The Anchorage Wolverines are coming off their most explosive offensive outing of the 2023-24 season so far. Their 8-6 victory over the Janesville Jets this past Saturday at Ben Boeke marked their highest-scoring game since February, when they defeated the Jets on their home rink last season.
“Games like that, I don’t know if you ever anticipate that happening, but it was just one of those nights where the puck happened to go in for us,” Wolverines first-year head coach Nick Walters said. “We were doing all the right things: Guys were shooting the puck, guys were going to the net, and we were making plays.”
Anchorage’s two leading scorers so far this season are a pair of international players, Fyodor Nikolayenya and Taisetsu Ushio, who were integral in the thrilling triumph that helped the team split the weekend series after dropping Friday’s game 4-1.
“It’s awesome,” Walters said. “Each team is allowed four import spots plus two Canadian spots, but we have our four import spots fulfilled. We’ve got kids from Belarus and Japan as our leading scorers, one of our goalies is from Slovakia, and we have another forward from Finland. It’s pretty cool to see them come over here and have success.”
Ushio, a 17-year-old forward who was born and raised in Hokkaido, Japan, is playing his first year of junior hockey. He tied for the team lead in scoring on Saturday with a pair of goals and is the second-leading scorer on the season, with seven goals and 11 points in 11 games. He’s made an instant connection with Nikolayenya.
“(Fyodor) is a good player, and I love him,” Ushio said. “It’s been fun playing with him.”
Nikolayenya, 19, was born and raised in Minsk, Belarus. The forward scored the lone goal in Friday’s loss and logged an assist on three of the eight goals that were scored on Saturday, including Ushio’s second tally. In his second season with the Wolverines, he leads the team in scoring with eight goals and 15 points in 11 games.
“It’s been a good start for me, but you can’t think about it that much,” Nikolayenya said. “You got to keep working hard and do everything to help the team.”
He was a key contributor on last year’s team and believes the experience and confidence he’s gained have helped propel him to a hot start to begin this season.
“Last year we had a lot of old guys, so I learned a lot from them, and now I’m just going to pass my experience on to the young guys to help them improve their game,” Nikolayenya said.
Finding high-quality international talent boils down to networking and “who you know,” according to Walters.
“Fyodor came to us because he played for an old boss of mine that had him in a different league,” he said. “I was like, ‘Hey should we pick this player up?’ and he was like, ‘No-brainer,’ so we added him last year.”
Finnish forward Oliver Salo was discovered because Wolverines General Manager Keith Morris knew his adviser, and the team acquired Ushio via a trade.
“It is a lot of who you know, and you,” Walters said. “You make those connections, and you’re always constantly trying to find new players for the following years.”
Living out lifelong dreams
Nikolayenya first picked up the sport when he was 7 years old, and now he’s going on his 13th year. The dream of playing hockey at the collegiate level is what brought him to the United States and, eventually, the Wolverines.
“I’ve always wanted to play college hockey, and now I’m here,” he said.
Prior to playing in the NAHL, he began his amateur playing career in the USHL, the top-tier junior hockey league in the country, as a member of the Des Moines Buccaneers in Iowa, but he was cut after the 2021 season. Earlier this year, Nikolayenya announced he had committed to play Division I college hockey at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Ushio first started playing hockey when he was 3 years old because his older brother played the sport, even though the hockey scene in Japan wasn’t very big at the time.
“I got used to it when I was a kid,” Ushio said. “It’s fun to play hockey, and there are some good high school hockey teams there too.”
He lived in Japan until he was 12 years old when he decided to move to Canada to further pursue his hockey dreams.
From there he went on to train and play in the Little Caesars Farmington Hills Hockey Association, which is a youth amateur league in Farmington, Michigan. His family remains in Japan, and he visits during the summer and for Christmas.
Overcoming language barriers
There were English language classes offered where Ushio grew up, but he didn’t begin to learn and fluently speak it until he came to North America.
Nikolayenya didn’t know any English when he first arrived in the U.S. It took a year and a half for him to get the hang of it, but his skills have come a long way in a short amount of time.
Walters hasn’t had much difficulty clearly communicating with his international players, new to American culture and the English language, largely because of all the time they spent learning on their own.
“All of our international guys speak very good English, but guys are different learners, too,” he said. “Something that my staff and I do is a lot of video. We’re showing them on video or drawing it on a board.”
He also sends players the practice plan the night before so that they have a visual reference to work off of.
“There’s a lot of different ways that we communicate with players to get our message across and make sure they are developing and learning the game the way we want to play,” Walters said.
Making the most of an experience of a lifetime
Prior to joining the team, Ushio had never been to Alaska before, and his first thought was, “It’s going to be cold and snowy.” But since arriving, he has loved his experience.
“I like the weather, and the mountains are pretty sick views,” he said. “I’m a big fan of fishing, and I’ve also gone hiking.”
Nikolayenya has thoroughly enjoyed the experience that comes with living and playing in the 49th state.
“It’s been great with the mountains and nature,” he said. “I love fishing and went a lot of times this past summer with my host family. Everything is kind of different, but I like it.”
Nikolayenya also enjoys watching movies in his spare time and goes to the movie theater every Tuesday.
As a born-and-raised Alaskan, Walters takes it upon himself to ensure that his players from overseas or even just other U.S. states get to take part in some of the unique experiences Alaska has to offer while bringing the team closer together.
“At the beginning of the year, we did a team camping trip as a team-building activity,” he said. “We also brought them on base to work with a military group as a team bonding and leadership training.”
A lot of host families take it upon themselves to act as ambassadors for Alaska and will take the players they house on adventures and excursions as well.
Walters believes the state can act as a natural recruiting tool.
“There’s nothing else like it,” he said. “For these kids to be able to play here for a year, I don’t know if another experience is going to replicate that. They’ll always remember that for the rest of their lives.”
The Wolverines host the Wisconsin Windogo in a three-game series this weekend at Ben Boeke Arena. The puck drops at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 4 p.m. Sunday.