Minor League Sports

USHL becomes home for 4 European members of Cedar Rapids RoughRiders

Backehag, Bakanov, Deryabin, Valach adjust to North American game and lifestyle

Cedar Rapids RoughRiders’ Andrei Bakanov (from left), Dmitri Deryabin, Adam Bäckehag, and Marek Valach pose for a portrait at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids RoughRiders’ Andrei Bakanov (from left), Dmitri Deryabin, Adam Bäckehag, and Marek Valach pose for a portrait at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Their paths to get here were different. Their reasons for being here are different.

But four European members of the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders are here, a very long way from home, getting used to life in North America and trying to advance their hockey careers in the United States Hockey League.

“It has been good,” said Adam Backehag. “I wanted to be here.”

“I thought it was a really good league to develop as a player,” said Dmitri Deryabin.

USHL clubs are allowed six “import” players each season, as long as at least two are from Canada. Right now, the RoughRiders don’t have any Canadians, which is unusual.

They just have this Euro quartet. Backehag and Deryabin are defensemen, Marek Valach and Andrei Bakanov forwards.

Backehag, who just scored his first USHL goal Friday night in a win at Dubuque, is an 18-year-old from Gustafs, Sweden. Deryabin, 19, is from Minsk, Belarus.

Valach, 20, and on injured reserve with an upper-body injury, is the elder statesmen of the group. He’s from Dubnica, Slovakia.

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Bakanov is the young buck, just 16 and from Moscow, Russia. It’s his third year in the U.S., as he previously played for teams at lower youth levels in Ohio and Michigan.

“I have always wanted to go to college,” he said. “Especially play hockey in college. That’s been my dream and stuff. But that’s not how it works in Russia. It’s a little bit different system. They don’t have colleges with hockey, so you have to choose if you want to play hockey or go to college.”

Imagine being 14 years old and literally dropped off into a foreign country. Bakanov could not speak any English when he first arrived in the U.S., living with a Russian family in Ohio.

“My billet family had moved here like eight years earlier,” he said. “I had a really bad experience with them. They were not nice to me, wouldn’t do their job at all, were not giving me enough food and stuff like that. They were really mean to me, so I couldn’t stay with them anymore.”

Bakanov’s mother, Irina, came to the rescue, moving to Ohio to be with him. Mother and son lived together again last year in Michigan.

Bakanov lives with a local billet family this season, and he said things have been wonderful. He attends Cedar Rapids Xavier High School and his English is nearly flawless now.

He has committed to the University of Michigan.

“In my situation, I was just forced to talk with people,” he said. “My very first day of school, I went to school right away (in Ohio) and was getting assignments. So I was forced to learn the language and talk. I’m way better with talking, but I’m not really good with reading, yet. I’m not the best writer, either, my grammar is not great. My teachers understand that and help me out. I do my best on all the papers I write.”

Bakanov’s presence has helped Deryabin adjust to his new surroundings. Acquired in a September trade from the USHL’s Tri-City Storm, Deryabin came to North America this season basically to be seen by pro teams here.

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He isn’t eligible for college hockey because he played two games last year with Dinamo Minsk in the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia’s top professional league. Players on his team included former NHLers Jack Skille and Jhonas Enroth.

His agent tipped off USHL teams about his desire to come over.

“I just need to keep working hard,” he said. “There are things I want to fix. Always you want to fix something as a hockey player. Just keep working hard and getting better every day.”

Unlike Bakanov, Deryabin speaks little English, though he tries. He was able to tell a reporter the Russian food he most misses is ‘blini,’ a type of potato pancake.

“Same as Andrei. I love it here,” he said, through Bakanov’s translation. “It’s good to have another Russian native who can help me out. I have an awesome billet family that is really nice to me. Everything is good.”

Backehag also was acquired in a trade from another USHL club (Lincoln). He, too, is in the U.S. for the first time.

“Different style of play,” he said. “It’s a smaller rink. A little more physical.”

His future is a little more clouded in that he doesn’t know if he wants to try and get into college, if he wants to perhaps try and play pro hockey here or maybe back home in Sweden. One thing is for certain: the kid always seems to have a smile on his face.

“My English has gotten a lot better,” he said. “I understood most everything, but I had to think in, like, Swedish, before I could say something. That was different.”

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Teammate Will Francis has helped out in Backehag’s transition, as the two live with the same local billet family.

“He drives me everywhere,” Backehag said, with that smile.

Unfortunately, it has been a lost second year in Cedar Rapids and the U.S. for Valach. He has played in only 10 games, his undisclosed injury sabotaging what seemed certain to be a great season.

Valach was one of the Riders’ top players in 2017-18 and caught the eye of the NHL’s Boston Bruins, who invited him to participate in their rookie camp. He wasn’t immediately extended a contract offer, though he impressed.

With the rookie camp participation, Valach lost all future NCAA eligibility.

“I think every hockey player wants to play in the NHL,” Valach said. “When I got to know they invited me to their rookie camp, I was really happy. I knew I’d lost my eligibility for college, but I want to play pro. I will do everything I can, I will work hard to do that.”

Valach’s agent originally let the RoughRiders know of his intention to come to North America. That’s the way it works with most European players.

Valach had played in a professional league in Austria against grown men, though he did not take pay in order to stay eligible for college hockey. Playing in that league helped him learn English, as did finding a local girlfriend here.

“I want to stay in the USA as long as I can, and I will do anything for that,” he said. “I wanted to get better as a hockey player, so I think it was best for me to come here.”

He speaks for Deryabin, Bakanov, Backehag and all of the other foreign players in the USHL when he says that.

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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