Photo Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY SPORTS
When the Detroit Red Wings picked a scrawny CSKA defenseman Alexey Marchenko in the 7th round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, only a handful of people knew what was up. True to their style, the Wings got themselves a real steal.
After being ranked 1st among European defensemen by International Scouting Agency, Marchenko had a rough couple of years. He missed 2010 IIHF U18 World Championship due to spleen removal surgery and then was left off of the 2011 Russian World Juniors team because of a torn ACL.
In just over a year Marchenko went from the top to almost retiring from the game. Nevertheless, he believes the media is being overdramatic about his case.
“Come on, it wasn’t that bad,” says Marchenko. “A lot of players went through the same [spleen] surgery and fully recovered. Peter Forsberg had the same issue, and so did Nikolai Borschevsky. They turned out to be alright. As for my knee injury, it wasn’t pleasant, but that’s something a lot of players had dealt with.”
The Wings certainly took a risk spending a draft pick on Marchenko, but it doesn’t appear to be a bad idea to get a potentially soon-to-be-NHL-ready defenseman in the 7th round. And the risk paid off rather quickly.
“The Wings were the only team who came over to see me play in MHL and KHL,” says Marchenko. “I can’t say that I was certain they would draft me, but I was in talks with them that year.”
After missing 2011/2012 regular season almost entirely, Marchenko had a stellar MHL playoff run, leading Krasnaya Armiya – CSKA’s major junior team – to the Kharlamov Cup finals. Marchenko scored four goals and had 14 assists totaling 18 points in 19 playoff games that season.
A year later he was playing top minutes for CSKA in the KHL, improving his game alongside Pavel Datsyuk, Mikhail Grabovski, Daniil Markov and Alexander Radulov. After racking up big numbers in the juniors, Marchenko shifted to a more conservative role in pro hockey but still scored four goals and nine points in 44 games with CSKA that season.
“I’m still taking just about as many shots as I did back in the juniors, but they don’t get to the net,” he says. “Maybe I should start shooting harder. Seriously, though, a lot of my shots either get blocked or go wide. Also, I always pass if see my teammate – [Brendan] Smith for example – in a better position. I try to play pass first. I agree that I should take more shots, though. I still playing more like the way we play back home.”
Marchenko’s story is not quite like Cinderella’s. It’s much more prosaic, which only makes it better. It’s a fairy tale, but one that required a lot of effort to accomplish.
He didn’t make the jump to the NHL straight from the KHL. Instead he was appointed to the Grand Rapids Griffins for a season where he scored three goals and 20 points in 51 games and was selected to play for Team AHL at the All-Star Weekend. That year Team AHL faced Swedish Hockey League club Färjestad.
“It was fun,” reminiscences Marchenko. “The downside was that the game was in St. John’s, so it was a pretty long trip for us, and we had to make a bunch of connection flights. But it was very interesting, partially because we faced a Swedish team.”
“You get used to a certain brand of hockey over here – the puck is always going north, quick transition, that sort of thing. The Swedes, however, would skate into the neutral zone, then turn back and start looking for other passing lanes to get back into the neutral zone. It just felt a bit unusual. You would get the puck at center ice and expect to face some pressure and there wouldn’t be any because they’re all back in their defensive end. After spending half a year in North America, you tend to forget about this brand of hockey.”
Nevertheless, it didn’t take Team AHL long to get used to that, and they won the game 7-2.
“They tried to play the passing game and we played differently,” explains Marchenko. “We’d get the puck, get into the zone, put a few quick passes together and take a shot. Our forwards capitalized on almost every scoring chance we created that night. I felt for the Swedes, I know what it’s like – while you’re thinking about making a pass, you get run over by Canadians. Except now I was playing with the Canadians. It almost felt like a video game – bam! – and I traded myself to another team.”
Having moved to North America, Marchenko had a lot to take in – learning another language, adjusting to another brand of hockey and lifestyle. On top of that, he had to go through a rookie dinner event – something that doesn’t exist in Russia.
“We played paintball but the catch was that rookies didn’t get any rifles,” chuckles Marchenko. “We were just running around while other guys were shooting at us. There were six of us. Two wore giant chicken costumes – they had a big wing on the back. So when you’re being shot at, you just turn your back and get hit in this big carbon wing. It doesn’t hurt unless you’re shot in the leg.”
“There were also 2 Green Men costumes – the ones you must have seen in Vancouver. There’s no protection on those costumes – you put them on your naked body. Two other guys were tied together with a duct tape and had to run through the course like that. We took a draw and I got lucky – I pulled the chicken costume. So at least I had the wing to protect myself when shots were coming from every direction.”
“Calle Järnkrok wasn’t so lucky. He left the course with a lot of bruises. At the end of the course there was a small doorframe that led to the outside and the six of us got to it at the same time. We got stuck trying to get out and Järnkrok was the last man back, so he took most of the shots.”
The next season Marchenko played 13 regular season games with the Wings and scored his very 1st NHL goal. You’d think, playing in the show would make one change his approach to a variety of subjects, but Marchenko’s views on the league didn’t alter much. Unsurprisingly, his favorite player remained the same.
“It’s Pavel Datsyuk,” he says. “I played with him on CSKA but… How should I put it… I mean, you can tell he’s a great player even by just watching him on TV. But when you watch him play from the bench and when you’re on the ice with him – you begin to see those little things that he does.”
“Sometimes he’d lift opponent’s stick up, sometimes he’d read a play long before it even started, sometimes he’d shield the puck really well, sometimes he’d make a really smart pass… He’s an elite player. Hands down. You just see these little details only when you play with him.”
“I know that everybody says it and it does look amazing indeed. But on top of it all Datsyuk is a very effective kind of player. It’s so much fun watching him play. When you see the way he plays, the way he works hard at practice everyday… it makes you think that you need to do better and improve your game as well. I’m really lucky to face Datsyuk only at practices.”
Marchenko is now in his third partial and first full season with the Red Wings, in which he’s averaged a shade under 17 minutes a night. In 54 games he scored a goal and picked up eight assists for nine points. He’s stayed disciplined as well, taking only eight penalty minutes.
No matter what life has thrown Marchenko’s way, he always found a way to make things work for him and five years after his draft year he’s exactly where his talent suggested he would be – logging significant minutes in the National Hockey League.
“Everybody gets injured,” says Marchenko. “Perhaps, my share was bigger than most guys. You just have to get through it and get on with your life. You have to move forward and improve every day. I think, the more you work, the better your reward is going to be in the end. If you work hard, people notice that and give you a shot. And it’s up to you to make the most out of it.”
“Until you come over, you’ll never understand what hockey is like over here. And as a result, you’ll never be ready for it. If you get drafted by an NHL team, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to come over or not. Personally, I can’t say I was afraid. If anything, I was curious. I was curious about the way things are over here, get this experience and improve as a player. Since hockey is a different over here, you get more versatile as a player – you learn how to play under pressure, learn to be physical, how to absorb a hit and how to make one, you learn how to think quick on smaller ice. It’s a great experience. As for the fear… There’s a great Russian saying – don’t miss out on walk through a forest just because there are wolves.”