Heading to play over in Europe was definitely going to be an eye-opener. It was a new opportunity in a foreign land and it was a chance to step outside of my comfort zone and learn about a new culture.
The first obstacle I knew I would have to tackle playing in Belgrade was the communication barrier. I didn’t know one word of the language when I stepped off the plane and figured I would have to rely heavily on non-verbal cues.
Much to my delight, I discovered that nearly everyone I crossed paths with in Serbia spoke at least enough English to get by. Some of my teammates were completely fluent in English. In fact, most people that I came across spoke several languages and I’m not just talking languages of similar dialect and structure. One of my teammates, Beki Jankovic, spoke Serbian, English, French and German fluently among several other languages in which he could carry on a conversation.
The toughest part about communicating in my first year playing for HK Partizan was the fact that our coach, Vadim Musatov, who played 10 years in the Russian Superleague (known now as the Kontinental Hockey League) spoke only Russian. Vadim would explain a drill to us in Russian and then the assistant coach, Bera Nikola, would translate what he said into Serbian.
My roommate, Scott Wright, and I would be standing there looking at everyone as if they had six heads waiting for someone to translate it all into English. By this point, everyone was breaking off to begin the drill and finally one of the guys would say to us: “Ya, coach just said to go into the corner and pull down your pants and sing the Canadian National Anthem.” To make matters worse, the guys would make Scotty and me go first and laugh as we bumbled our way through the drill.
The next time my domestic teammates decided to play a language-barrier trick on me was when we went out for a few beers on a day off. At the time, I was single and I wanted to learn a couple of catch phrases that I could say to a girl if I decided to approach one.
One time, I asked the guys how to say “Hi, my name is Jamie. Can I buy you a drink?” They all looked at each other and smiled, which should have been my first clue that something ridiculous was about to happen. I remember our captain, Bogdan Jankovic, nodding and then turning to me and saying: “No problem Jamer. Here is what you need to say…” He told me some words in Serbian and I rehearsed with him until I got the phrase down pat.
Bogdan nodded and said: “You’re ready my friend. Go and dazzle the chicks.” I was brimming with confidence, rehearsing the line over and over in my mind and I went up to a girl and dropped the line flawlessly. As soon as the last words left my mouth, she looked at me as if I just drop- kicked her dog right in front of her. She snorted like a bull and stormed away.
I turned back to a group of guys who were falling over each other in hysterics. Shaking my head, I walked back to the group and said: “OK you morons what did I just say?”
Bogdan, barely able to speak because he was out of breath from laughing so hard, said: “Jamer, you just said that your name is Jamie and that you want to wear her underwear as a hat.” At this, I had to join in the laughter. It was actually pretty funny, considering I said it in such a polite, sweet voice.
After that, I never asked any of those knuckleheads for language advice, although they were always willing to offer it up. The rest of the season, that encounter at the bar became a running joke. One day one of the guys even came out for practice with a pair of underwear over his helmet. Lesson learned here? Trust your teammates not to embarrass you on the ice, but never in a bar.