For a young athlete on the cusp of starting a professional career, being picked No. 1 overall in an entry draft is about as good as it gets. Unless you’re Chicago Wolves forward Dmitrij Jaskin, in which case being one league’s first selection wasn’t nearly as thrilling as being another’s 41st.
“I was drafted with first pick in the Kontinental Hockey League’s 2010 draft (by Siber Novosibirsk) and I didn’t even know,” Jaskin said. “I was at school studying and my father just called me and said I was drafted first overall and I was just like, ‘all right.’ I knew something of the National Hockey League draft when I went the first time (in 2011). I got to Minneapolis the day before the draft, after like 24 hours of traveling, and it was fun and crazy. I hoped I would go in the first round but then I slipped to the second round when the St. Louis Blues took me, but I didn’t care. It was great. I was happy.”
The 20-year-old Omsk, Russia native has been humming along contently since. An accomplished tennis player in Europe, Jaskin chose to pursue hockey when it became too difficult to do both at a high level. Following his selection by the Blues, Jaskin returned to the Czech Republic for another year of minor hockey with Slavia Praha HC, registering one goal in 30 contests. When that season ended, Jaskin had a choice: leave the country he and his family had lived in since he was eight months old or join the Quebec Major Junior League’s Moncton Wildcats in Moncton, New Brunswick. It wasn’t easy, but Jaskin wanted to do what was best for his career like his father, Alexej, had done before him.
“My father got some opportunities to play hockey in the Czech Republic so our whole family moved from Russia to support that,” Jaskin said. “I lived all my life in Czech and I spent all my time at the hockey rink. I loved it right away. I was probably 2 or 3 when I started playing. I would spend all day at the rink and watch every game. I went to Canada because I figured it was still a pro league and they have a lot of players there, plus I would get to play more. I wouldn’t just be on the ice six minutes a night. The Blues wanted me closer, too, so they didn’t have to fly to Czech all the time. Bottom line, I needed to be on the ice more.”
Jaskin got his wish with the Wildcats, exploding for 46 goals and 99 assists in 51 regular season games. Still, despite the game being the same, the Great White North was a major departure for him culturally. When he arrived, Jaskin was fluent in Russian and Czech but didn’t know much English beyond the basics.
“I got to Canada, and I was alone,” he said. “Another Russian guy didn’t come for like two weeks. I had to learn as much as I could. I went to school and tried to speak to guys. The others helped me a lot, and the family I lived with helped me a lot. They said we had to go to school so we just went and tried to learn to speak English well. Canada is also a young country. There’s not a lot of history. I was used to a lot of history, coming from Prague and Russia. Everything was so new. The people were really nice and it gave me a chance to just concentrate on hockey and nothing else. There was nothing else to do. I just played hockey and enjoyed life.”
With no distractions, Jaskin was free to make the most of his only junior season in North America before St. Louis began getting him acclimated in its system full time. Some things, like playing on a smaller ice surface than he was used to, didn’t faze him. Other challenges gave the year a “sink or swim” feel.
“It was a little bit tough for me at first to adjust to how they did things in the QMJHL,” Jaskin said. “It was kind of hard playing hockey and going to school and traveling around this big city. The people there helped me and I was happy to have the opportunity. The people and coaches showed me how much harder I had to work if I wanted to get playing time in juniors. It was a big turning point for me.”
So big in fact, it gave St. Louis the confidence to call up the then-19 year old to their American Hockey League affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, after the Wildcats were bounced from the first round of their playoffs. Jaskin never made it to Peoria, though. Instead he got on a plane to Nashville.
“I remember waiting in Moncton and it being really hard because we had just lost and everyone was really sad and I was ready to go home,” he said. “But my agent told me to wait because I was going to sign a contract (with St. Louis) and so I waited for like nine days while they sorted things out with the player visa. I had told (my agent) to buy me a ticket home because I was ready for a vacation and I hadn’t been skating at all but I was finally flown to Nashville where the Blues were playing and joined the team. It was a hard couple of days. They just started trying to get me in shape right away.”
Unlike many teenage prospects, Jaskin was thrown directly into the fire with St. Louis, suiting up in two of their final regular-season games. Playing seven or eight minutes in each at the game’s highest level was an exhilarating experience.
“I was so nervous in those first games,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure. You don’t want to make a mistake. I love the crowd, I love all the people around, but you’re on the ice and you can’t make a mistake. That’s the pressure. It was all right. I felt pretty good in the second game at Colorado. We had some good chances. It was a good time and a good experience being with the guys for a month.”
When the Blues were jettisoned from the playoffs by the L.A. Kings and the offseason program began, Jaskin began to see how the system worked with NHL clubs and knew he wanted more opportunities to be a contributor.
“I spent almost all of last summer in St. Louis,” he said. “I was there for a long time. I was getting ready. Then, about 50 new players were around. It was all about practice and we had to stay on it and show the coaches why you should be in the lineup. I tried my best to do that.”
“What makes Dmitrij such a good prospect is he combines being a skill player who can produce points on offense with being responsible on defense,” said Kevin McDonald, assistant general manager of the Blues. “He makes a great second effort and you can count on him not to let his defensive game fall down while he’s out there on a shift. He had a solid showing in the NHL when he was here. Going from junior hockey to the NHL, the thing he understood is that a lot of his success comes through effort and hard work, which shows up in his ability to create turnovers and things like that. He has done that at every level, including his brief time in the NHL.”
Jaskin has had to stare down his share of critics along the way. Knocked for his lack of success when going up against bigger, older players, Jaskin takes the criticism in stride and with a good deal of pragmatism.
“When people say that about me, it’s probably because the guys who are playing in the NHL used to play at the American Hockey League level, and it’s harder to get on that NHL level to play against them when you haven’t been there much before,” he said. “It’s probably true what they say because I’ve never played against these guys, so it’s going to take some time to adjust. But hopefully I’ll get there. There are different styles of hockey, for sure (between North America and Europe). It’s more offensive and there are more shots taken here. It’s different, but it’s still just everyone out there on the ice. You just have to play.”
Two years ago, Jaskin faced every player’s nightmare when he was terrifyingly – but as it turned out, briefly – taken away from the game. While playing in Prague, Jaskin went one-on-one with another player and came out on the losing end of a corner battle for a puck.
“That was a bad thing, the injury,” Jaskin said. “I was playing one-on-one with a guy in the corner and he came in there and just killed me. He took both knees out and my left knee was crushed right away. But that was something that just happens sometimes. It’s hockey. I learned a lot from that too, because you see it happen to others but until it’s you, you don’t know what it’s like. I just had to start again from the bottom. I had surgery and took like a month to (recover) and then I was back practicing and playing again. When a very bad injury happens, you just have to recover and start again.”
Coming to Chicago has been a new beginning for Jaskin as well, as he adjusts to higher expectations and the typical growing pains of a player transitioning to a new league.
“He’s probably the most talented guy on our team overall,” Wolves head coach John Anderson said. “He hasn’t found everything yet though. His fault is that he likes to hold onto the puck for too long. But he also makes a lot of good plays on his own, so I give him a little bit of that leeway. Because of how he plays he sometimes has to stay on the ice for too long, but he’s in great shape so he can stay out there longer. I think once he gets his shooting where it needs to be, he’s really going to grow as a player.”
As he works on that, he’s also getting used to the biggest city he’s ever lived in. If Moncton (population: 64,000) was intimidating for him at first, Chicago was a major departure. But despite the change of scenery, Jaskin has carried on as before, taking solace in multiple phone calls home a week and his live-in girlfriend, who came from the Czech Republic to keep him company.
“I just try to make the most of what time I’m not at practice,” he said. “I watch movies. Sometimes I go shopping. I’ve been down to Chicago a couple times. We went to the Willis Tower and that was cool. I like Twitter. It’s like a newspaper on your phone. You can read about whatever you want and sometimes people write something funny or nice. I spend a lot of time on the phone with my best friends and family back home. I’m getting used to being away from them.”
While he doesn’t get much downtime while in season, Jaskin is grateful for the chances he’s been given and lights up talking about what’s on the horizon. As he notes, life has moved quickly so far, but Jaskin knows where it (hopefully) all ends.
“I have the same goal as everyone in here, I think,” he said. “I want to get up to the show and just try to work here in Chicago as much as I can and show (the Blues) I’m that guy who is supposed to go up there. The NHL has a big history and I want to play there and stay there as much as I can.”
“Our hope is that Dmitrij is an NHL player for a long, long time,” McDonald said. “He’s cutting his teeth now and the experience in Chicago is invaluable because everyone knows how tough the AHL is and how difficult that jump from juniors can be. He’s playing in a lot of different situations now, and that’s the best thing for him. That’s what will help a player be in the NHL for years to come down the line.”