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From Russia with fun lovin' Avalanche's Salei gets American initiation in Sin City // Denver Post
His accent can be summed up as 'Bela-Rooklyn.' With his speech and demeanor, Ruslan Salei is part Tony Soprano, part Yakov Smirnoff.
'How you doin'?' Salei says to a visitor in slow, thick Eastern European accent, his head tilted back in a 'You talkin' to me?' comic swagger.
The man universally known throughout the NHL as 'Rusty' is a tough, hard-hitting, mean player on the ice, but one of the league's funnier characters off the ice. It's not that Salei is Henny Youngman joke-a-minute funny. It's more his eye-rolling, sarcastic manner that cracks a smile on anybody discussing the 34-year-old Avalanche defenseman.
'Rusty is a character,' says former Anaheim Ducks teammate Teemu Selanne, who is one of the NHL's quirkier players. 'He keeps the dressing room very loose. He's one of my favorite teammates ever.'
Salei has been there, done that, seen that persona today, but 14 years ago he was a wide-eyed kid who never had been to America, or rarely ventured from his home in Minsk, Belarus, a former Soviet city of rolling hills and bountiful waters.
Salei at first wanted to be a soccer player but developed a passion for hockey at about age 7. Life in his family's three-bedroom apartment was cramped, especially when Salei's older brother and sister at one point all moved their families in as well.
In 1995, Bob Strumm, general manager of the Las Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League, had heard good things from his scouts about Salei, by then a young, hard-hitting, puck- moving defenseman. He signed Salei sight unseen.
Viva Las Vegas!
'The first thing that hit me was how hot it was,' Salei says. 'It was after midnight when the plane landed, and when the doors opened from the airport to the parking lot, I thought I was in a sauna.'
Salei did not speak English when he arrived. He soon learned such words as buffet, poker and Wayne Newton.
'They put me in a hotel right next to Bally's, but I don't think it's there anymore. It was called Maximus or something,' Salei says. 'I remember one of the first nights (Thunder coach) Chris McSorley invited us over to his place for a barbecue. He made a really good steak, but it was so spicy I could not eat it without drinking beer.
'For me, it was a culture shock that you can actually sit down at the same table with the coach and drink beer. Me coming from Russia, it was unheard of. I remember asking (fellow Belarus Thunder import Vladimir Tsyplakov) 'Sippy, is it OK for us to drink beer with the coach?''
Salei was a single guy with money in his pocket, living in Las Vegas as his first American home. Salei admits he had some 'wild times' in his first year.
'I wasn't really gambling that much, but there were a lot of other distractions there,' he says. 'When you're a young kid, you want to see everything. You've still got so much energy, and you can kind of do both. You have fun, you play hockey. Everything was so big and bright there, and I couldn't believe those buffets, and how cheap everything was.'
Also on that 1995-96 Thunder team was goalie Curtis Joseph, currently with Toronto.
'I remember that he didn't speak very good English at the time,' Joseph says. 'Ten years later I saw him and he said, 'Hey Cujo, how's it going?' I thought, 'Wow, he's really picked up the language.''
Says Salei: 'The first words you learn are the bad words. So, I probably said those too much in the beginning.'
Salei was impressive enough playing with the Thunder that the Mighty Ducks drafted him ninth in the 1996 draft. He went on to play nine seasons there. In Anaheim, he met the woman who would become his wife, Bethann, and together they have two young daughters - Alexis and Aleksandro.
'When I got married and, especially now that I have kids, the party guy went away,' Salei says. 'I'm pretty boring now, but it's great. Having kids is the greatest, and I'm very happy.
'I was just a kid from Russia, but I got to come to America and live the American dream.'
As Yakov Smirnoff might say, 'What a country.'