CEDAR RAPIDS — Learn the language, learn the culture, learn the game. Do that last part quickly.
The Cedar Rapids RoughRiders brought Ilya Sushko over from Belarus for fall camp back in September. He was given few guarantees.
It was either impress enough in a handful of preseason games, or head back home. The defenseman is still here.
“He was kind of recommended by some people I know in hockey. We did our homework on him,” said RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson. “He has come over and is doing a good job. His confidence on the blue line has been pretty impressive on the power play (lately) ... He has just gotten better and better all year.”
Sushko turns 20 years old on Thursday. He played in a professional league in Belarus last winter and was captain of his country’s team at the World Junior Championships.
He said his reason for coming to the United States Hockey League was to improve his game. The transition from the bigger rinks of Europe to the smaller ones of North America has taken some time, as you’d expect.
It’s much different hockey, but he’s getting there. The RoughRiders begin the post-holiday portion of their schedule Wednesday night at home against Chicago.
“This season has been a new challenge for me, a new experience,” said Sushko, in ever-improving English he says has come about with the help of his billet family. “In Belarus, in Europe, we play on big ice. You have more time to think, more time to do something. Here it is a smaller rink, the game is faster, you are thinking more quickly. It’s more of a toughness game. You always need to keep your head up, because some guys can hit you. You need to pay attention all the time.”
Sushko said it was especially difficult for him early in the season because he wasn’t getting a ton of ice time. Carlson kept emphasizing to him that he had to play a more physical game to get more minutes.
Those additional minutes have come of late. Three of his four points (all assists) have been in his last 10 games, and he has a solid plus-minus rating of plus-three during that span.
“I think he’s doing some more things offensively that are going to stand out,” Carlson said. “He plays a good, steady game, has got some toughness to him.”
Sushko’s younger brother, Maksim, was a fourth-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2017 NHL Draft and plays major junior hockey in Owen Sound, Ontario. Maksim Sushko is a winger.
The two talk every day, and Ilya was particularly eager to chat with his bro Tuesday in order to discuss Belarus’ first game at the 2018 World Junior Championships. Maksim Sushko is his team’s captain.
Leadership runs in the family.
“When we got into hockey, I just remember our coach told me ‘You will play defense,’ and he told my brother he would play forward. I don’t know why,” Ilya said. “In childhood, we always played on (same) team. I don’t know why, but we’d always fight. We’d fight all day.
“But my brother is part of me. My parents told me all the time your brother is one of the (most) important people in your life. You need to trust him. I love him very much.”