Fitting in with an OHL organization can be difficult. More often than not, the OHL Priority Selection takes 15-year-old kids, and displaces them from their hometown and families that they’ve spent the majority of their life growing up with. They’re expected to live with a new family, make new friends, and find a way to make a real player of themselves in an environment where every move they make is being watched.
Now try doing all that, but coming from a different country and not understanding anything anybody is saying to you.
That’s been the case for about 119 Russians who have come from abroad to chase the dream in the OHL. Among those players is 15-year-old Daniil Chayka. But his journey to get to the Guelph Storm didn’t go directly from Moscow to Guelph.
Chayka made the jump to Canada early. As a 14-year-old, he left his Russian family behind in favour of a new beginning with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens playing Minor Midget AAA.
“One year before I left, I remember thinking I wanted to try and play hockey in Canada,” said Chayka of his decision to leave.
Growing up through the CSKA Moscow program, Chayka played close to home and attended the Russian schooling system. That all changed with the move to Toronto, which was all in the name of furthering his hockey career.
“I can’t help but say if [Europeans] are over here in minor midget, that’s an even tougher move because they’re younger. But it will help them in the next step,” said Guelph Storm assistant coach Jake Grimes of Chayka’s move to Canada.
It’s become increasingly common for Europeans to make the jump overseas earlier in their career with players like Pavel Gogolev, Semyon Der-Arguchinstev, and Kirill Maximov all coming into the OHL by way of the Priority Selection thanks to playing minor midget or midget hockey.
For as much responsibility as Chayka handled in making that move, he credits the support system he was surrounded by as having a big impact on finding success with the Jr. Canadiens.
“I was staying [in Toronto] with my family friends for the whole year. A couple families from my friends’ families were helping me too,” said Chayka. “I’m very thankful for my family, friends, and coaches. My coaches from Russia and Canadian coaches too.”
After being taken seventh overall in the OHL Draft by Guelph, it’s safe to stay the first step in Chayka’s move overseas has been a success. Now, having made the OHL as he had hoped, the next step will be fitting in with the major junior game in North America.
“Daniil seems very, very comfortable. His English is decent, and he’s in school with our guys, so that’s a tremendous advantage. Full credit to him for making that move that’s going to help his future,” said Grimes.
If Chayka is looking for inspiration in his rookie season, he doesn’t have to look very far. Accompanying him on the Storm blueline is three year OHL veteran, and fellow Russian, Dmitri Samorukov.
Although it’s been three years since he himself made the jump, Samorukov recalls some of the struggles he had early on trying to fit in.
“It was pretty hard because I came without English. I had like 15 words in my head when I came here. And my coach got a translator on the phone to tell me what to do,” said Samorukov. “To me, Canadian guys are a little different, so it was pretty tough in the first half of the season.”
Unlike Chayka, Samorukov came to the OHL via the CHL Import Draft, which saw Guelph take him second overall in 2016. Arriving with big expectations, Samorukov knew he needed to find his game quickly in his rookie season, which also happened to be his NHL draft year. It wasn’t until halfway through his first season did he really feel he had things figured out.
“It’s all step by step and you try to do your best, but the only thing that I have is hockey. So I just played hockey for fun,” he said.
Finding fun in the game allowed Samorukov to settle in and become comfortable with who he was as a player. Whether in Russia or in Canada, there may be differences, but hockey is hockey. Language however, is a completely different story. Developing his grasp of the English language is something Samorukov also says helped him tremendously.
“When you can speak English, you can answer with what you want to say. It’s awesome. You can say to the coach, ‘hey, this is what I want to do right now’, it’s much easier.”
These are both things Chayka has been given a head start on with playing a year of minor midget. Despite still being very early in his OHL career, Grimes says the benefits of having that year in Toronto are already evident.
“Daniil is a big part of our team already. He’s an excellent hockey player and he’s a mature hockey player for his age,” said Grimes.
As chance would have it, Chayka partially credits Samorukov for having the initial thought to jump to Canada instead of staying home in Russia. Now teammates, both Samorukov and Chayka have been familiar with each other long before landing together in the OHL.
“He was on the younger [CSKA Moscow] team, so I knew him for like six years. We went to one school, so we’re kind of close,” said Samorukov of his relationship with Chayka.
“[Samorukov] was one of the first players from Russia to go to Canada from my friend group,” Chayka said. “I was asking him a lot of questions about Canadian hockey before I came.”
Although Samorukov and fellow Russian teammate Alexey Toropchenko will both be good examples for Chayka, Grimes believes it’s the responsibility of everyone to help him fit in.
“Everybody is going to get on board and help him and make sure, including the coaching staff, that he’s in every situation he needs to be in, he understands everything that’s going on, and understands the team concept,” said Grimes.
Understanding that team concept and what it truly means to be part of the Guelph Storm is something Grimes believes is one of the most important factors in European players finding success with the team.
“It’s about the team, and the culture of your team, and about how you know when you’re on this team, it’s very, very important to feel proud about being on the team you’re with,” Grimes said. “Everybody needs to be on the inside.”
Being on the inside is something Samorukov figured out years ago, and it’s a huge part of the reason he’s been an integral part of the Storm for so long. If Samorukov plays at least 62 games this year, he’ll be second to Nikita Korostelev in all-time games played by a Russian-born player in the OHL. Samorukov currently sits eighth on that list among defencemen, closely trailing Dmitri Sergeyev and Alexei Semenov.
Chayka has a long way to go to get to that point, but he’s already off to a head start with a year in North America under his belt, and a solid mentorship group around him.
“[Chayka] is talented and he’s one of the best defencemen for his age. He’s gotta be stronger, but he’s young, right?” said Samorukov. “Just a little bit of development and he’ll be fine.”
Chayka already has his sights set on a short-term goal to help him in that development process.
“I will do my best to make team Russia. We have the world challenge in one month in November in western Canada. I hope I’m gonna make that team,” said Chayka.
Samorukov has ambition for the future too. He’s an Edmonton Oilers third round pick with World Junior experience, and is already a favourite to make team Russia again. But he’s quick to mention his main focus in on Guelph.
“I just want to play against the best forwards, no matter who. I don’t care about myself right now. All I care about is the team. I want to go as far as I can with the team,” he said.
“[Samorukov’s] social skills are outstanding. He’s very comfortable with hockey, and comfortable with the city,” said Grimes. “He’s a travelled guy. He’s very ready for pro.”
Samorukov has found out how to fit in with North American hockey, but finding postseason success with Guelph is a challenge left for him to conquer.
For Chayka, the bar has been set high by his loft draft stock. But Guelph is keeping his short-term expectations simple.
“Defence is the toughest position, other than goaltending, to come in and break into our league as a young guy. There’s so much responsibility,” said Grimes. “A successful season for [Chayka] is becoming a player that’s relied upon as an underage first year rookie.”
Both Samorukov and Chayka are at very different points in their OHL careers. One is completing the finishing touches on a great junior career. The other is just beginning to construct his own. But one day we may be talking about how they were two of the best Russian-born defencemen to play in the OHL.