Moving from one place to another is uncomfortable for most people. Moving from Russia to the United States at 18 years old? That’s a whole other world of uncomfortable.
That’s what Ruslan Iskhakov had to do when he committed to play hockey at the University of Connecticut. A Moscow, Russia native, Iskhakov (is-HOCK-ahv) was thrown into a whole new culture and way of life when he moved across the world in 2018.
“For me, it was a little bit tough in school, first off because of English,” Iskhakov said. “I knew like zero English last year. It was pretty hard for me, but the boys on the team, they helped me a lot.”
Whether it was in the classroom or on the ice, Iskhakov leaned on the shoulders of his teammates. Marc Gatcomb, Iskhakov’s roommate last year, was one of the biggest sources of support as Iskhakov’s “best friend.”
Mike Cavanaugh, the team’s head coach, has been in Iskhakov’s corner since day one. Cavanaugh has helped with both the on and off-ice transitions and says he’s seen a big jump in Iskhakov’s sophomore season — particularly when he looks to shoot the puck.
“Just trying to be patient with him,” Cavanaugh said. “You understand it’s a big learning curve, but also relate to him my experience of coaching players who have gone on to the NHL, similar in his size and stature. I’ve tried to relate to him what made those kids successful and try to implement that into his game.”
At 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, Ishakov is the smallest player on UConn’s roster, just getting edged out by 5-foot-7 180 pound Carter Turnbull. It hasn’t been his own size that’s posed a problem, but rather the size of the rink.
In Russia, Iskhakov played on Olympic sized ice, but American hockey uses slightly smaller rinks. This change requires quicker thinking, Iskhakov says, and it was made clear when he suffered a concussion against Quinnipiac last season, the first injury of his hockey career.
“I would say back home you have more time to think about your place, like what you’re going to do with the puck,” Iskhakov said. “You have a couple more seconds to think about it and here it’s more quickly. I was really in trouble last year after I got a concussion and so I had to think about the little details.”
Iskhakov has played in 25 games of the 2019-2020 season. His nine goals rank second on the team and are a new career-best mark, thanks in part to a dramatically increased shooting percentage (.150 this year, .111 as a freshman). Iskhakov is also second amongst the Huskies in points with 20, and will likely surpass his rookie mark of 21.
Jonny Evans helped the transition to a more north-south American style of hockey, compared to the east-west style that Iskhakov grew up playing. The pair came to UConn together last year as part of a nationally-ranked recruiting class and have been making “magic” on the ice since.
“Well we didn’t really play together for the first half of the season,” Iskhakov said. “Then after Christmas coach just tried us together and it worked and it’s still working. You just feeling each other, where Jonny’s going to be, where I’m going to be.”
The tandem has pulled off a number of highlight-reel plays together. Last season, Iskhakov found Evans with a between the legs pass, setting up Evans for a give-and-go goal with fellow freshman Jachym Kondelik. Earlier this season, Evans returned the favor with a between the legs feed of his own to set up a goal for Iskhakov.
“I think they just mesh together organically,” Cavanaugh said. “I don’t think it’s really so much me trying to force that issue. They see the game the same way.”
The two live together in Hilltop apartments this year, along with teammates Brian Rigali and Bradley Stone. While living together off the ice may help the duo’s chemistry, it builds a stronger relationship with the whole team, Iskhakov says. Whether they’re eating out, at the movies or just watching NHL games at home, spending time with the team is important.
“I would say it’s more helpful, not exactly for the person you play with in the line, it’s probably more helpful for the whole team,” Iskhakov said. “We’re a family.”
As a current sophomore, Iskhakov and his classmates are no longer the youngest guys on the team. A new and possibly more talented group of freshmen has arrived. In that bunch is a pair of recruits from Russia making the same adjustments and living the same experiences Ishakov went through a season ago.
“He is certainly a mentor for those two and Ruslan has acclimated himself really well to the culture here at UConn,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s a very strong student and I think he’s providing that type of mentorship for Yan (Kuznetsov) and Vlad (Firstov).”
Being able to look back and reflect on his first year in Storrs, Iskhakov sees parts of himself in the new guys, specifically Vladislav Firstov, and is helping him not make the same mistakes he made.
“I would say it’s kinda similar to what happened with me last year,” Iskhakov said. “He’s sometimes in trouble in school and I mean he’s just going through the hard things that I had last year.”
Like most athletes, Iskhakov has dreams of playing professionally one day. Drafted in the second round of the 2018 NHL draft by the Islanders brought that dream even closer to fruition. But for now, both Iskhakov and Cavanaugh are content with him in Storrs.
“My goal is to win the Hockey East and try to make the Frozen Four tournament,” Iskhakov said. “I just want to do everything I can for the Huskies, for UConn, because I’m here right now.”