Far from home, Artemi Panarin finds family in Chicago
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DENVER — Decked out in white Blackhawks jerseys with their own last names emblazoned on the backs, more than a dozen proud papas watched from a suite in a corner of the Pepsi Center as their sons rallied for a spirited 6-4 victory Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche.
Winger Artemi Panarin’s dad wasn’t among them. Panarin’s parents split when he was very young, and he was raised by his grandparents.
It was his grandfather who woke up at 5 a.m. every day to drive him an hour to hockey practice as a 5-year-old. It was his grandfather who instilled in him the love of the sport. And it was his grandfather who — for financial reasons, for practical reasons, for sporting reasons — sent Panarin an hour away to live and play in a sports-centric foster home/boarding school at the age of 10.
But just because Panarin doesn’t have his father along on the Hawks’ dads trip, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have family.
‘‘It just turned out that way — that I didn’t have a father in my life — because my parents divorced early on,’’ Panarin said through an interpreter. ‘‘I didn’t have a father to take with me, so I took a friend.’’
That friend is also Panarin’s interpreter, 39-year-old Andrew Aksyonov. Aksyonov and his wife, Yulia Mikhaylova, are natives of St. Petersburg, Russia, who now live in Chicago. They were contacted by some friends with Panarin’s Kontinental Hockey League team, SKA St. Petersburg, to help out Panarin last summer until his Russian-speaking, U.S.-born friend Viktor Tikhonov arrived in Chicago.
It was supposed to be for just a couple of weeks. A year and a half later, though, Panarin is godfather to their two children and they’re basically family — kindred spirits who know well the challenges Panarin faced when he arrived in America without a friend in the hemisphere and unable to speak a lick of English.
When Aksyonov arrived in Nebraska as a 17-year-old exchange student from St. Petersburg in 1994, he had a vision of America. Omaha wasn’t it.
‘‘It was not what I expected because my idea of America was skyscrapers and, from watching movies, guys riding Harleys,’’ Aksyonov said with a laugh. ‘‘And Nebraska was different.’’
Everything was different: the language, the culture, the social norms. The simplest tasks were arduous and confounding.
Panarin experienced this, too, when he came to Chicago in the summer of 2015. While Chicago fit the American image, Panarin didn’t speak the language at all. He didn’t know where to shop for groceries. He didn’t know how to get an apartment. He didn’t know where to get a nice pair of shoes fixed.
But he was never fazed.
‘‘I felt pretty comfortable from the start, from the get-go,’’ Panarin said. ‘‘My life turned out in such a way that, from the age of about 10, I was living on my own. So there aren’t any places where I’m not comfortable. I was good from the start.’’
Having Aksyonov and Mikhaylova around eased the transition. They helped Panarin find an apartment. They helped him get a car. They helped him in any way he needed help.
‘‘No matter how great the city is, if you’re there by yourself with no one to go to, just as a human being, it’s lonely,’’ Aksyonov said. ‘‘Nobody likes that. So we tried to be that little bit of comfort that he could have, that little bit of home.’’
A year and a half later, Panarin is more comfortable than ever. He can converse in decent English with his teammates, he can decipher coach Joel Quenneville’s barking on the bench and he knows where to shop, where to eat and how to get around.
He’s still a Russian kid in a strange land, but he’s happy. He’s comfortable. And he’s not alone.
‘‘I’m very happy that it turned out this way,’’ Panarin said.