. He left to go to the States first, but he told me about the place and the opportunity. It worked out pretty well.”
Provorov and Pavlychev are from Yaroslavl, about 155 miles northeast of Moscow. Smirnov is from Moscow, and his older sister, Yulia Smirnova, played tennis at Binghamton.
There aren’t typically a lot of Russians playing NCAA hockey. Of course, there aren’t typically a lot of them in Wilkes-Barre, either. Both players sought out an atypical path.
“My sister told me how great it was to get an education and play high-level sports,” Smirnov said. “I was interested from when I was like 13 and heard about that. It was the best decision I ever made.”
They left Eastern Pennsylvania for the United States Hockey League. Smirnov played for the Indiana Ice, and then became the No. 1 pick of the Fargo Force in a dispersal draft after the Ice ceased operations. Pavlychev spent three seasons with the Des Moines Buccaneers.
Smirnov’s sister and their host families in Wilkes Barre had helped them learn English and get acclimated to American culture. Those long days and nights on a bus in the USHL were a different kind of challenge.
Both eventually decided to return to Pennsylvania and join one of the NCAA’s newest programs at Penn State. Provorov was with Smirnov and Pavlychev for their first visit to campus.
“I think Nikita committed first,” Smirnov said. “I was still looking at other schools, but I came over here for a game against Minnesota. After that, I just didn’t see myself at any other schools.”
Added Pavlychev: “I think it was a pretty easy decision. Everything that is provided here. The opportunity, the coaches, the new team, new facilities. It was pretty easy to choose.”
College hockey can be a huge adjustment for freshmen, but especially for 19-year-olds like Smirnov and Pavlychev. It’s why some players delay their freshman year until they are 20 or 21, which is how freshmen end up playing against 24- and 25-year-old men.
Smirnov, a diminutive 5-foot-10 dynamo, leads the team in scoring with 39 points in 28 games. That’s the most among freshmen in the country.
“Denis is terrible,” Pavlychev deadpanned.
Pavlychev, a 6-foot-7 center who was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2016 NHL Draft, has experienced more typical freshman troubles. He has three goals and 10 points in 26 games. Smirnov was not drafted last year but should hear his named called in June at the 2017 draft after his standout freshman season.
“From our experience right now, I’d take a lot more of them,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. “They are great guys. They are fun guys to be around. They’re really dedicated to getting better, both in the classroom and on the ice. They’ve really taken to working with (strength coach) Cam Davidson in the weight room. We’ve really enjoyed being around them and coaching them.”
Both Smirnov and Pavlychev were comfortable enough with their grasp of English to crack multiple jokes during a brief interview, though fielding questions together and trying to make each other laugh might have helped. They’ve had a few years to adjust to North American hockey and culture.
That doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten where they come from. There’s a local market in State College that sells some Russian food, which they’ve purchased and prepared themselves. Their families have also sent them care packages, including things like Russian candy.
“I frequently have to yell at those guys and say English only in the locker room,” senior captain David Goodwin said with a chuckle. “Culturally, it’s been cool. I’ve learned things about what they’ve gone through to get here and stories they have from growing up. Obviously it’s very different. They’re picking up on all sorts of Americanisms in their short time here.”