By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Surrounded by a herd of reporters following Monday’s 4-2 win, Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane still had his game face on from the four-point performance. Then, he looked beyond the cameras, toward the other end of the United Center dressing room.
There was Artemi Panarin, attempting to crack up Kane. And it worked.
“It’s fun playing with that kid over there,” Kane said as he laughed.
Communication between Kane and Panarin, the rookie from Russia, has been limited to moments like these and non-verbal cues on the ice, plus the attempts at conversations. But communication hasn’t come easy for Kane or any of the Blackhawks with Panarin, because he’s still learning the English language.
A 24-year-old forward who played the last three seasons in the KHL, Panarin is adjusting to being a key piece of the Blackhawks’ championship core while dealing with the language barrier — in addition to everything else a rookie must deal with. Just 15 games into his NHL career, Panarin has four goals and 11 assists, earning attention as candidate for the Calder Trophy, awarded to hockey’s top rookie.
He’s been tasked with playing on the Blackhawks’ first and second line, needing to maintain the trust of coach Joel Quenneville, attempting to help his team win and dealing with the pressure that comes in his new city.
“I try not to think about that too much,” Panarin said Tuesday, speaking through his usual translator, Blackhawks forward Viktor Tikhonov.
Tikhonov and Panarin often seem inseparable, especially when the two arrived with the Blackhawks this season. They were teammates playing on the same team in St. Petersburg the past three seasons and have a great familiarity together. During time away from hockey, Tikhonov and Panarin have gone golfing and fishing together.
While Tikhonov can speak English well, Panarin is still learning. Tikhonov understands the struggle for Panarin, whose enthusiastic, jovial personality is concealed with the barrier. Panarin has jokes, like on Wednesday when he said that his chance at becoming Russia’s all-time leading scorer is if he plays as long as Jaromir Jagr.
But Panarin can’t easily get through to his teammates.
“It obviously plays a role,” Tikhonov said. “Because there are times where guys are talking and you don’t understand, you kind of want to join in the conversation and say something, but maybe you’re afraid to say the wrong thing and sound funny. Obviously, it’s something he’s working on.”
Panarin’s keeping his primary focus on hockey while attempting to improve his English and build relationships with teammates.
This week, Panarin sat down with Kane and spoke for 20 minutes in English, with Panarin working with his limited language.
“We’re kind of on the same wavelength,” Panarin said. “He understands me with my limited English.”
On the ice, Panarin and Kane are most certainly communicating well. In Sunday’s win over Edmonton, Kane assisted on two of Panarin’s goals, and Panarin assisted on Kane’s goal. Along with center Artem Anisimov, another native of Russia, the Blackhawks’ second line has seen success.
Panarin has made a major impact early in his NHL career, showing his dynamic abilities. He’s talented with the puck, has a burst of speed in his skates and a wrist shot that is dangerous.
“At the end of the day, the biggest thing he does is lets his play do his talking,” Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said of Panarin. “So far, so good.”
Added Kane: “He’s a great kid. He loves playing hockey and he loves trying to do well.”
The NHL career of Panarin is just beginning, with plenty of promise. He’s made a major impact for the defending Stanley Cup champions, while showing some on-ice flare.
Blackhawks teammates are just getting to know Panarin’s personality, and the hockey world is discovering his dangerous game.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.