In fewer than two years, the Wild's Kirill Kaprizov soared to superstar status.
He went from a prized, albeit unproven, prospect to the best rookie in the game, then became one of the top scorers in the NHL. His franchise-record 47 goals, 61 assists and 108 points potentially were just the appetizer to a meatier breakout this season when the puck drops Thursday against the New York Rangers at Xcel Energy Center.
Kaprizov's English is on a similar ascent.
"You know he's not American," Wild winger Jordan Greenway said, "but he does pretty well."
Despite arriving with a limited repertoire, Kaprizov has expanded his vocabulary without any formal instruction — so much that the winger now feels he knows enough English to get by in his day-to-day life.
His play might still do most of the talking, but Kaprizov can pipe up, too.
"It's not too hard," he said.
Before making his Wild debut in 2021, Kaprizov had learned some English at school in Russia and showed up to Minnesota knowing a few phrases such as, "Hey, how are you?" and "Thank you" and "You're welcome."
"Easy words," said Kaprizov, who continued to play in Russia for five years after the Wild drafted him in the fifth round in 2015 before appearing in the NHL.
Kaprizov asked other Russian players for advice on how to progress, and they told him they enlisted a teacher to help them study English a couple of times a week.
But Kaprizov didn't acquire a tutor or even use a language learning app on his cellphone.
“We were talking about what he had for breakfast yesterday and he messed up the word croissant. But that's challenging for some people speaking English”
He knew he was joining a roster with no Russian speakers, and because he'd be spending so much time with his teammates because of COVID-19 restrictions, he figured he'd pick up the lingo in the locker room.
That became his classroom.
"He's eager to learn and speak," linemate Mats Zuccarello said.
During Kaprizov's first season, Wild players repeated themselves three, four times when talking to him.
They also tried to simplify their words.
"If you say something, he's like, 'Oh, what does that mean?'" captain Jared Spurgeon said. "With him, he tries. He's not shy about asking for help or what something means. I think that's a credit to him. Even his first week here, I offered to pick him up. We were going out for dinner. He's like, 'No, I'll figure it out.'
"[He's] very mature obviously."
Kaprizov noticed everyone would say, "What's up?" or "How are you?" and not wait around for the answer. He couldn't understand why.
"Where I'm from if ask, 'Hey, how are you?' you start talking how you're doing," he explained. "Here, 'How are you?' and you go. It's new for me."
Strides on and off ice
On the ice, Kaprizov was much more fluent, comprehending what he described as 75% of the hockey jargon he heard.
"Sometimes Deano or coach talk too fast," he said with a laugh, referring to bench boss Dean Evason.
In Year 2 when he became the Wild's first 100-point producer and finished fifth overall in league scoring, Kaprizov's English improved. But when words didn't sink in, he asked new teammate Dmitry Kulikov for assistance.
"Kuli help me all the time translate words," Kaprizov said, "or when we go in restaurant or outside on the road, we all the time together."
Kulikov was traded by the Wild to Anaheim in the summer, so Kaprizov is back to being the only Russian on the team, but he's made strides despite not practicing English during the offseason.
He watches sports on TV and goes to the movies, recently seeing "Avatar." The 25-year-old also has no issues dining out, but used to have trouble every once in a while grasping what the server at a restaurant asked him — sometimes placing an order without knowing what he was getting.
Fortunately for Kaprizov, the food was still tasty even when it was a surprise.
"Yeah, not bad," he said. "I like restaurants in Minny."
Occasionally, Kaprizov will rely on Google Translate, like when he's reading a block of text from the internet on his cellphone.
He'll also listen to music in English and pause a song so he can look up what the lyrics mean; the speed of music and everyday dialogue can trip him up. Slow articulation and proper punctuation help him understand.
"Sometimes people talk, 'Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah,'" Kaprizov said. "Too fast, and it's hard for me."
Communicating can still be tough, but he feels more comfortable since he's added more entries to his lexicon.
Even so, Kaprizov can't relay everything he wants to say in English.
"Sometimes I want to say in locker room, ask a question of guys, and I can't because I don't know a couple words," Kaprizov said. "I know just regular words."
And around his teammates, the chatter doesn't stick to hockey.
"We were talking about what he had for breakfast yesterday," defenseman Matt Dumba said, "and he messed up the word croissant. But that's challenging for some people speaking English."
Kaprizov asks winger Marcus Foligno how his family is doing, remembering Foligno's daughters' names.
"Honestly, there's no real conversation where you're like, 'OK, just forget about it and move on. You don't understand me,'" Foligno said. "He understands everything in English now."
An impressive leap
After two seasons of talking almost exclusively to the media through interpreter Ilya Kravtchouk, Kaprizov has started conducting interviews mostly in English, including this one.
He still has Kravtchouk available to help, but Kaprizov can decipher the questions and usually answer for himself.
"The English he has now is amazing," Kravtchouk said. "He doesn't really need me. There might be a few things he wants to say that are pretty complex and very articulate, which maybe he'll use me. But other than that, he's come a long, long ways."
To be clear, what Kaprizov is doing — essentially adopting a new language on the fly — isn't conventional.
"He is the exception," Kravtchouk said.
Language or hockey, that seems to be typical of Kaprizov.
"I couldn't do it," Dumba said. "I try to chime in with the Swedes every now and then and kind of pick up things, but it's not even close to a level like that. I can't imagine having been thrown right into it.
"It's impressive what he does."