Hockey isn’t a one-country sport.
The universal love for the game has grown tremendously in the NHL’s 100+ years of existence, and even the furthest reaches of that love are reflected in the league’s player base.
Whether it’s Irish-born Owen Nolan, the NHL’s lone Australian Nathan Walker, or Leon Draisaitl, already the highest-scoring German to ever make The Show, beacons of the sport’s success can shine from around the world.
Despite hockey’s global exposure, however, opportunities within it have always been fairly localized.
While the aforementioned players all come from different countries, none of them were drafted into the NHL without first appearing with a junior team in North America.
Russian Nikolai Salov, a 19-year-old forward currently with the GMHL’s North York Renegades, has taken a similar route, coming to Canada with plenty of talent and the dream of making the big leagues.
“It was a kind of sacrifice, because when I moved here I had to leave my house and most of my family behind, but it was worth pursuing my hockey career,” said Salov, who moved to Canada at just 15 years old. “The transition from Russia to Canada was definitely the biggest change in my life so far.
“I was nervous but at the same time very excited to start that new page, meet new people and career opportunities.”
Salov became enamored with the sport of hockey at age three after being taken to a World Championship game between Russia and Japan. His connection to the sport was instant, and that New Year’s Eve he was given his first pair of skates. A fan of Pavel Datsyuk and the Detroit Red Wings, a young Salov had early dreams of playing professionally for either the NHL or the KHL, but paved with hardship and constant tests the road there wouldn’t easy.
It’s true that Russian natives are no strangers to NHL stardom; with the country producing a number of elite players that could never see North American ice until they join the NHL, but these successes come off the back of rigorous competition and limited opportunities. Salov was first thrust into this competition at just six years old, battling for a spot on the only AAA team in his town of Nizhny Novgorod.
“From a very young age we had to compete in order to be on the team, because there were many boys who played hockey but there was only one high level team in the area.”
As hard as it was to make the team, keeping up with expectations would prove to be even harder.
“The environment in Russian youth hockey is more harsh and competitive, where coaches want kids to fight for their spots on the team and ice time from a very young age,” said Salov, who played in his home country until 2017.
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He contrasts this to his experience since relocating to North America, where he’s found that while the play structure in Canada and Russia are similar, the mentality and approach to the players are worlds apart.
“The whole atmosphere in Canadian hockey is friendlier and warmer,” Salov said. “A lot of coaches, players and parents were very helpful when I was adapting to Canada my first years. I find coaches in Canada focus on a players’ development and also make it fun, which keeps it interesting for everyone.”
Canada’s warmer emotional environment and more positive-minded coaching have also led to better relationships between players, without the cloud of internal competition festering their feelings toward each other.
“During my whole hockey career so far, I came across — or have been friends — with many players of different backgrounds and nationalities. Canadian players in youth hockey are a little more friendly, because the concept of competing for the spot and ice time is not as big up until junior hockey.”
An environment focused on team success has also led to improved play. Since joining the Renegades during the 2018-19 season, Salov has blossomed, totalling 13 goals and eight assists across 37 games in his first full campaign (2019-20) and returning from a lost 2020-21 season to play above a point-per-game clip so far this year.
Salov’s journey to success in Canada doesn’t just involve hockey, though. The young prospect has had to put in his fair share of work outside the sport, including learning English to better adapt to North American life.
“My last few years living in Russia I was very focused on learning English, with a tutor couple times a week … 100 hours of English at high school in Canada (also) really helped me to adapt and learn about culture faster.”
Thousands of miles from home and away from most of his family, Salov has left a lot behind to chase his dream, but he’s hardly on an island.
Connecting Salov to his roots is teammate and fellow Russian Maxim Noskov, a 21-year-old defenseman also playing for the Renegades. The two didn’t meet before joining the Blyth Academy Warriors U18 team in Canada, but they became fast friends and a positive reminder of their shared origin. “
We didn’t know each other outside of Canada,” Solov said. “I moved here half a year earlier but we attended the same high school in Toronto and I helped him out to adapt a little … me and Nos are pretty close friends.”
The friendship between Salov and Noskov serves not only as a reminder of where both of them came from, but also how both of them got there, traveling across the world for a chance to someday set foot on hockey’s highest stage.
Like many others, Salov has dreams of playing professional hockey, and has shown he has the drive to chase that dream to the literal ends of the earth, changing his life and making sacrifice after sacrifice to make it possible.
While he isn’t alone in that dream or that drive, he’s found himself in the right place at the right time, with the right people and the right moves to achieve it.
The Renegades are off to a blistering start to their season in part thanks to Salov, and he’ll look to help them keep winning while doing his best along the way as he hopes to be the latest in a long line of nomads who tirelessly followed one path — the one to the NHL.