By: Will Burchfield
“It was fun,” said 21-year-old Evgeny Svechnikov, by which he meant, “Thank God it’s over.”
His helter-skelter trip from Ottawa to Detroit, after the Red Wings summoned him to the NHL Wednesday afternoon, was of the type that — well, the type that you read about.
“I look like it was fun,” said Svechnikov, flashing a smile that features a missing front tooth, “but it wasn’t really. It was a long night and a long morning.
“Haven’t had much sleep.”
Then he smiled again.
Svechnikov’s delirium could be forgiven. Here he was in the Red Wings dressing room, running on two and a half hours of sleep, standing in front of a locker bearing his name and No. 77. It was 11:30 Thursday morning. His 2018 NHL debut was set for 7:30 Thursday night. He had just skated for the first time in four days.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Svechnikov was in Ottawa, obtaining his visa. His AHL team, the Grand Rapids Griffins, was in the midst of a week-long break, so it was a good time for Svechnikov to make the trip north. On his way back to the airport — visa in hand, along with a return ticket to the AHL — Svechnikov’s phone rang.
It was Ryan Martin, assistant general manager of the Red Wings. (Martin also serves as GM of the Griffins.)
“Hey,” Martin said, “you want to play in the NHL?”
Svechnikov’s response, which will be diplomatically relayed, was earnest, eager and evident of the fact he’s been hanging out in North American hockey locker rooms since he was 18-years-old, when he first came over from Russia to play Major Junior in Canada: “Puck yeah.” (Or something like it.)
Cue the smile.
The Red Wings needed Svechnikov at practice 10:30 Thursday morning, so Martin said they were flying him to Grand Rapids Wednesday night. That would leave him plenty of time to pack a bag, collect his gear and then drive to Detroit. Maybe he’d even have time to catch some sleep.
Sounds good, Svechnikov said.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a direct flight from Ottawa to Grand Rapids. Instead, Svechnikov flew from Ottawa to Montreal, Montreal to Chicago, and Chicago to Grand Rapids, where he landed at about 12:30 a.m. Thursday morning.
When he walked through the front door of his apartment about a half hour later, the place was freezing.
“Really cold,” Svechnikov said. “It felt like it was outside.”
Through the dark, he spied the thermostat on the wall: 50 degrees. He flipped on the nearest light switch and nothing happened. He tried a second light then a third, only to get the same result. He made his way to his bedroom, fingers crossed, and flicked on another. Nothing.
“I realized there was no electricity,” Svechnikov said.
Needing a place to stay in the middle of the night, he drove to a hotel in downtown Grand Rapids. It was booked. So was the next one, and the one after that. Finally, after some careful searching online, he found a place with vacancy about 10 minutes outside downtown. He drove there, grabbed a room and passed out around 2:30 in the morning.
He woke up at 5, exhausted. It was still dark. He drove back to his apartment and packed some clothes, then drove to the Griffins’ rink and gathered his gear. It was 6:30 a.m. when he left Grand Rapids for Detroit. He arrived at 9.
“Had a pretty fun practice with the boys, and ready to go,” Svechnikov said, and the smile was bigger than ever before.
He’ll play on a line Thursday night with Justin Abdelkader and Andreas Athanasiou, his two neighbors in the dressing room. Though he was called up to replace the injured Frans Nielsen, who’s out for at least the next two games, the Red Wings plan to keep him around past Nielsen’s return. Svechnikov, Detroit’s first-round pick in 2015, is a key piece of the team’s future.
The future is now.
“We hope that he develops into a real strong power forward that can add offensive punch,” said Jeff Blashill. “He’s a big, thick body who’s hard on the puck, who’s strong on the puck, who has a good skillset.”
Svechnikov, asked to describe his own potential in the NHL, said, “I think I can be really strong in the O-zone and I think I can be an offensive player. Try to score some goals and obviously be defensively responsible. But yeah,” he smiled, “I like to score goals.”
Anthony Mantha, who played in Grand Rapids with his newest teammate in Detroit, said there’s no doubt Svechnikov can be one of the Wings’ top-six forwards in the future. Blashill doesn’t think that delineation means what it used to in the NHL, given the depth nowadays in each team’s lineup, but likes the growth Svechnikov has made in his second pro season.
“When he first came into pro, my take on him was he was real interested in making great plays instead of necessarily what it takes to score a goal. … I think over time he’s learned how to use that skill in a more efficient manner in that it’s not necessarily how pretty the play is, it’s how effective the play is,” Blashill said.
He added, “Can Svech be a guy who drives his line, or a guy who’s a good complimentary guy in the top nine? I think he can be either of those, but that will be up to him.”
Svechnikov appeared in two games for the Wings toward the end of last season and was held without a point. He netted a dazzling shootout winner versus the Senators, but admitted, “It wasn’t really a goal.”
“It feels good,” he said, “but I wish I can score in the game. That would be way better.”
Has he thought about that first NHL goal, what it might be like?
“Yeah,” he said. “I was thinking how I would celebrate.”
Anything planned yet?
“No, I have to make one. I have to make it faster because there’s a game tonight,” he grinned, that void between his teeth evoking a goalie’s five-hole. “Maybe I’ll get a good chance.”
And maybe he’ll get some sleep when it’s all over — not that he cares at this point.
“Just little things,” he said of his three flights, his apartment with no power, his middle-of-the-night scramble for a hotel and his utter lack of sleep. “I’m very happy that I’m going to be in the lineup and have a big chance. That’s all that matters.”