The Athletic

Why Sabers prospect Stiven Sardarian made a bold move from Russia to NCAA hockey

DURHAM, NH — Stiven Sardarian walked into the media room at the Whittemore Center Arena at the University of New Hampshire dressed in a blue suit and button down shirt. Sardarian, a St. Petersburg, Russia, native and 2021 third-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, has been in the United States for just over a year. Already, he’s conversational in English. His build is slender. He’s apologetic when he doesn’t understand certain words or questions, but Sardarian’s focus and conviction are apparent both on the ice and in conversation.

Sardarian’s development path is not a common one. After getting drafted, he could have stayed and played in Russia until he got an entry-level contract and then made his way to North America to play in the NHL or AHL. But education is important to Sardarian’s family, and he saw this challenge as an opportunity. He’s serious about playing hockey here and wants to get a jump start on acclimating himself.

“First reason, I want to play in the NHL,” Sardarian said. “I want to be smarter, too. It’s a good decision to be in NCAA because I can have good studies and play really good hockey. When UNH invited me, I was in Russia and I was thinking but I decided correctly. I’m happy to be here.”

Durham is a small college town 20 minutes inland from the seacoast of New Hampshire and approximately an hour and a half north of Boston. It’s a remote destination but home to a school that plays in Hockey East, one of the toughest conferences in college hockey. The fan base is a dedicated one.

Sardarian has embraced everything about the path he’s chosen. He spent last season living in Youngstown, Ohio, playing in the USHL. He was going to school daily to fulfill an English requirement for his visa. He missed UNH’s summer sessions because of visa issues but has done his best to catch up since arriving on campus in September. He wants to speak in English as often as possible and hasn’t had issues picking up coaching points. He meets with an English-as-a-second-language tutor every week.

“The kid wants to be a player,” said UNH coach Mike Souza. “The path that he’s chosen with the encouragement of Buffalo, he’s got to live it. He had to go to Youngstown. He had to come to UNH with not the easiest path either. … He’s been willing to do it and done it all with a smile.”

Souza first got a tip about Sardarian from a scout in another organization. He and his staff couldn’t get an in-person look at him because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. Souza hasn’t had a ton of experience recruiting Russian players. It can be a tricky exercise, because a team has to be confident a player is willing to move across the world to play college hockey. It’s easier and much more common for a Russian player to stay home and develop in one of the junior leagues in Russia. But UNH got some assurance that Sardarian’s family put a premium on education and that the college path was one he would consider.

That he considered it at all says something about who Sardarian is. Hockey development is complicated enough. To pack your bags at 18 years old and leave the only home you’ve ever known is one thing. To then fly halfway across the world to Youngstown, Ohio, to play in a junior league is a level of dream chasing few can comprehend.

When Souza watched Sardarian, his stick work stood out. So did his brain. He was skinny but creative. He occasionally got pushed around but could also win stick battles. Souza said Sardarian is “wiry strong” but needs to spend a lot of time with the strength coach because his game breaks down due to his lack of strength. Without a full summer on campus, Sardarian was behind the curve. He doesn’t have a point yet, but he has flashed potential.

“I think that’s been the most eye-opening thing for him is the pace and you’re out there against kids who might be 24 or 25 years old,” Souza said. “That’s been the biggest adjustment has been the pace and strength. When the game slows down, it’s really effective. What I’m excited about is seeing him get stronger so the pace picks up. He can see plays other guys can’t see. He sees the next play. He always sees the next play. When we can enhance his ability to do that by getting stronger, he’ll get quicker and he’ll make even more plays.”

On the weekend of this conversation, UNH played a home and home against Northeastern and reigning Richter Award winner Devon Levi, a fellow Sabers prospect. On Friday in a 6-2 UNH loss in Boston, Sardarian had two potential assists on one shift, but Levi stonewalled the shooter on both chances. At the end of the game, he got into it with a Northeastern defender after the whistle.

The next night, Sardarian was out of the lineup for UNH’s 3-0 loss. He watched the game from up top with Sabers development coach Tim Kennedy, who was in town visiting. Souza said the Sabres’ development staff was a huge help in getting Sardarian through the immigration process and has been great to work with on Sardarian’s development plan. That buy-in is essential because this is a challenging route for a teenager. There are only eight Russians in college hockey this season.

“Put yourself in his shoes,” Souza said. “There’s other guys that have done it, but it’s just not the normal path. It wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Sabres.”

The Sabers have selected six Russian-born players in the last two drafts including four in the top three rounds. General manager Kevyn Adams has a lot of faith in Russian scout Ruslan Pechonkin, who is tasked not only with identifying talent but building relationships with players once they are drafted. Of the six Russian players the Sabers have drafted the last two years, three are playing in North America, while three are still in Russia. Aleksandr Kisakov is the first of the group to make it to the AHL.

Sardarian is eager to spend more time in Buffalo. He’s been watching as many Sabers games as he can and loves watching Tage Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power and JJ Peterka. His plan is to be at Sabers development camp next July, too, and that will be his first chance to meet players in the organization.

Offseason plans are tricky for Sardarian to pin down, though. With Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, each trip home is complicated. Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov was among the NHL’s Russian players who had a difficult journey back to North America after spending the offseason in Russia. Kisakov missed Sabers development camp because he was still in Canada working through visa issues. As of now, Sardarian plans to go to Spain in May, Buffalo in July for development camp and back to UNH to get time in the gym. That could change, but Sardarian isn’t banking on being able to take a trip home. He said since he’s been at school he’s been speaking to his parents “not a lot, but enough.”

For now, he’s focused on fitting into the locker room at UNH. The Wildcats have one other player who speaks Russian. Kristaps Skrastins is from Latvia and has helped Sardarian when he needs translating. But the two of them prefer to converse in English.

“It’s difficult but for me very important to talk a lot,” Sardarian said. “I will have mistakes, but I don’t care. People understand. People help me. I need to talk more with people and never be afraid. I think after this season, this year, I will be good. My language improves every day little by little.”

Sardarian grew up playing chess competitively and has always been a problem-solver. The UNH coaching staff could tell how smart he was immediately by the way he handled his class work while adjusting to the language and culture. Souza has also noticed Sardarian’s brain at the rink.

“We New Englanders like talking fast,” Souza said. “He’s picked up when we throw something on the board or in the room, he picks up on it without any sort of follow up. If it’s a new drill or concept, he grasps it right away. He’s an intelligent person.”

Sardarian takes pride in that. He said his two favorite players to watch are Nikita Kucherov and Artemi Panarin, because he thinks both play the game smart and have a passing ability that he hopes to cultivate. He admits playing in North America has been a big adjustment. He had eight goals and 17 assists in 46 USHL games last year but hasn’t found a scoring touch in college hockey yet.

“In Russia, we have bigger rinks,” he said. “If you have bigger rink, you have more time. It’s easier. In USA, we have smaller rink and I think USA hockey is harder than Russian because people are stronger, play hard and so fast. You have to make quick decisions.”

Sardarian’s raw skills are obvious on the ice. He needs more power in everything that he does, including his skating. But he’s confident with the puck on his stick and is showing signs of becoming a setup artist. When you choose the path Sardarian has chosen, patience is paramount. He’s shown growth on and off the ice since the Sabers drafted him, but the bulk of his work is in front of him.

“The biggest thing for us with him is just marrying himself to our strength coach,” Souza said. “His game is going to transform once he gets stronger. His brain and his stick are really good. He just breaks down easy because he’s not that strong. We’re excited and I know he’s excited to be here next summer. Not that I want to write off this year because he could still be productive this year. But I think his game will go to another level when he gets stronger. I think he understands that which is the best part.”

(Photo by Stiven Sardarian courtesy of University of New Hampshire)

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