Danil Babchuk is a 19-year-old from a big city in Ukraine, where he played hockey at a fairly high level. He was even on the national U18 squad in that country. So what is he doing in Slave Lake playing for a fledgling junior team in a fledgling league in the Canadian version of the middle of nowhere?
That was one of the first questions in an interview last week. It took place in the Slave Lake Icedogs’ dressing room, assisted by a helpful translator named Natasha, who was on the phone from Drayton Valley. Babchuk had been in Canada two weeks by then. Although Ukrainian, Russian is his first language and the one he’s more comfortable in. It turns out the Russian language is more common in the cities in the Kharkiv region of the country, whereas Ukrainian is spoken more commonly in the countryside.
Babchuk started playing hockey at the relatively late age of nine. He says soccer was his first sport, but one day was walking by a rink where kids were being selected for a hockey team and “decided to try it.” From then on, it was his main focus. So much so, he says, he didn’t pay as much attention to other classes, including English.
“I studied English too in school in Ukraine,” says translator Natasha. “But when I got to Canada it didn’t do me much good.”
Babchuk is keen to get past the language barrier.
“It’s hard to hang out with the guys and not be able to joke around. Communication is a big part of the game. It’s frustrating too when I can’t understand anybody and nobody can understand me.”
Babchuk is boarding at assistant coach Kelly Pearson’s house for now. Pearson says it’s working out well, and every day Danil is learning new words.
Getting back to the initial question, Babchuk says “there was a chance,” to come to Canada, and he jumped at it. He heard about it from a regional hockey official.
“Canada is a very big thing for people, especially in the hockey community. It’s a great opportunity.” He adds he is looking forward to expanding his knowledge, getting more experience and generally learning new things about “a different society, and hockey, and way of living.”
So how is it going so far?
“Really good. No issues adjusting, other than the language. The guys are really good.”
Asked about how the hockey measures up, Babchuk says there are differences. For one thing, the rink is smaller than what he’s used to. For another, the level he played at back home was “a little faster.”