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Hockey

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He said what?

League's many languages complicate communication

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Monday September 27, 1999 01:25 AM

  The Florida Panthers, whose training camp roster included 12 Europeans, adopted a English-only rule. AP

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) -- When Pavel Bure broke into the NHL in 1991, he spoke no English but was fluent in hockey.

"The coach told me where to go and what to do on the chalkboard," Bure said. "It was simple."

The Russian Rocket scored 34 goals, became the league's rookie of the year and showed that the best way to get past the language barrier is to skate around it.

Today more players than ever must do just that. Bure's success helped to accelerate the influx of foreigners, and as a result, the NHL now has a greater mix of languages than any other professional league.

There's Czech, Finnish, French, German, Russian, Swedish and even English. The ice rink has become a melting pot, raising the quality of play but complicating communication.

"When you're with a team that has guys who speak seven different languages, you usually communicate in two ways," Vancouver Canucks coach Marc Crawford said. "First, you start in English. And second, you end in profanities."

NHL now stands for Numerous Hockey Languages, and several teams have introduced rules requiring their players to speak only English on the ice, on the bench and in the locker room. The Florida Panthers, whose training camp roster included 12 Europeans, adopted the rule for this season.

"What happened here sometimes is if three Czech players are sitting together and talking Czech between periods, other guys don't understand what they're talking about," general manager Bryan Murray said. "We're asking our guys to be a team, and to respect that if you're going to be a team, you have to have a common way to communicate. If you're calling for a pass, you'd better do it in a way the guy understands."

Panthers players, including Europeans, express unanimous support for the rule.

"I don't think there's going to be any controversy," said Bure, the Panthers' star forward.

Florida forward Peter Worrell, a French Canadian, said, "It was weird sometimes last season. You'd look in the dressing room and have guys speaking Russian in one corner and Czech in another, and me and somebody else speaking another language.

"When you can't understand what a person is saying, some guys might be worried when they make a bad play and people are talking. They get a little paranoid about it."

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals also adopted an English-only policy this season. Lightning coach Steve Ludzik, the son of Polish immigrants, said the rule will make his job easier.

"We've got 22 artists, and they're all painting on the same canvas," Ludzik said. "It's a team thing. I'm doing it because when I describe a play in the last minute, I don't want someone sitting there going, 'Yah, yah, yah, I do understand,' when he means, 'No, no, no, I don't.' "

Lightning defenseman Petr Svoboda, a Czech, said Europeans will learn English faster if they're forced to speak it.

"When I started 16 years ago, there weren't that many Europeans," he said. "It was actually easier for me, because I had no other choice than to speak English on a daily basis. I think that's the way to go."

The Capitals' roster includes five nationalities, and yet the players instituted the English-only rule themselves in an attempt to improve unity. Their kangaroo court fines violators up to $100.

But some hockey officials say such a rule means a more difficult adjustment for young immigrants who don't speak English well.

"If someone's going to help [a player] by speaking Chinese or whatever it is, then that's better than a poor kid sitting there not knowing what's going on," Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn told the Toronto Sun.

Hall of Famer Denis Potvin, another French Canadian, said the unspoken policy in the NHL always has been English first. But his preferred method of communication is body language.

"I could play with a guy and look at his eyes and see his movement and tell where he was going," the former Islanders defenseman said. "It was never an issue of, 'OK, pass me the puck NOW!' "

Proving Potvin's point is Ottawa Senators left wing Petr Schastlivy, a shy 20-year-old Russian. He scored five points in his first five preseason games without knowing any English.

Young European players generally speak better English than a decade ago, NHL veterans say. Virtually all Finnish and Swedish players speak English well because of their education systems, and the typical Russian, Czech and Slovakian has developed a better grasp of English since the Cold War ended.

But hockey's language barrier can still be daunting.

Tampa Bay defenseman Pavel Kubina, a Czech, spoke no English when he began his North American career in a junior league in remote Moose Jaw in Canada. Three years later, he can describe the experience in concise English: "Worst year in my life."

"It happens to everyone who comes here from Europe," said Buffalo Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek, a Czech who now speaks three languages. "It takes at least a year. My wife and I hired a teacher; I had tapes in my car.

"The best thing is for a player to come over here single and find an American girlfriend. That way you learn very fast."

In any language, that advice makes sense.

 
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