When winger Peter Sivak first played for the Alaska Aces in 2013-14, it was the Slovak's second season in North American hockey and he still knew little English.
His center at the time, Anchorage's Nick Mazzolini, early that season said using a whiteboard helped him communicate hockey information to Sivak. As the season progressed, Sivak's English improved and he could hold a conversation — granted, occasionally halting — in his second language.
The language barrier didn't present a problem on the ice. Sivak was voted first-team All-ECHL by league coaches. And there was no communication breakdown about his love of the game. When the Aces won the third ECHL Kelly Cup in franchise history in June 2014, Sivak spent much of the team's bus journey from Cincinnati to Chicago, before a flight to Anchorage, hugging the Cup, the symbol of the first championship in his career.
When Sivak, 33, returned to the Aces in a trade last month, his English was vastly improved, both because of his four-season tenure in the U.S., but also because he harbored an off-ice goal — becoming an American citizen.
Sivak a couple weeks ago left town earlier than his teammates on a road trip so he could fly to the San Francisco area, where he was sworn in as a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Sivak on Wednesday morning proudly whipped out his phone and showed a picture of his U.S. passport card. Sivak's wife of nearly four years, Dr. Alica Rucekova, who works in the San Francisco area, previously became an American citizen.
"First reason, I want to live with my wife (in the U.S.), and, second, I like it here,'' Sivak said. "We want to (eventually) move to Florida and live there. Florida feels like vacation. Also, this is easier for work opportunities.''
Sivak said his teammates congratulated him when he joined them in Atlanta.
"Everybody greeted me — 'Hey, Americano!' ''
Sivak was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up in Slovakia. He spent the first 12 seasons of his professional hockey career playing in the Czech and Slovak leagues before beginning his North American career with the now-defunct San Francisco Bulls of the ECHL, the league in which the Aces play.
Sivak said he studied for six months before taking his citizenship exam, which he said featured 100 questions that included American history. He said he also filled out a 23-page form and was interviewed in person "to demonstrate I can read, speak and write basic English.''
"I need to speak English, so it was good for me,'' Sivak said.
Sivak has greatly helped the Aces resurrect themselves from a miserable start to the season. They were 6-12-3 before he arrived and have gone 9-6-2 since. Sivak has produced 5-15—20 totals in his 17 games with the Aces, and thinks his club, which owns a seven-game point streak (5-0-2) is heading in the right direction.
"Everybody wants to play our game, to the maximum,'' Sivak said. "If everyone on the team is focused on his job, we can win.''
Tim Coffman, Sivak's center, said he told Sivak that he should have retrieved the puck in Atlanta when he scored the first of two goals in a game because the puck represented Sivak's first goal as an American citizen.
Coffman, who is from Pennsylvania, said he and his teammates are excited about Sivak gaining American citizenship. To prove it, they do what hockey players do to show their affection — give Sivak a hard time.
"He was complaining about the shampoo the other day,'' Coffman said. "Now, he's getting real picky, like an American. Prima donna.''
Shuffling the deck
The Aces on Wednesday acquired rookie winger Scott Wamsganz of Anchorage from ECHL-leading Missouri in exchange for future considerations.
The Aces are Wamsganz's third team. He started the season with Orlando before a trade to Missouri. The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder has one goal in 12 combined games, seven with Orlando and five with Missouri.
"He brings size and length,'' said Aces coach Rob Murray. "He's got a very good shot. Watching him in the summer, he can rip it.''
Wamsganz, who is expected to arrive in Anchorage on Thursday night, likely will get a chance to work his way onto the Aces' third line. Wamsganz, 23, played four seasons at Colorado College, earning 8-11—19 totals, all career highs, in 33 games last season. He'll wear No. 17.
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