By Maria Canales, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Freshman forward Denis Smirnov moved to the United States from Russia when he was 14 years old. Since then, the quick-moving Smirnov has worked his way through Junior hockey with the Indiana Ice and Fargo Force of the USHL, on his way to the Penn State men's hockey team, where he is one of the first two Russian student-athletes in program history.
It's more than 4,000 miles from Smirnov's hometown of Moscow, Russia to Pegula Ice Arena.
The Russian capital has a long and storied history of producing exceptional hockey players. To highlight a few recent Muscovites, two forwards were named to the Russian 2016 World Cup of Hockey team, Nikita Kucherov and Alexander Ovechkin.
Leaving Russia for the United States was a difficult decision, Smirnov explained. He credited his family's unwavering support to making his departure from Moscow just a little bit easier. The hardest part however, was jumping into a country whose style of hockey was a bit different than home.
"When you're little [in Russia] you just do a lot of skill work, and it's different because they use an Olympic sheet," said Smirnov.
Getting used to a smaller rink was something that challenged Smirnov, who had to learn to utilize passing more and skating the puck into the zone with possession, rather than a game of dump and chase. Smirnov also emphasized how physical North American hockey can be, but pointed out his speed is a weapon on the ice.
Despite the differences in Russian and American hockey, Smirnov was confident his choice to play hockey in the United States would pay off, which it did.
During the 2014-15 season with the Force, Smirnov was the team leader in goals, finding the back of the net 18 times in 53 games played. He also contributed 22 assists, which placed him second on the team.
The following season, Smirnov played in 60 of the Force's 70 games and once again, led the Force in goals (29), finishing second on the team in assists (32).
Smirnov noted that his ability to quickly adjust to the physical style of hockey in the USHL was how he was able to make major impacts on his previous teams. He believes his ability to use his skill set and vision of the ice taught in Russia, combined with his knowledge of North American hockey will be critical for the season ahead.
Alongside Smirnov, there are nine other young players also in their rookie seasons with the Nittany Lions. The freshman class includes four Canadians, four Americans, and two Russians, Smirnov and Nikita Pavlychev.
Despite their diverse geographic backgrounds, Smirnov believes that having players from across the globe is what contributed to year's team capability to achieve success.
"I think [the freshman class] will be good," said Smirnov. "The guys played on good teams last year in good leagues."