PSU Careers Nearing an End, Pavlychev, Smirnov Reflect on Journey Together
When their American journey began, when they were barely teenagers in a foreign country where they didn’t speak the language, Denis Smirnov and Nikita Pavlychev had each other.
The first two Russians to play for Penn State’s hockey program have made history together, by intention or by coincidence. They came to State College best friends, and the two seniors will leave the same way.
What comes next will likely lead them along different paths, with the Pittsburgh Penguins owning Pavlychev’s draft rights and the Colorado Avalanche owning Smirnov’s. For now, though, they’ll try to remain focused on what’s ahead of them: two games with Minnesota — senior night on Saturday, then whatever postseason play follows.
“Knowing the next step will likely make us go different ways, it sucks,” Pavlychev said. “It’s sad, but I’m sure we’ll always stay in touch and hopefully our paths cross again in hockey. I’m sure they’re going to cross again in life.”
Smirnov and Pavlychev walked into Pegula Ice Arena’s media room just as their teammates Liam Folkes and Brandon Biro were tending to the last of their media obligations.
First, Pavlychev and Smirnov launched playful chirps at Folkes to distract him while he stood in front of a camera. Then they decided they were in no mood to wait to take care of their own media business, and jokingly made Biro and Folkes aware that it was time for them to leave.
Now playing their ninth season of hockey in the United States, the locker room is easy for Pavlychev and Smirnov to navigate. They’re beloved by their teammates, and still often attached at the hip.
“They’ve mainly grown in just their personalities,” senior defenseman Kris Myllari said. “They’re unbelievable people, very funny. They’ve really immersed themselves in the culture that we’ve had here and it’s brought out their true characters. Maybe as freshmen they were a little more quiet and reserved than they are now.
“I think it’s been a real bright spot for the team to bring their true characters, bring their emotion, and bring a different international culture. I think that’s what makes the locker room dynamic great.”
Part of the same bantam team in Wilkes-Barre in 2011 right when Smirnov and Pavlychev first arrived, Paul DeNaples couldn’t really communicate with them. But what they did on the ice didn’t require much discussion.
Smirnov scored 76 points in 25 games for that Wilkes-Barre Knights team. Pavlychev was not far behind, with 51 points in 17 contests.
DeNaples and his Russian teammates can talk with one another just fine now. To DeNaples, Smirnov is one of the funniest guys in Penn State’s locker room, and the 6-foot-9 Pavlychev more resembles a giant teddy bear than the physical player he becomes on the ice.
Unless, of course, there’s a joke made at his expense.
“It’s funny, they don’t like taking jokes well,” DeNaples said with a wide smile. “I always try busting them to get on their nerves. But they’re actually really good guys, once you get to know them. You really understand.”
Smirnov and Pavlychev have enjoyed sharing a bit of their Russian culture with their teammates, too, from food — Pavlychev will get upset if you knock pasta and ketchup without trying it first — to pregame traditions.
Before every game, Smirnov and Pavlychev yell at each other in front of the team — in Russian. Folkes joins in too, mumbling incoherently because he has no idea what he’s saying. Pavlychev and Smirnov say Folkes wants to be Russian, like them, but only they understand what’s being said, and they aren’t about to give it away.
“Probably a bad translation,” Smirnov said, smiling.
Smirnov and Pavlychev had played against one another before while in Russia, but in Wilkes-Barre they became fast friends.
Living with an American family and attending an American school, Pavlychev and Smirnov had little choice but to start learning English. Naturally, they did it together.
Tutored by Smirnov’s sister, they would speak Russian to each other and try to include English with it. Whenever one of them learned a new word, they would use it in conversation as much as possible. Eventually, they became conversational. Now, their English is spotless.
“There was a lot of making fun of each other,” Pavlychev said. “We never really took a whole lot of offense to it. It was like, you laugh at each other, and you learn something from it.”
They were two 14-year-old kids in a new country, there for the same purpose. They knew they would get more attention from NHL scouts in the United States than they would in Russia.
The friendship was natural.
“When there’s a couple guys from your country who have been going through the same thing you’re going through at age 14, you kind of bond together and help each other,” Smirnov said. “If we were by ourselves, I don’t know if it would have been as enjoyable or as possible, but with Nikita and other guys it’s definitely been a lot of fun.”
One of those other guys is Ivan Provorov, who played on that Wilkes-Barre team and is now a star defenseman for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Guy Gadowsky remembers a visit the three of them took to Penn State together, not long after the program was born.
“They looked a lot different back then,” Gadowsky said. “That was a long time ago.”
Gadowsky said he recruited Smirnov and Pavlychev together, looking to land both as he eventually did. But Smirnov and Pavlychev, playing on different USHL teams, were not set on attending the same school.
Pavlychev visited on his own a few times, including once before Pegula Ice Arena was even built. He was the first to commit, which left Smirnov with something to think about.
Smirnov asked his sister to visit Penn State two weeks later, and fell in love.
“I also remembered that Nikita was committed here so it was definitely a huge factor why I wanted to come here,” Smirnov said.
All they’ve done since arriving is combine for 85 goals and 98 assists.
Pavlychev has spent four years excelling at defensive hockey and filling into his body. The scoring has come later as he’s earned more power-play time and taken advantage of it.
Smirnov started with an electric 47-point freshman season, and his teammates and coaches credit him for learning how to play two-way hockey in the years that followed.
There’s been plenty of change, but their bond hasn’t budged.
“They came in best friends and they’re leaving best friends,” fellow senior James Gobetz said.
There’s an emotional aspect to be dealt with as Penn State’s season dwindles, Pavlychev admits.
He’s coming up on his final games in a Nittany Lion sweater, his final games as an amatuer, and — possibly — his final games with Smirnov as his teammate.
They both hope that's not the case. Chasing their hockey dreams together in the United States, they’ve dreamed about suiting up for Russian national teams together. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even end up in the same NHL organization.
That’s out of their control. What they can determine is how close they stay despite their circumstances, and, well, there isn't much question about that.
“It’s not the end of our relationship,” Smirnov said. “It’s not goodbye, it’s see you later.”
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