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For foreign-born NHL players, Thanksgiving can be a little awkward

In the multicultural NHL, traditional American holidays such as Thanksgiving are sometimes a little awkward for international players. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Washington Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky sat in his dressing room stall and turned to his left, giving a sheepish grin to forward Tom Wilson. It was Wednesday morning at the Capitals’ practice facility, and the Swede had been talking about his still-to-be-decided Thanksgiving Day plans when he thought it was best to casually drop a hint in Wilson’s direction.

“When I live in America I guess I have to follow the traditions and the holidays, so I haven’t really planned anything yet,” Burakovsky said. “We will see. We will see if I get an invite from Wilson.”

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Wilson, who is Canadian, didn’t seem to pay any attention.

“I like the holiday,” Burakovsky continued, before Wilson immediately interjected: “Of course you do. You can eat lots of food!”

Thanksgiving for non-Americans in the NHL, such as Burakovsky and Wilson, is mostly an excuse to eat good food, relax and adopt a holiday as their own while playing hockey in the United States. But it also signifies how multicultural hockey is, with the Capitals alone having eight separate countries represented on their roster. While Thanksgiving is seen as a standard holiday for most Americans, for players born outside the U.S. it can get a bit awkward trying to plan for the day.

“It’s hard to get into the actual history of it, especially from people who aren’t from America,” Capitals forward and Minnesota native Travis Boyd said. “They don’t really understand it, but I basically just tell them it’s a day where you eat a bunch of food and hang out with your family. Like that is pretty much the gist of it. Sit around, do nothing, watch TV and eat a bunch of good food. That’s it.”

Canadians have their own Thanksgiving holiday in October, so to partake in a second one a month later isn’t always an extravagant occasion. But some players still like to take full advantage of the opportunity. Canadian forward Brett Connolly still didn’t know his Thanksgiving plans the day before the holiday.

“It’s a fun day,” said Wilson, who planned on spending the holiday with friends and teammates. “I’ll still celebrate it. It’s even better. I get two Thanksgivings! I didn’t get a chance to celebrate the Canadian one, so hopefully there is some turkey in the future [Thursday].”

For some NHL teams, the holiday is used as just another bonding experience, with organizations having one big dinner together or multiple smaller celebrations at players’ homes. For the Capitals this year, Thanksgiving falls a day before a back-to-back, not giving the players much time to enjoy the festivities. Boyd said most of the time, especially for a team with a lot of players with families and young kids such as the Capitals, Thanksgiving is a time best spent in small groups.

“We’ll eat,” said Connolly, who already had a large Canadian Thanksgiving feast courtesy of his mother-in-law in October. “It won’t be too crazy.”

For Burakovsky, his first Thanksgiving celebration was with the host family he was staying with at the time, and he immediately took away one essential thought: "It can be a little unhealthy if you treat yourself, but, yeah, I like the holiday.” He said he doesn’t have a favorite Thanksgiving food. “I just eat anything.”

Forward Jakub Vrana, who is Czech, will be enjoying his first Thanksgiving with his father, who is in town ahead of the Capitals' annual dads’ trip. Vrana said the festivities will mostly just include him and his dad, with the chance that other players, such as forward Dmitrij Jaskin and defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler, will stop by.

Vrana said his Thanksgiving plans also include cooking his first turkey.

“Yeah, I think it’s pretty simple, no?” the 22-year-old said. “You just put it in the oven, and it takes a couple hours.”

While Vrana enjoys the American holiday, he was still learning the exact terms for all the Thanksgiving essentials: “I think we want to make mashed potatoes and some what is it called? Like a raspberry sauce?”

Cranberry.

“Ah, yes, cranberry sauce," Vrana said. "I mean, I have never celebrated. I normally get Uber Eats or something. I don’t have my family here or anything. I am not going to cook cold turkey by myself and just enjoy Thanksgiving by myself, so I’ll try for the first time. I saw pictures last year of the families, and it was really nice and had lots of food and looks like a good national day for it. People like it a lot here, right?”

Read more on the Capitals:

Nicklas Backstrom rejoins Alex Ovechkin on top line as injuries still sideline Oshie, Kuznetsov

With Brooks Orpik out after knee surgery, Madison Bowey gets his shot

Lars Eller stepping into more responsibility again with Capitals hit by injuries

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