Sarnia, Ontario, sits right by the U.S. border, across the bridge from Port Huron, Michigan. It's a fitting place for Alex Galchenyuk to play major junior hockey.
He has spent all of his young life crossing borders.
Alex lists his birthplace as Sarnia, Ont., but Russian is his first language.
His father, also named Alexander, was a professional who came up through the Moscow Dynamo system but played for Belarus in the Olympics. Alexander the father bounced around the North American minors (Madison, Milwaukee and K-zoo) for five years, which explains how Alex happened to be born in North America.
The Galchenyuk family has split time between Russia and North America since Alex's father's career wound down in '03. A couple of years ago Alex signed on with a team in the minor-hockey system in Chicago and lit up the league, so much so that he was an easy first-overall pick in the 2010 OHL entry draft. The team that owned his rights just happened to be situated in the city of his birth: Sarnia.
Alex says that, going forward, he'd like to represent the U.S. in international play. He meets the citizenship requirement and is on the roster of the U.S. team playing in the Ivan Hlinka tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia in August.
It's likely that he'll get a chance to play for the U.S. in world junior play down the line. His 31 goals and 52 assists in 68 games with Sarnia last season are impressive totals for a 16-year-old in any major junior league. They're even more impressive given that he and another 16-year-old, Nail Yakupov, were not just the main offensive threats on the Sarnia Sting but a lot of nights the only threats. Galchenyuk put up those numbers against 19- and 20-year-olds.
If it weren't for his line-mate Yakupov, Galchenyuk might be touted as a possible first-overall pick. As it stands, the consensus among scouts is that the 6-foot-1, 185-pound center fits well into the projected top 10, and a few like him in the top five. Said one scout who works the Ontario league: "He has a great skill set but even more hockey sense. He sees the ice and makes plays, nothing selfish about him at all. Maybe his defensive game can get tighter but that might just come as he fills out and gets stronger. He already shows more defensive awareness than most top prospects at 17."
Galchenyuk is one of these programmed-for-success stories. His parents understood and recognized talent and have gone to extreme lengths to support it. In Alex's case that has meant moving to Chicago before his OHL draft year and then to Sarnia last fall. They'll be back in Sarnia again this season. And the Galchenyuks aren't just there to cheer on their son. Alex's father is a hard-driving taskmaster and both Alex and Yakupov, the Galchenyuk's billeting player, are immersed in the game almost 24/7.
"One thing that really impressed me is the work ethic of these two kids," said Trevor Letowski, an assistant coach with the Sting last year. "It's hard to say this about many 16-year-olds but they take almost a professional approach to the game. They work at becoming better players in practice and away from the arena. [Alex's father] pushes them hard but they can go but they're willing to do it."
Though Galchenyuk's English is rough and spotty in places, he is as determined to assimilate into North American culture as he is to play in the National Hockey League. In fact, he sees these goals intertwined. "I know being good in English makes it easier to play with a team ... to understand others on my line," he said over the phone from Moscow where he worked in a hockey school a few weeks back. "You have to travel to play the game. I know this from my father's [career]. I like Sarnia. I like Chicago. I like Moscow. Where I play next, I'll like that too."
It's hard to attach a label of nationality on Galchenyuk at all, certainly when it comes to his game. He looks like he has played on the smaller sheet all his life. And it looks like he'll be playing on it for the foreseeable future.
"I think he's sending a message by playing on that U.S. team going to the Ivan Hlinka," one OHL scout says. "The great fear with Russian players is that they're going to be tied up by their KHL teams or they're going to go back to Russia if they don't like a situation. What Galchenyuk is doing is saying that he's an American player and that's it. No complications."
If Galchenyuk isn't exactly an American player he comes right up to the border.