Most Europeans in the Ontario Hockey League face similar challenges — learning a new language and adapting to a new culture off the ice, all the while trying to contribute on the ice to a team’s success.
Igor Chibrikov is hoping a seven-year head start has provided him with the familiarity — and the maturity — he needs to rise up the draft ranks.
Chibrikov, with the Owen Sound Attack, came across the Atlantic at a young age.
“I was 10 or 11 and playing back in Russia when I had some trouble with my coach,” Chibrikov explained. “I went to the U.S. and I got invited by some friends to come play in Canada. I started playing some school hockey, and then I got offered to play there.
“My parents and I started to think about it and I decided to stay in Canada and I’ve been here for seven years.”
It was a challenging transition, Chibrikov explained.
His parents had a business back in Russia that they continue to manage online. And though his parents have been able to join him in Canada, visa regulations require them to make frequent — and lengthy — trips back to Moscow.
That time away has helped contribute, in his mind, to having to mature more quickly than the average youth.
“They’ve mostly lived full-time with me. But sometimes, because due to their visa, they have to leave for quite a bit,” he said. “They’re here right now, but I don’t find it hard to live alone — you have to grow up at some point and be able to live on your own. It’s a great learning opportunity for me when they’re not here.
“When you’re young, I always depended on my parents and you’d let them make decisions for you. Now that I’m older and I’m by myself, I have to decide on things by myself. Even in hockey, you’ve got to be able to make choices on the ice.”
The hardest transition for Chibrikov was the language.
“When I got to Canada it was hard to learn English,” he said. “I went to school right away and I had two Russian kids with me who knew English really well and they helped me a lot. I had to learn English, I had no other choice. I learned it just talking to people. I’d hear new words and ask [people] what they mean. If you can explain it to me and I can understand it, then I’ve learned a new word and I use it whenever I get a chance to use it.”
Compounding the issue is that there are two distinct “Englishes” he had to learn — everyday English and “Hockey English.”
“Yeah, there’s way more difference,” Chibrikov added. “I had a hard time what forechecking was — it took me three years to figure it out. Forecheck, backcheck — I had no clue what that meant.”
It was an adjustment for the hulking defenseman.
So too has been the on-ice component for Chibrikov, listed at 6-foot-7 and 188 pounds.
His coach, Alan Letang, said that he’s seen an improvement early this year as his blueliner has filled out a bit and is better able to use his size.
“When you’re that big and your core strength is not quite where it needs to be, your centre of gravity is so high that you have to really manage or think your way around the game — you have to use your reach and your stick to your advantage,” Letang said. “Early on in his career we were teaching him to have a really good stick off the rush and poke a lot of pucks, and jump by guys when he wasn’t going to be able to physically push guys around.
“This year he’s got a lot more strength; he’s a lot stronger in front of the net on his box outs, he can go into the corner with a lot more confidence, hit and pin, and still be able to get the puck. He still thinks his way around the ice, which is really good because you need that little bit of hockey sense — he learned at a young age how to use that reach to his advantage.”
Size still matters in the NHL, but Chibrikov said that it comes with both advantages and disadvantages.
He said he’s more confident having grown into his body.
“My first year, I was 159 or something; right now I’m about 190, but there’s still a lot of room to grow,” he said.
“Being tall there’s a lot of positive things. But there are some things that make it harder. Being tall means you have to work on your skating a lot because for people like, let’s say [L.A. Kings’ 2018 fourth-round selection Aidan] Dudas. He’s fairly small and that’s why he’s so quick — some people can’t even catch him because he’s so small and quick. You have a hard time to catch him in the corners.
“I’ve been working on my skating a lot to improve my speed, but I’ve been trying to take a positional advantage on the people on the ice and use my size and reach to stop those players.”
His coach thinks there’s opportunity for him to reach higher up the draft boards, too.
“I think early on [the rankings] don’t mean a whole lot. He was one of those guys that had so much room to grow and had so much upside that he needed that time to develop,” Letang said. “Usually after Christmas, that’s when we’ll really see whether he’s taken his game to the next step. From training camp on, he’s worked himself into our top four. He’s got to continue to push the pace through transition with his hockey sense. He makes a great first pass, so if he can transition quickly when he turns pucks over and get pucks into our forwards’ hands, that’s all he needs to be.”
As NHL trends can vacillate between small-and-speedy and big-and-bruising, Letang said he feels Chibrikov just needs to focus on who is can be at the next level.
“I think he just needs to be a real good shutdown D,” he said. “When you’ve got that reach, he’s great for us on the penalty kill.
“He’s going to take a role where he’s going to go against the other team’s best. At the NHL level, if he uses that reach and has a tight gap, he’s going to be a tough guy to play against.
“He’s got a little bit of bite to his game where he’s not afraid to mix it up with guys. And when you’re a big guy, other bigger guys are going to try to take advantage of you at the next level — he’s already got that in him, so I don’t know if you can teach that aggressiveness and the willingness to complete like that.
“He’s definitely shown huge strides.”