When Rapid City Rush left wing Pavel Jenys moved from the Czech Republic to Canada three years ago, he was moving into a whole new world.
It was a world with different sights, sounds and customs. Most importantly, it was a place where most people didn't know a word of Czech, the only language he knew.
"My first five months when I was gone from my home and family, it was hard, but my dream was to play here and I just had to learn (English)," he said. "The hardest thing was just the language because if you can speak, you’re good. You find friends better than if you don’t speak. I would just be sitting around listening to what other people were saying and I couldn’t say anything, so it was tough."
After three years of practice in the Ontario Hockey League, Jenys came to Rapid City this season fluent in English; he sounds like he grew up speaking the language.
The language struggle, however, isn't limited to him. Many players come from all over the world to play professional hockey in the United States, and the Rush also have two players from north of the border on the roster this year that have had to learn a new language to fit in with teammates and learn systems.
Defenseman Dylan Labbe and goalie Storm Phaneuf are both from Quebec, the Canadian providence where mostly French is spoken.
"Sometimes it’s hard to explain yourself," Labbe said, who has been speaking English for six years. "Learning it was pretty hard. Even this year I’m still learning, but I’m just going to get better at speaking."
It helps for Labbe that he has someone who is familiar with his native language with him in Rapid City.
New coach Daniel Tetrault grew up in La Broquerie, Manitoba, where French is the primary language, but English is also spoken.
Tetrault is fluent in both languages, and for players who are trying to be the best hockey players they can be while learning a new language, being able to speak in their native language every once in awhile can be comforting.
"For a guy like Labbe or a Storm Phaneuf, it helps them out," Tetrault said. "If they’re having trouble not only on the ice, but off the ice, they can relate to me, and we can speak in our native tongue, which helps a lot."
The rule in the locker room, however, according to Tetrault, is clear, and it's why players have to learn English in order to fit in with the team.
"If there’s guys around, there’s an unwritten rule that in the dressing room that it’s English, unless it’s a one-on-one basis," he said. "Sometimes you have four or five French guys and they’d speak French among themselves out loud, and a lot of English speaking guys took offense to it because they thought they were talking crap about them. That’s why there’s an unwritten rule, you want to keep it English."
Being bilingual helped during Tetrault's playing days as well, when he was able to help some of the French-Canadian players operate in a world where they didn't speak the language.
"If they had trouble speaking English or understanding, I made them feel more comfortable, and if there was a language barrier between the coach and the player, I would help out," he said. "I made a lot of friends over the years that were from Quebec. A lot of players from Quebec don’t know that there’s French outside of Quebec. It’s a little history for them and they love the fact that they can speak French to me."
Phaneuf counts himself as one of the lucky ones. Growing up just outside of Ottawa, he had to learn English in fifth grade, so he doesn't see it as a challenge anymore.
Instead, he has tried to help his teammates along the way who don't speak both languages.
"I’m lucky that I’m good at it, my mom speaks it so I’ve helped a couple of teammates," he said. "It’s hard, you can’t communicate with other people if you don’t know the language. It’s a hard thing to do, you need to speak it a little bit."
Still, when he is with Tetrault or Labbe, he admitted that it's nice to go back to his roots and speak the language he grew up speaking.
"When it’s just me and (Tetrault), we speak French, and it’s fun to speak your language," he said. "Anybody who can speak your own language is fun, you don’t have to think about the words you’re going to say and you can go with the flow easier."
Then there is the case of Jenys, who came to Canada not knowing French or English, but through conversations with his teammates was able to learn the language.
"I think I learned it because I listen and try to figure out what they’re saying, and if I didn’t know a word, I would ask them what that means," he said. "It was tough, but if you want to play you have to be able to speak."
Knowing English isn't only important for playing, it's also an important part of social life. Jenys is an ocean away from his family, and he said that coming to North America he knew he would have to learn the language to build a new family.
"I always try to be a nice guy to everybody because you never know when you’re going to need them," he said. "It’s a part of my life, it’s basically my family here. You have to talk with them, and I’m happy I finally learned this language and I can actually say whatever I feel and whatever I want after being here for four years."