During the 2013-14 season, Canadian Hockey League rosters included 30 Russian-born players, and seven different teams filled both of their import spots with Russians.
Only two of those teams reside in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and only one – the Moncton Wildcats – have both players attending Canada’s National Junior Team Sport Chek Summer Development Camp with the rest of Russia’s World Juniors hopefuls.
Ivan Barbashev is no stranger to QMJHL fans, having spent the past two seasons in the white, red and yellow of the Wildcats, while Vladimir Tkachev is a relative newcomer to the ‘Q’, having joined Moncton last January.
Both have crossed the Atlantic with one goal in mind.
“I came here to make it to the NHL,” Barbashev says. “I was thinking about it for the last three years when I was playing in Russia. I decided to come to Canada because [the CHL] suits my style of play better.”
The two years in New Brunswick obviously paid dividends for the play-making forward; projected as a possible first-round selection in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Barbashev was chosen early in the second round, 33rd overall by the St. Louis Blues.
Tkachev, on the other hand, hasn’t been as lucky. The 39th pick by Moncton in the 2013 CHL Import Draft, he was bypassed in this year’s draft, although his 30 points in 20 games after joining the Wildcats certainly turned some heads, and Tkachev knows he’s got another full season to showcase his skills.
“I came here for a better shot at making the NHL,” the Omsk native says. “I have [an NHL] tryout coming, but if things don’t work out, I’m going back to Moncton.”
And if both Barbashev and Tkachev find their way back to the Wildcats this season? It won’t just be a positive for the QMJHL side; it’ll be a boost for Russia’s World Juniors hopes as well.
After all, the two are very familiar with each other, having come up together through Russia’s national team program since they were in their early teens before joining forces in Moncton.
“We’ve played together for a good while now; first in the U18s, then last year for four months with the Wildcats and now over here [at summer camp], so for sure it will help us a lot,” Barbashev says. “There’s a good feeling between us, we have an easy time finding each other on the ice.”
And let’s not forget, the North American-sized ice in Toronto and Montreal is the same size as what they’ll compete on in Moncton this season, and that comfort level can only help their World Juniors chances.
The simple mention of the IIHF World Junior Championship leaves both forwards with a gleam in their eyes, and both agree on what Russia’s main objective will be come December, as if there was any question.
“We are going there for the gold medal, without a doubt,” Tkachev says. “We are going to show the world who the better team is.”
“We definitely want the gold medal,” adds Barbashev. “The coaches have a tough job right now because we have so many good players and many are still back home in Russia. I’m confident we will have a great team.”
But let’s backtrack a few years. Just how did the Russian dynamos end up together in Moncton?
A highly-sought after prospect who had already made his North American aspirations clear, Barbashev was the No. 1 pick in the 2012 CHL Import Draft, and responded with 62 points in 68 games in his rookie year.
The Wildcats went back to Russia in the import draft the following year, selecting Tkachev, but getting him to the Maritimes wasn’t quite as easy; it took until early January for his IIHF transfer and Canadian visa to be finalized once he decided to make the move to Moncton.
“We spoke on the phone many times in the three months I waited for my visa,” Tkachev says. “I asked Ivan about the league, the city, the lifestyle. He had nothing but good things to say about Moncton.
“I wanted to play here because it’s a very fast league and I love to play this way. I also wanted to give myself the best chance to make it to the NHL.”
So what’s next for Barbashev and Tkachev? Where will their hockey journey take them next? QMJHL success for Moncton? Russian gold at the World Juniors? A spot in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft for Tkachev? A spot in the NHL for Barbashev in 2015?