18-year-old hockey player Ilya Usov started playing ice hockey with the HC Yunost Minsk. According to National Hockey League (NHL) scouts, Usov is now the most promising Belarusian in the upcoming NHL Draft. Last season, Usov played for the Prince Albert Raiders of Canada’s Western Hockey League (WHL) and became the best newcomer to the reigning champions. During the pandemic, Usov returned to Minsk and explained why Canadians and Belarusians treat the coronavirus differently, who is his hockey role model, and how five years in North America has influenced his mentality.
When the WHL season was suspended, you had a choice – wait out the pandemic in Canada or fly to Belarus. Why did you come home?
Ilya: It was the first half of March. We were preparing for Friday’s game, but the training session was cancelled as well as all of the games that were to take place on the weekend. The team was told to wait for the decision on the results of the league meeting, which was scheduled for the following Tuesday. The weekend the situation was only getting worse as the number of ill people all over the world was growing. It became clear that the league was not going to extend the regular season.
The team’s doctors advised me, Alexey “Lesha” Protas, and Daniil “Danya” Stepanov (Usov’s Prince Albert teammates) to go back to Belarus and to our families. Our Canadian teammates went back to their homes. Moreover, in Prince Albert also closed all the rinks and halls, so there were no conditions to prepare for the playoffs. A day later, we bought tickets to Minsk.
When you left Canada, did you realize how long hockey would be put on pause?
Ilya: Initially, we were told that the break would be for a month, and there was a chance of playing the season later. However, near the end of March, we were told that the league was closed until next season. Of course, the whole team was terribly upset. For me, it was my first year in the WHL. I really wanted to know what the playoffs felt like, to play there, and win the cup. If Prince Albert won the championship for the second time in a row, it would go down in history.
How does your schedule look now?
Ilya: I’m currently working in an individual program in Minsk. At first, I skated with HC Dinamo Minsk, for which I thanked Dmitriy Baskov and the whole coaching staff. Now, I rent out the ice with friends a couple of times a week. I also run, go to the bars, and the gym. The rest of the time, I’m sitting at home. I don’t go out for walks, to the movies, or to shopping centers.
Tell me about which top films and television shows you watched during the duration of your self-isolation.
Ilya: I sometimes would watch Svaty (In-laws) and Fizruk (Sport teacher in high school), both of which are Ukrainian sitcoms. My sister and I could turn on any episode and watch it for the mood.
As for films, I will suggest the American film “The Guardian”, which is about a legendary swimmer who trains young rescuers and serves as an example for them as they are subjected to a difficult test in the finale. If you want something comical, then I would recommend “Malibu Rescue”. And my third film choice would be “Wonder”. The story is about a boy with a genetic disease, who is having to go through a series of trials to prove that he is worthy of the respect of others.
“Maybe I already have the coronavirus…But I’m worried about my family.”
Are your Canadian teammates in a stricter self-isolation?
Ilya: Yes. As far as I know, all of the sports facilities are closed there. In some places, fines have been imposed for appearing in public places. I’ve heard that visitors are not even allowed to visit Prince Albert. People have to stay in their residence. And all of the work, if possible, is done remotely: communication only by telephone or online.
How have your Canadian friends reacted to the fact that there are no such bans in Belarus?
Ilya: They simply don’t know. Belarus isn’t shown on the news there. The only thing the guys know about Belarus is what we tell them. We haven’t talked about it yet. It’s true, Canadians complain that they’re tired of staying home. However, everyone understands that they must endure this to stop the spread of the virus.
How do you personally feel about what’s going on? Are you afraid?
Ilya: I wouldn’t say so. Maybe I already have the coronavirus. However, when I flew to Belarus and did a two-week quarantine, I took a test at the clinic. It showed that I was healthy.
Yet, I still have a little fear for my parents and my grandparents. I understand that I could get sick and not know about it, but for the elderly it’s much more dangerous. So, I only go to training away from crowded places so that I’m not putting my loved ones in danger.
Do your parents continue going to work?
Ilya: No. Dad works remotely, and Mom’s on vacation. So far, everyone’s home. If we go out to the store, we must wear masks.
When you first flew home, you said that there was more panic in Belarus than in Canada. Explain.
Ilya: After a month, I’m not sure that’s true anymore. It’s just that when I left Canada, there wasn’t a single case in Prince Albert, which has a population of about 30,000. All the people were quiet and didn’t talk about the coronavirus until they put the NBA, NHL, and our league’s season on pause. There was no panic among the locals. In Belarus, based on phone conversations with parents and friends, people are worried and are panicking. I see that the number of infected people has grown and is getting worse every day.
“Americans are kinder. “No one there will yell at you, even if you ask 50 stupid questions.”
You once noted that you feel neither 100 percent American nor Belarusian. Why not?
Ilya: Although I’ve spent more time in North America than in Belarus in the last five years, it’s silly to consider myself an American. According to my passport, I am still Belarusian. I’ve just noticed a mixture of mentalities. In Belarus, I try to live as a Belarusian, and in America as it is customary there.
What are some significant differences?
Ilya: I always say that in America, people are calmer about everything, and do not make big problems out of little things. Americans are happier and kinder, they will never yell or look obliquely, even if you ask 50 stupid questions in a shop. Our situation is also changing for the better. However, in percentage terms, Americans are still a more friendly people.
When you moved to America at age 14, what was your English level?
Ilya: All I could say was “hi” and “bye.” When I flew to the U.S. for the first time, I filled out a declaration of simple questions (where you’re going, what you’re taking with you) with the help of customs officers who knew broken Russian.
In your first year, you counted the days and months before the holidays in Belarus. Why was it so hard to adapt in America?
Ilya: I was homesick. It made me realize that I wouldn’t fly back to Minsk until May, and September is still September. I did not have the money to fly home twice a year. I was in America all alone during my first year, but my father came to visit me during the following seasons.
Furthermore, my English was at a zero level, and everything around me was new. The fact that a lot of Russians worked at the rink saved us. We were even trained by a Russian coach. Half of the teams were made up of guys from Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. For the first two weeks, myself and two other guys were lodged with a Russian woman. It was extremely helpful. Yet, when they said that I was moving to live with an American family, panic broke out. At first, I communicated with them on my fingers or through an interpreter.
“In Belarus, parents are very worried about their children. Maybe it’s because they love them more.”
In your five years in North America, you’ve lived with three different host families. How are American families different from ours?
Ilya: In America, family relationships are more liberal. Parents have more trust in their children and do not control them as much as we do. I wouldn’t say that Americans don’t care about their children, but it feels like teenagers are freer and independent there. If they do, they go out with their friends. I’ve been driving there since I was 16 (in some states, you can get your license even at the age of 14).
In Belarus, children are used to asking ”Can I go there?” or “Can I go in there?” Parents are very worried about their children. Maybe it’s because they love them more [smiles]. But this difference is striking.
After living two years in Colorado with host families, you moved to a campus in Connecticut. Which option did you like better – home or community?
Ilya: Family of course. It’s more comfortable. The campus was in the woods. In order to go out for the weekend, you had to inform someone about your intentions by Thursday, fill out a questionnaire, and obtain permission form your parents through an online form. In general, it was extremely strict and controlled. In this respect, the family is easier: you live in the city and can always go out for a walk.
What about the food? Did you have to cook for yourself?
Ilya: No, I would eat in the cafeteria on campus, and when I was living with a family, my adoptive parents cooked for us. However, I sometimes would offer to help, like making potato pancakes or a salad with peas. My mom wrote the recipes because I had no idea how to do it. I then sent her some pictures asking, “Is it okay to eat?”
Has your English improved in five years?
Ilya: I’m now fluent in English. Of course, when I talk to my Mom and Dad on the phone, Russian words sometimes pop out of my head. My friends tease me that I already have an American accent, but I don’t think so.
“My idol among hockey players”? Alexei “Lesha” Protas.”
During your North American career, you spent four years in the United States and one to Canada. Which country did you like better?
Ilya: Canadians think and teach so much more in schools that they are kinder and more open than Americans. However, I didn’t feel much of a difference. In my particular case, the main difference is that while I was in the USA, I lived in Denver, which has a population of 600 thousand people. In Canada, I moved to Prince Albert, which only has a population of 30 thousand people.
They’re quite different, but I was comfortable in my own way in both countries. In Prince Albert, I didn’t have much time to get bored because there was so much hockey and school on schedule, and it’s not up to the ghouls.
What is the thrill of playing in a city where almost everyone is obsessed with hockey? Alexey Protas, for example, told me that fans somehow cooked borscht for him.
Ilya: Nobody cooked borscht for me [smiles]. But, I remember, a month later in Canada, I went to a children’s football match, where my son from the host family was playing. A woman with her child came up to me and said, “You are my son’s favorite player! May I have a picture?” I said “Of course”. With moments like this, it feels particularly good.
Is it true that North American hockey clubs are well-disciplined?
Ilya: I haven’t played in Belarus for a long time, and I don’t know how everything works here in the junior and senior leagues. But everything in Canada was really strict. For example, if we were’ shooting for an advertisement or having our a team photo taken, a lot of attention was paid to our appearance – what hockey players were wearing, what their hairstyle. You couldn’t wear a hat on the eve of a shoot because your hair had to be beautifully styled. And no ripped jeans!
It’s the same story with the clothes when hockey players were going on a trip. You could sit down wherever you wanted on the bus. But at bus stops, gas stations, roadside cafes, everyone had to be dressed the same – either in business or sports suits. No caps or hats unless it was very cold.
They explained to us that it was important for hockey players to be solid. And it seemed to me that the daily discipline helped me with becoming a professional on the ice. All the players on the team shared this coaching philosophy.
Which hockey player to you is an example of behavior on and off the ice?
Ilya: Lesha Protas.
His idol is Ovechkin, and yours is Lesha Protas?
Ilya: … [laughs]. Actually, I’m trying to be a little bit more of an example to everyone. Jokes aside, Lesha has really taught me a lot over the past year. He’s already got experience behind him – the Washington Camp, the WHL Cup, and the Prince Albert captain’s patch.
So, Lesha is a real example of how to behave in certain situations, what to say, and how to react. For example, in Colorado and Connecticut, our school teams didn’t have an army of fans. In Prince Albert, it’s a different situation – people come up and I don’t know how to behave.
Lesha showed that it’s important to always remain attentive, smiling, and relaxed. He tells a lot on and off the ice. So, I try to follow his example, and Leah may not know it [smiling].
“When I started hockey, there was one dream – the Stanley Cup.”
This is your graduation year. What will graduation look like with the coronavirus?
Ilya: Well, I’ve already graduated. I’ve taken the necessary credits and finished my studies back in winter. I plan on attending the o Belarusian State University of Physical Culture to become a hockey coach.
Why did you decide to study in Belarus and not overseas?
Ilya: Originally, I thought of playing for a university team in the USA. Since I joined Canada’s WHL a year ago, I can no longer enter a university in the United States as a hockey player. And in Canada, studying is expensive. As of now, I’ve decided to get a Belarusian diploma.
In the Final Prospect Rankings for the 2020 Draft, NHL scouts have you listed as the best of the Belarusians. Are you worried about the draft being postponed due to the pandemic?
Ilya: I wouldn’t say that I’m actively following the news. I’m just waiting for the league’s decision. As for the scouts’ evaluation, it’s certainly nice. However, I don’t want to think too far ahead. When I started hockey, my dream was not to become the most promising Belarusian in the draft, but to enter into the NHL and win the Stanley Cup.
Originally published in TUT.by