ANAHEIM, Calif. — The story of how Todd Reirden came to learn Russian dates to long before he became head coach of the Washington Capitals — or any coach at all. It was 2001, and he was a bottom-pair defenseman for the Atlanta Thrashers, an expansion franchise that wasn’t very good but had two talented rookies in Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley.
Kovalchuk and Heatley were each in their own apartments, both a little adrift their first few months as NHLers. The transition was especially daunting for Kovalchuk because it was his first year away from his home in Russia and he couldn’t speak much English. Reirden invited both young players to his house on Thanksgiving.
It was then that Reirden had an idea for how to help Kovalchuk learn English: a word swap. Reirden would teach Kovalchuk one English word in exchange for Kovalchuk teaching him something in Russian. They started with the food at the Thanksgiving table and then steadily broadened the vocabulary from there.
“He was a great teammate,” said Kovalchuk, now with the Los Angeles Kings. “Obviously, he was one of the older guys, but we spent a lot of time together. … Now, it’s paid dividends. He’s coaching some pretty good Russian guys. It’s going to help him to know their language for sure.”
As a player, Reirden often tried to help his European teammates feel at home by learning about their culture. As he coaches one of the more international teams in the NHL, those experiences are a boon. The last place he played was in Denmark, so he had an instant conversation starter with Danish center Lars Eller. And the season he spent in Düsseldorf 13 years ago not only allowed him to learn just enough German to impress rookie defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler, who speaks Swiss German, but it also gave him a greater appreciation for how hard it is to build a life in a foreign land, something players are typically forced to do in North America.
“One of my strengths is being able to relate to all different types of players, and I think that the players know that I make the effort,” he said in an interview before the season.
As Reirden and Kovalchuk spent more time together that year in Atlanta, often going out for dinner on the road, they continued their language lessons. Just like at Thanksgiving, they’d teach each other the words for the food at the table first. Now, Reirden will sometimes ask Capitals Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov, “So, ryba last night? Myaso? Kuritsa?” — Russian for fish, meat and chicken, respectively.
When Reirden was an assistant coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins, he surprised center Evgeni Malkin by asking about his “klushka,” or hockey stick. Kovalchuk also taught Reirden the basics, how to say “hello” and “thank you,” as well as some less polite things.
“Those words are kind of not good ones,” Ovechkin said with a chuckle. “He tries to make a joke, and it’s nice.”
“We always have a laugh when he says some Russian words,” Orlov said. “It sounds funny when people from a different country try to say our words.”
The intention isn’t for Reirden’s pronunciation to be perfect — he knows it’s not — but it’s a tool for him to occasionally lighten the mood. Three years after playing in Atlanta, Reirden found himself in the American Hockey League with the Houston Aeros during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. That was Mikko Koivu’s first year stateside after the Minnesota Wild had drafted the Finn in the first round of the 2001 draft. As one of the oldest players on that Aeros team, Reirden felt a responsibility to help him. He invited him and Rickard Wallin, a Swede, over for dinner, and this time, Reirden’s wife, Shelby, cooked Scandinavian food.
Just like Reirden’s Russian, maybe the execution wasn’t perfect, but that didn’t lessen the gesture.
“I don’t think it really matters what you eat,” said Koivu, now the 35-year-old captain of the Wild. “It’s always a tough thing to do, to come over not knowing a lot about the culture on or off the ice and things like that. He was one of the veterans, and not just to me, but I think he was great to everybody in the [dressing] room. But yeah, I felt comfortable with him and he was a big help in my first time in North America.”
There can be a tendency in NHL dressing rooms for players of one nationality to stick together, but as diverse as the Capitals’ roster has been for years, it has never been cliquey, with North Americans and Europeans both making efforts to understand one another. In that regard, Reirden has always been a good fit.
“I think it’s important,” Ovechkin said. “We’re a family here. Yeah, we’re from different countries, different cultures, but we’re together.”