NCAA Football

Why Sabers prospect Steven Sardarian made the bold move from Russia to NCAA hockey

Why Sabers prospect Steven Sardarian made the bold move from Russia to NCAA hockey

DURHAM, NH – Stephen Sardarian walked into the media room at the Whittemore Center Arena at the University of New Hampshire wearing a blue suit and button-down shirt. Sardaryan, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, was selected in the third round in 2021 Buffalo Sabres, had been in the United States for just over a year. He already speaks English. His physique is slim. He apologizes when he doesn’t understand certain words or questions, but Sardaryan’s focus and conviction are evident both on the ice and in conversation.

Sardaryan’s path of development is not ordinary. After being drafted, he could stay and play in Russia until he received an entry-level contract, then head to North America to play in NHL or AHL. But education is important to Sardaryan’s family, and he saw this challenge as an opportunity. He is serious about playing hockey here and wants to start acclimatizing as soon as possible.

“First of all, I want to play in the NHL,” Sardaryan said. “I also want to be smarter. It’s a good decision to be in the NCAA because I can study well and play hockey. When UNH invited me, I was in Russia and thinking, but I made the right decision. I’m happy to be here.”

Durham is a small college town 20 minutes from the New Hampshire seashore and about an hour and a half from Boston. It’s a remote location, but it’s home to a school that plays in Hockey East, one of the toughest conferences in college hockey. The fan base is devoted.

Sardaryan accepted everything about the path he chose. He spent last season in Youngstown, Ohio playing in the USHL. He went to school every day to fulfill the English language requirements for his visa. He missed UNH’s summer sessions due to visa issues, but did his best to catch up after arriving on campus in September. He wants to speak English as often as possible and has had no problems gaining coaching points. He meets with an ESL tutor every week.

“The kid wants to be a player,” UNH coach Mike Sousa said. “The path he chose with the support of Buffalo, he has to live. He was supposed to go to Youngstown. He had to come to UNG also not the easiest way. … He was willing to do it and he did it all with a smile.”

Souza first got a tip about Sardarian from a scout from another organization. He and his staff were unable to see him in person due to travel restrictions related to COVID-19. Souza did not have much experience in bringing in Russian players. This can be a difficult exercise because the team must be confident that the player is willing to move across the world to play college hockey. It is easier and much more common for a Russian player to stay at home and develop in one of the junior leagues of Russia. But UNH has received some assurances that Sardarian’s family places a strong emphasis on education and that he will consider attending college.

That he considered it at all speaks volumes for who Sardarian is. The development of hockey is quite complicated. Packing your bags at 18 and leaving the only home you’ve ever known is one thing. Then flying halfway around the world to Youngstown, Ohio to play in the junior leagues is a level of chasing a dream few can fathom.

When Souza looked at Sardarian, his stick work stood out. So is his brain. He was thin, but creative. Sometimes he got pushed, but he could also win battles with sticks. Souza said Sardaryan is “strong-skinned” but needs to spend a lot of time with a strength coach because his game is crumbling due to a lack of strength. Without a full summer on campus, Sardaryan was behind. He has no points yet, but he has shown potential.

“I think the most exciting thing for him is the tempo, and you’re out there against kids who might be 24 or 25 years old,” Souza said. “The biggest adjustment was pace and power. When the game slows down, he’s really effective. I’m excited to see him get stronger so the pace is picking up. He can see plays other guys can’t. He sees the next play. He always sees the next play. If we can increase his ability to do that by getting stronger, he’ll get faster and play even more.”

The weekend at the time of this conversation, UNH played a home-and-home against Northeastern and reigning Richter Award winner Devon Levy, a potential Sabre-mate. In Friday’s 6-2 win over UNH in Boston, Sardarian had two potential turnovers in one shift, but Levy beat the shooter on both occasions. At the end of the game, he entered the goal with a Northeastern defender after the whistle.

The next night, Sardarian was out of the lineup for UNH, which lost 3-0. He watched the game from above with Sabers development coach Tim Kennedy, who was in town with the visitors. Souza said the Sabers’ development staff has been a tremendous help with Sardarian’s immigration process and has been great to work with on Sardarian’s development plan. This buy-in is very important because it is a difficult route for a teenager. There are only eight Russians in college hockey this season.

“Put yourself in his shoes,” Souza said. “There are other guys who have done it, but it’s not the normal way. This would not be possible without the support of the Sabres.”

The Sabers have selected six Russian-born players in the last two drafts, including four in the top three rounds. General manager Kevin Adams has a lot of faith in Russian scout Ruslan Pyachonkin, who is tasked with not only scouting talent, but building relationships with players after they are drafted. Of the six Russian players the Sabers have drafted in the last two years, three are playing in North America and three are still in Russia. Alexander Kisakov was the first from the group to make it to the AHL.

Sardaryan is eager to spend more time in Buffalo. He watched as many Sabers games as he could and loves to watch Tag Thompson, Rasmus Dalin, Owen Power and Ya. Ya. Petroka. He also plans to be at Sabers development camp next July, which will be his first opportunity to meet players in the organization.

However, Sardaryan’s plans for the offseason are difficult to determine. Due to the fact that Russia continues the war in Ukraine, every trip home is complicated. Minnesota Kirill Kaprizov was among the Russian NHL players who had a hard time journey back to North America after spending the offseason in Russia. Kisakov missed Sabres’ development camp because he was still in Canada working through visa issues. For now, Sardarian plans to go to Spain in May, Buffalo in July for a development camp and return to UNH to get some gym time. That may change, but Sardaryan isn’t counting on being able to go home. He said that since he was in school, he had spoken to his parents “a little, but enough”.

For now, he’s focused on fitting into the locker room at UNH. The Wildcats have another player who speaks Russian. Kristaps Skrastins is originally from Latvia and helped Sardaryan when he needed a translation. But they both prefer to speak in English.

“It’s hard, but it’s very important for me to talk a lot,” Sardaryan said. “I’m going to make mistakes, but I don’t care. People understand. People help me. I need to talk to people more and never be afraid. I think after this season, this year, I will be good. My language is getting better every day.”

Sardaryan grew up playing chess and always knew how to solve problems. The UNH coaching staff could tell how smart he was right away by the way he handled classroom work while adjusting to the language and culture. Souza also noticed Sardaryan’s brain on the rink.

“We New Englanders like to talk fast,” Souza said. “He picks it up, if we throw something on the board or across the room, he picks it up without any extra action. If it’s a new drill or concept, he gets it right away. He is an intelligent man.”

Sardaryan is proud of it. He said those are his two favorite players to watch Nikita Kucharov and Artemy Panarin, because he thinks both play the game smart and have a passing ability that he hopes to cultivate. He admits playing in North America was a big adjustment. He had eight goals and 17 assists in 46 USHL games last year, but has yet to find his scoring touch in college hockey.

“We have bigger rinks in Russia,” he said. “When you have a bigger rink, you have more time. It’s easier. In the US, we have a smaller rink, and I think hockey in the US is harder than Russian hockey because the people are stronger and play hard and fast. We need to make decisions quickly.”

Sardaryan’s raw skills are evident on the ice. He needs more strength in everything he does, including skating. But he’s confident with the puck on his stick and is showing signs of becoming a setup artist. If you choose the path that Sardarian chose, patience is of the utmost importance. He has shown growth both on and off the ice since being drafted by the Sabres, but the bulk of his work is still ahead of him.

“The biggest thing for me and him is just marrying our strength coach,” Souza said. “His game will change as he gets stronger. His brain and stick are really good. It just breaks easily because it’s not that strong. We are very excited and I know he is excited to be here next summer. Not that I want to write this year off because he can still be productive this year. But I think his game will go to another level as he gets stronger. I think he realizes that’s the best part.”

(Photo by Stephen Sardarian courtesy of University of New Hampshire)

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