When Nikolai Kulkarov joined the SHL in 2016 as a draft pick of the Hershey Bliss, he was regarded as a promising prospect, a heavy hitter who also had the speed and agility to move the puck and contribute on offense. He was also regarded as something of a mystery, a painfully shy young man who barely spoke English and spent most of his time either on the ice or in his apartment.
Now in his third season with the Bliss, Kulkarov hasn’t yet blossomed into the two-way star that some observers projected. But he has blossomed considerably as a person. His English is far from perfect, but he can now hold his own in conversations and interviews. He’s also considerably more outgoing and free with his teammates. According to the young blueliner, he owes his personal growth to a couple of men: teammate Ruslan Gromov… and Pat Sajak.
“I learn my English from ‘Wheel of Fortune,’” said Kulkarov.
In his first season with Hershey, the culture shock was nearly unbearable for Kulkarov. “Everything is different in America,” said the young blueliner. “Especially the big cities, like New York and Washington. Hershey was smaller and more comfortable, but still difficult. I was missing home very much.” He hid in the shower after games to avoid questions from reporters. His Bliss teammates tried to help by inviting him out to dinners and team gatherings, but Kulkarov almost always declined, afraid that he would be embarrassed by his limited English proficiency. “I was scared I would say something dumb or mean by accident, and then they would hate me or not want me around,” he explained.
Instead, whenever he was not at practice or a game, Kulkarov stayed in his apartment or hotel room, reading Russian books and websites and listening to familiar songs from home, and calling his family for long and sad conversations. “I thought very much about going home, maybe to the KHL,” the defenseman said.
Kulkarov might have given up and gone home if not for Gromov. The veteran blueliner noticed the rookie’s reticence and began speaking to him in the clubhouse. “He spoke to me in Russian and said, ‘Nik, I think maybe you are a shadow, because I only see you for games.’ He gave me the chance to talk to someone who understands.” Kulkarov opened up about his homesickness, his anxiety about speaking English, and his difficulties adjusting to life in America.
“Ruslan said he would be my protector,” the defenseman said. And Gromov proceeded to take Kulkarov under his wing. He served as the young man’s unofficial translator, invited him out with small groups of teammates to get more comfortable, and gave him a suggestion to work on his English.
“He told me to watch television,” Kulkarov explained. “Then I could hear English and learn to understand in private.”
So in addition to his twice-weekly English classes, the rookie started watching American TV shows for hours a day. He quickly became a fan of “Wheel of Fortune.” He was first drawn to the show by the bright and colorful set, but he soon became captivated by the show’s host, Sajak, and his easy banter with contestants. “Pat looked very relaxed and comfortable,” said Kulkarov. “He was cool. I wanted to be cool too.”
So whenever Kulkarov found himself in an awkward situation or was struggling for a word, he tried to emulate Sajak’s cool. “If I can be like Pat,” the defenseman said, “then I will not feel so uncomfortable.”
With Sajak’s example in mind, Kulkarov worked with Gromov to improve his speaking skills. He practiced conversations and interviews with his teammate, and asked about things that he saw or heard that he didn’t understand. “Ruslan was very patient with me,” said Kulkarov. “Even if my question was dumb or I made silly mistake, he did not laugh or make fun.”
Today, Kulkarov is comfortable handling post-game interviews on his own, and he enjoys spending time with his teammates off the ice. He still watches “Wheel of Fortune” when he can. And he tries to pay forward the help that Gromov gave him. When the Bliss drafted a Russian, C Yegor Nestorov, this season, Kulkarov took the young player under his wing.
“I want all players to know: life in America is not so scary,” said Kulkarov. “There are many people here who will help you. You do not have to be alone.”