LEWISTON – Every weekday Stan Dzakhov came to the rink, put on his practice jersey and got to work on the ice with his Niagara teammates.
Every weekend he stood along the glass in a suit and tie, an eligibility scratch from the Purple Eagles lineup.
Ten games. That’s how long he had to wait to start his collegiate hockey career.
The NCAA validates academic and amateur status for all student-athletes and the process had a snag for Dzakhov. The governing body ruled that he had to sit out 30 percent of Niagara’s games his freshman season to reinstate his amateur status after questions about his dealings with an adviser during his junior hockey days.
On the one hand it was frustrating. Dzakhov put in the work Monday through Thursday and yet couldn’t play on Friday or Saturday night. He had to watch his teammates suffer through a nine-game losing streak to start the season.
On the other hand, it was just 10 games. On the journey that brought Dzakhov to Monteagle Ridge, 10 games was another annoying but manageable detour.
“Oh, I wanted every game. It’s really hard to not,” Dzakhov said. “You know that maybe you could help them go out there and help but you can’t do anything about it.”
It was the latest life lesson hockey taught Dzakhov. He’s received plenty of them since making the decision at 17 to leave his family in Moscow for a chance to play hockey in North America.
In 2010 Dzakhov packed his bags and headed to Shelburne, Ont., a town of 7,200 located about 65 miles northwest of Toronto. The team, the Shelburne Red Wings, was part of the Greater Metro Hockey League.
Dzakhov didn’t know much about the town. Or the team. Or the league. All he knew at 17 was that he wanted to play hockey in Canada.
“It was kind of random, honestly,” Dzakhov said. “I never had an adviser or agent so I didn’t know much about that league. It was just go play hockey in Canada pretty much. It was maybe silly stuff, but I did it anyway. Which I don’t regret. It was fun year. It was just random, go out there, try myself out there.
“Canada is like, well, let’s face it, it’s like best hockey country in the world. I’m Russian, I shouldn’t say that,” he said with a laugh, “but you know results show it.”
Dzakhov landed in a controversial situation. Most of junior hockey in both Canada and the United States has import rules. Teams are only allowed so many international players. The Greater Metro League operates outside the boundaries of Hockey Canada to allow for more European players. A lot more. And some people aren’t fond of that.
There were tensions in the town that year as the Shelburne team featured a roster filled with Russian players and just three Canadian boys.
“We didn’t pay attention to that stuff. We just stayed away from it, just play hockey, just have fun, but I heard that too,” Dzakhov said. “It was small town in first place and you hear from high school kids, ‘Why don’t you go home’ and stuff like that. It was different, but we just tried to stay away from that and just focus on hockey.”
A bit of serendipity helped Dzakhov make the transition to North American hockey. His linemates in Shelburne were Denis Zverev and Alex Nikulnikov – two friends he grew up playing with back in Moscow. All three ended up on the same team by different routes, but the shared history helped Dzakhov find a comfort zone both on and off the ice.
His offensive game flourished as he totaled 140 points, scoring 62 goals in just 41 games.
Off the ice, his Russian friends helped ease the acclimation to North American life.
“My roommate spoke pretty good English because he used to do extra courses when growing up, which I should have done, too, now looking back,” Dzakhov said. “So he actually helped me a lot. ... The best year of learning English for me was when I moved to States because I kinda got away from the older Russian kids and stuff.”
After a year in Shelburne, Dzakhov wanted to find a better league and had a late tryout with the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League.
He made the team but found it difficult to crack the lineup consistently. Over a season and a half he played in 66 games with 20 points.
Just before Christmas in 2012, he was cut by Fargo.
Dzakhov found himself playing for the Bismarck Bobcats of the North American Hockey League. It’s considered a step down in prestige and competition, but Dzakhov discovered it was right where he was supposed to be.
“If you look at the USHL and Fargo playing in the United States Hockey League, it’s the best junior league in the States. North America is kind of a step back,” Dzakhov said. “If you look at it, I went back to not as good level hockey but now I’m just perfect. I got committed to Division I hockey so just main lesson to learn from is not give up. Everything happens for a reason.”
It was his time in Bismarck that put him on the Niagara coaching staff’s radar. Associate head coach Tim Madsen saw in Dzakhov a power forward with hockey smarts, the type of player who fits perfectly with Niagara’s style of play.
“He’s very, very intelligent. And he’s got an NHL shot. And he plays hard. And he’s 6-foot-2. And he can skate,” Madsen said. “There’s not a lot that we didn’t like.”
Through missing the first 10 games Madsen noticed that Dzakhov “had a great attitude throughout the whole thing. ... He did a great job of staying in shape, skating after practice, taking care of his body and the transition has been seamless for him,” Madsen said. “He’s been really good for us.”
Niagara finished the first semester at 3-12-1. The Purple Eagles remain on winter break, returning to action Jan. 2 at Sacred Heart.