Decidedly American

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Decidedly American December 26, 2012 5:51 AM

Despite Russian roots, Galchenyuk’s choice was easy

The extensive, varied list of Alex Galchenyuk’s residences as a youth reads more like an exotic two-week European travel itinerary rather than a collection of childhood homes.

Moscow. Asiago. Milan. Minsk. Berlin.

Note: this story is also available on worldjunior2013.com in English and Russian.

But, only one place is home to Galchenyuk – a place of such affinity for the powerful forward, that he’s decided to wear that country’s sweater during international competition, forsaking all others.

That land is the United States.

You see, despite possessing rich and robust Belarusian and Russian heritage, still utilizing his mother tongue while conversing with family and friends, Alex was born in America’s heartland: Wisconsin – the farthest thing from Eastern Europe in most people’s minds.

It’s there, in Milwaukee, that Alex’s father, Alexander Galchenyuk Sr, played for the Admirals of the International Hockey League (IHL), and where Alex was born in 1994 (hence why he wears the number 94 on his Sarnia Sting jersey).

That child is all grown up now, and making his first appearance at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship, though he’ll be wearing the red, white and blue of the United States and not the host nation.

“A lot of people are asking me if it’s special going to play in Russia,” Galchenyuk remarked. “It doesn’t matter if the tournament is in Russia or Canada or wherever, what is special is playing in the World Junior Championship.”

Most might languish at the decision to play for Russia, a country that seems to match Galchenyuk’s heritage more fluidly than the U.S.

In fact, he was approached by Russia at the age of 18 if he’d like to declare Russian citizenship, but he declined.

As his older sister Anna knows, it was an easy decision for Alex.

“We always knew he would play for the USA. It’s not a choice he made all the sudden. He was born here and when he returns, he’s always welcomed back to the USA,” she boasted after watching her little brother train with the U.S. team during training camp at the New York Rangers practice facility in Tarrytown, NY.

This U.S. team welcomes Alex with open arms as well, after finishing a disappointing seventh at last year’s tournament in Alberta. The Americans need a shot in the arm in order to make a real gold medal push and Galchenyuk’s skill set is the perfect anecdote.

And, Galchenyuk is raring to go, “I can’t wait to get over there and play with this team and hopefully when it’s all over, the United States will win the gold medal.”

It’s no wonder Galchenyuk is excited; after all he was unable to play at this very same tournament last season, sidelined with a major knee injury that wiped out almost the entirety of his season both with the Sarnia Sting (OHL) and international play.

Despite the injury, the Montreal Canadiens selected Galchenyuk third overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft – electing to focus on Alex’s big frame, top-end speed and knack for finding the twine with the puck rather than his knee.

“My knee is 100% – it’s not a problem,” said Galchenyuk.

The evidence of his health is clear. At present, Alex has 61 points (27 goals, 34 assists) in his first season back, trailing Ryan Strome of the Niagara IceDogs by just one point for the Ontario Hockey League scoring lead.

Most recently, Alex was named the CHL (the governing body of the OHL, WHL and QMJHL in Canada) Player of the Week for Dec. 10-16 after posting five goals, three assists and a plus-6 rating in just two games.

Having another top-ten talent on a team poised to take on its rival Canada and the top talent in Europe from Finland, Russia and Sweden, makes American defenceman Jacob Trouba excited about his team’s gold medal chances in 2013.

“Obviously he’s [Galchenyuk] a pretty good player and everybody knows that. He’s pretty skilled and he’s dangerous with and without the puck. He’s a good teammate, on and off the ice. He’s a good guy you want on your team,” Trouba opined.

It’s a sentiment felt by many throughout USA Hockey, especially Jim Johannson, the Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations and General Manager of this 2013 junior squad.

“He is a very dynamic offensive player and he will play a vital role in our team success. This will be his first IIHF Championship, so from that perspective, we hope this is a great start as he builds his international success with Team USA,” Johansson remarked.

Well, to start his international career, Galchenyuk will face-off with a familiar friend, Nail Yakupov of Russia. The two were teammates with the Sarnia Sting and Yakupov’s name was called first overall during the 2012 Draft, two slots ahead of Galchenyuk.

When asked about going squaring off with his teammate and one of the world’s brightest young starts, Alex said, “He wants to win and I want to win, so it’ll be interesting.”

The two will see each other in Team USA’s second game on Friday, Dec. 28, during group play.

Besides learning the finer points of being a hockey player from his father (who serves as an assistant coach for the Sting), Galchenyuk also grew up faster than his peers – a natural byproduct of such a rich cultural infusion by the age of 15 when he returned back to the United States to begin his own hockey career with the Chicago Young Americans.

Again, sister Anna believes this gives Alex a distinct competitive advantage over those around him.

“Alex, right now, is more mature than other kids his own age. You can see that, you can feel that. We grew up faster, for sure.”

That maturity is not lost on Team USA’s Junior Team Head Coach, Phil Housley, either, “He is mature beyond his years and that’s a great quality to have as he continues to develop as a person and a hockey player. He makes the players around him better and that to me is a sign he’s making strides in his overall development.”

Team USA will certainly rely on Alex’s maturity and playmaking ability as the team seeks to bring the World Junior Gold Medal back to the United States for the first time since 2010.

Notes: Galchenyuk was selected in the second round, 25th overall, of the 2011 KHL Draft by Atlant Mytishi…He was also selected first overall by the Sarnia Sting in the 2010 OHL Draft…Alex notched 83 points (31 goals, 52 assists) in his first season with Sarnia, earning OHL First All-Rookie Team Honors.

RYAN O’LEARY

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