To what degree UConn men’s hockey coaching staff is apprised of international affairs, sanctions, tariffs and trade wars is unknown. As long as it doesn’t start cutting into the lucrative recruitment they have found abroad, it won’t really concern them.
International players are not a brand-new part of American college hockey. But UConn, in their fifth year of Hockey East membership, has taken its prevalence to a different level under head coach Mike Cavanaugh and associate head coach Joe Pereira.
On media day Cavanaugh was broached about this and was rather forthcoming, if not proud, of the Huskies’ somewhat alternative approach.
“We’re recruiting wherever we can. In this class we’ve got a couple of Czechs, we have a Russian, western Canadians. Everywhere,” he said.
When Cavanaugh took over the head coaching position at UConn in 2013-2014, the Huskies had one European player, Joona Kunnas, a freshman from Vantaa, Finland. In each season since, that number has matched the year of Cavanaugh’s tenure at UConn, including six this year.
Three goalies, sophomore Bradley Stone (London, England), freshman Tomas Vomacka (Trutnov, Czech Republic), and junior Adam Huska (Zvolen, Slovakia), freshman forwards Ruslan Ishakhov (Moscow, Russia), and Jachym Kondelik (Budejovice, Czech Republic) and junior defenseman Philip Nyberg (Linkoping, Sweden) are all rostered players from outside North America.
According to College Hockey News, UConn also has a 2019 commit from the Czech Republic, and two 2020 commits apiece from Belarus and Russia.
Despite New England being a typically fertile recruiting base, rather than butt heads with Beanpot programs like BU, BC, Harvard and Northeastern, the coaching staff has embraced the outsiders.
“I think we’ve done a good job cultivating relationships in Europe,” Pereira says. “A lot of my former teammates from BU or Hockey East players I’ve known are playing in Europe, so you build relationships with coaches out there. I think the game is changing over there; a lot of these kids used to go pro but now they see the NCAA route.”
In Hockey East, only Maine (7) has more European players and the average team has just 2.5. No team matches UConn’s cohort of future players committed either.
With UConn’s facilities somewhat meager in comparison to the rest of the conference, the staff saw an edge in pursuing a different kind of player. They took the steps necessary to position themselves as a landing spot for European talent and it will pay dividends.
“We’ve had great relationships with Junior and National team coaches. It took us a while to cultivate those relationships. It didn’t happen overnight,” said Pereira. “It took us probably three or four years for these guys to start trusting our program. With big time guys like Tage Thompson being a first rounder or Max Letunov; those guys gave our program some credibility, so those guys trust us.”
Two of UConn’s first high profile recruits came from the renown USA National Development program in Thompson and Joe Masonius. However, the next two biggest are from the USA’s clichéd antithesis of Mother Russia.
Letunov was first. A big 6’4” center with deft scoring ability, Letunov was originally committed to powerhouse Boston University. An admissions snag ended those plans, but the BU staff, rather than risk him going to a main competitor, helped shepherd him to UConn and the former Terrier Pereira.
“We probably weren’t where we were as a program then as where we are now,” said Pereira. “We were still kind of hoping to win, now we expect to win. I don’t think BU is actively giving us a guy like him right now…But that’s a good thing too because sometimes now we’re getting those kinds of players before them.”
Letunov left after this past year and three seasons as a Husky but his impact remains.
“He was a great player. It worked out perfect for us and it opened a door for us with guys like Ruslan and other players,” said Pereira.
Since then, the Huskies have been on a roll. Adam Huska was a 2015 seventh-round pick and the USHL Goalie of the Year prior to UConn, but their biggest, or more aptly, most touted (Ishakhov is 5’7”) get since Thompson is Ishakov, the freshman from Moscow.
It is rare to pull a player away from Russian juniors to the NCAA, but UConn pulled it off. Pereira recalls stretches on end of getting up at 3 or 4 a.m. to place an international call. The work paid off as Ishakov committed just before being selected in the second round of the 2018 NHL draft by the New York Islanders.
Most European players who play in the NCAA will spend time in Junior Hockey and/or New England Prep leagues. Letunov played in the Midwest-based USHL. This year’s crop is no different except for Ishakov, who as aforementioned, is a unique case.
“With the exception of Ruslan, they’ve all been over here playing so it’s been an easier transition for them,” said Cavanaugh.
The Huskies hope so. Huska was an impact player right away when he saw time. Nyberg, who like Letunov had an admissions issue at his first choice of Wisconsin, joined the Huskies midseason two years ago and has been a regular skater game in, game out after playing in the USHL.
They’re also able to see a precedent at UConn.
Ilya Usau, a center from Minsk, Belarus with a 2020 ETA who plays at the Salisbury School in Connecticut, chose UConn over Quinnipiac in part because of the potential to take the program to new heights and the confidence the coaching staff showed in him. But he also noticed the coalition that is currently in place.
“I knew UConn has had a lot of players from Europe, it shows the fact that it’s a great school for international students/players, and that they get trust there,” Usau, who is a center with strong defensive traits and a reliable shot, told me over email.
“They gave me an understanding of how it feels to be a foreign player in an American college. And from what I know they enjoy every second of it,” said Ignat Belov, a fellow Minsk native and 2020 forward who plays at The Westminster School, talking about the impact of Huska and Letunov before him.
The congregation of players is an asset for UConn.
“I think a large European presence gives UConn diversity and a home like support (within the team),” said Belov. “We all know what we are all going through.”
In an interview with BayStateRoadSports.com, Pereira, UConn’s lead recruiter, described his recruiting strategy:
“You have to pick the kids who will come to work for you, who will compete for you for the next four years, and I think that’s what we’ve looked at for players. Everybody wants the top end players but are they going to give you the full sixty minutes? I’d rather have a guy like a Johnny McCarthy and those type of players who will be really hard to play against for the full 60 minutes. You just have to pick the right players, work hard and make the players buy into your system. At the end of the day, anybody can win. You drop the puck, that’s why they play the game.”
Asked how his recruiting has shifted, Cavanaugh noted, “We’ve decided to recruit a little bit older. Not really involved with younger kids.”
That may be true in some regards, but like the rest of college hockey does with elite prospects, UConn has targeted and landed its next crop of European players rather young.
Usau was 15 when he verbaled in April 2017. His countryman Belov who committed with him, had just turned 16.
Arseni Smeknhov and Malik Alishlalov, both Russian, were in the same boat. Both committed on Dec. 14th, 2016, as fifteen-year olds.
All four were, at the time, members of the Colorado Evolution club program, playing for their U15 teams.
Ostensibly, like all the European players who chose the NCAA over Canadian Juniors or European pro routes, the recruits are pursuing the benefits of an American university education.
Said Usau, “I think education is important. And you never know what happens in your career, but you will never lose your education and I think it’ll help you in life after hockey. So, it’s a great chance combine both hockey and education and hopefully have success in both.”
Belov, who assesses himself as a big forward (6’3”) who moves bodies in the corner, has a hard shot and quality ice vision, notes college hockey is the best combination of preparation for a pro career while providing knowledge for later in life.
“I think the ultimate goal of every hockey player is to make it to the NHL, but it doesn’t always happen and I want to be able to live after my career. College hockey is the best fit for that.”
“The European player wants an education. That’s the trend lately,” said Pereira.
Pereira stressed his key is to just keep going with an open mind. and he has no plan of stopping.
“Always willing to make or take a phone call. Never expect a kid is too good or not good enough for your program. That’s half the battle, sometimes people get complacent and you always have to have that fire in you every single day. You’ve always got to recruit.”
Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.