As told to: Greg Thomas
1992 was one of the best years of my life. I won gold at the World Juniors and the Olympics, got drafted, and then played my rookie year with the Islanders. I came from Russia to the States on October 2, 1992 and I played on October 6, 1992 in the NHL. I felt like I had no time to adjust. Sure, I had already had my training camp in Moscow and had played a few games in the beginning of the season for Dynamo, before they let me go to the Islanders. But I had no idea about the New York Islanders. I had heard of the Rangers but not the Islanders. Even though they had recently won four straight Stanley Cups, I had never heard of them. Al Arbour: never heard of him. I came to New York and had I no clue where I would live, where the Islanders were, anything. I was just a happy-go-lucky guy.
My agent took me to a hotel and escorted me to my room. I knew that Vladimir Malakhov, who was on my team, lived in the same hotel and I asked my agent how I could find him. He told me to just to call his room leave him a message. I didn’t know what he meant? Leave a message? What was that? We didn’t have this in the Soviet Union. My first practice was very hard because I was so tired. The pace was much faster than a Russian practice. A Russian practice is very long but there are a lot of pauses and a lot of talks and a lot of skating around in circles doing nothing. When I came to the NHL, I think the first practice was only 45 minutes but it was very hard. It was all quick stops and starts and skating. I remember telling my agent that I didn’t think I could make it here.
After that, I figured I would start in the minors and probably start the season there and then maybe I’d come to the main team awhile But Al Arbour put me in the lineup right away. I was very surprised. You know, a 19 year-old kid comes in from Russia and is in the lineup for his first game against the New Jersey Devils? It was one of the best games I ever had. I wanted to show the coach I could play. I only missed one game that year and had a great season. Nobody knew who I was, so it was very easy to hit people. I realized that first season that I could be a physical defenseman in the league.
We had a lot of fun. A lot of team dinners, team lunches – we did a lot of things together. Now the change rooms are more professional with videos and stuff but back then it was more laid back. I learned a lot about the game and about all of my teammates. I loved it. We had many young guys on the Islanders: Marty McInnis, Travis Greene, Brad Dalgarno, Bryan Berard, Bryan McCabe. We stuck together. When we went on road trips and every city was new to me, waiting to be discovered. Every day was like being at Disney World for a little child. I remember the first time I went to L.A. Me, Scotty Lachance, McInnis, and Greene rented a car. A convertible! I had never seen a convertible before, never heard of it. I had never travelled from winter to summer in six hours before either. I did all the touristy things you do when you go to Hollywood.
Mick Vukota and Rich Pilon helped me a lot that year. Scotty helped me tremendously with English. He was my roommate for three years on the road. We spent a lot of time together. I drove Scotty crazy because I always had an English dictionary. Whenever we watched TV, I constantly was asking him what every word meant. I loved to watch Married with Children. He hated it.
GREG THOMAS is an accomplished actor and playwright from Nipawin, Saskatchewan.
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