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For Lightning, language shows way to success

Nikita Kucherov is having a breakout season, his 12 goals and plus-18 rating second on the Lightning. [Getty Images]
Nikita Kucherov is having a breakout season, his 12 goals and plus-18 rating second on the Lightning. [Getty Images]
Published Dec. 19, 2014

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Wing Nikita Kucherov is having a breakout season, his 12 goals and plus-18 rating second on the Lightning.

"He's been unbelievable," captain Steven Stamkos said.

And Kucherov has Shameless, The Walking Dead and Blue Mountain State partly to thank.

No, the television shows don't make Kucherov's hands any quicker or his shot any harder. But the 21-year-old Russian has used them as tools to improve his English, and he has made a dramatic improvement since last year. "Night and day," Stamkos said.

Kucherov, in his second NHL season, is more comfortable in the locker room, communicating and relating better with coaches and teammates. And that has translated to his play on the ice, coach Jon Cooper said.

"Now that Kucherov knows the language, he's completely different," Cooper said. "He's effective on the ice, off the ice. He's a much more confident kid because he knows the language. It does have a big part of how the kids act."

Kucherov, a Moscow native, said he had a tutor for a couple of months two years ago. But he mostly has learned English from listening to friends and watching TV.

He's still quiet but not as much as years past.

"It's hard, because you don't understand what the guys are talking about, don't know what to say," Kucherov said. "Especially with the media, sometimes I don't know what you guys are talking about."

Now Kucherov handles himself okay in interviews. On the ice and the bench, he asks questions of linemates Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat; the trio has become one of the league's hottest lines.

"I can't say he'd be able to do that last year," Johnson said.

Though Kucherov might have been insecure before, he's coming out of his shell now.

"You can joke with him now, you can show humor, you can be sarcastic," Cooper said. "So many things he gets now that he never got before.

"He smiles a lot more. And it's the meaning of the smile. He smiled last year to be like, 'Yes, I get it, but I don't really understand.' Now he's actually laughing because he gets the joke."

Several Lightning teammates can relate. Veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov, a Russian, recalled struggling to order food when he started with AHL Kentucky in 1997.

"I had no idea what a club sandwich was," he said.

Nabokov was shy around teammates, not wanting to get made fun of. Fortunately, the team had six other Russians he could rely on. Some said he should watch Friends to help him learn English. It did, and by the time he joined the Sharks in San Jose in 1999, he was "decent."

"Friends was huge," he said. "Seinfeld was hard for me. I couldn't understand some of the jokes. But Friends was easier."

Defenseman Victor Hedman, from Sweden, said he took English classes starting when he was 6, which gave him a foundation. But Hedman, who says he still struggles with some words, said movies with subtitles helped.

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"Christmas movies, Christmas Vacation, was a big one," he said.

Hedman has no problem talking with his defense partner, fellow Swede Anton Stralman, who found it easier to understand English than speak it.

"It definitely took some time," Stralman said. "I think I felt what my limitation was. I didn't have enough words to get in all the conversations, and (it's) still the same today, really. If I start talking about something that is a little bit out of my league, it gets hard."

Stralman often reads books on team flights, which he says helps.

"Even though I don't necessarily understand every word, I get the meaning out of sentences," he said. "That's what matters."

For Kucherov, he's playing fast on the ice, is being responsible at both ends and is showing confidence. The same goes for when he speaks.

"I'm not worried about anything," he said. "I just talk."

ICE CHIPS: Cooper said goalie Ben Bishop (lower-body injury) is doubtful for tonight's game at the Devils and Saturday's at the Islanders, though he could return Tuesday against the Penguins at home. Center Tyler Johnson missed Thursday's practice due to a stomach illness and was questionable for tonight. Defenseman Radko Gudas, who has missed three games with a stomach bug, was expected to play tonight. Wing Ondrej Palat (lower body), who has missed four games, would be a game-time decision. … Wing Jonathan Drouin has earned first-line minutes, Cooper said. "He's getting dirtier," Cooper said. "He's much more involved than he was before, and with that comes more playing time."

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