By Chaz Scoggins
LOWELL -- The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!
No, it's not a comic movie about the crew of a disabled Soviet submarine invading Gloucester during the Cold War. It's just one Russian, it's live, it's hockey, it's happening right here in Lowell.
Dima Sinitsyn, a highly-touted teen Russian prodigy who some project will be selected in the NHL draft in June, has joined the nationally-ranked UMass Lowell hockey team.
A 6-2, 190-pound, 17-year-old defenseman with a strong offensive upside, Sinitsyn will be the youngest player in Division I hockey when he plays his first Hockey East game for the 13th-ranked River Hawks.
That could be awhile, however. Because of visa issues that took months to resolve, Sinitsyn hasn't played competitively since last April. After his second practice with the River Hawks, he admitted he felt "very rusty."
"He looks like a kid who has been traveling for 18 hours to get here," said head coach Norm Bazin after Sinitsyn flew in from Moscow last weekend and enrolled at UML for the second semester. "We have to give him some time to get acclimated."
When Sinitsyn does start playing, Bazin can't be certain just how long he'll play in Lowell. Expectations are that he'll turn pro before he uses up all his college eligibility. He's that good a prospect.
"It's my dream to play in the NHL," Sinitsyn said after practicing with the River Hawks on Tuesday.
But his mother, an English teacher in Moscow, wanted him also to get a college education in the U.S.
"It's a good idea," agreed Sinitsyn, who is leaning toward a degree in business but for the moment has not declared a major. "If I don't go pro I'll have a good education and something to do in life except wash cars or something like that."
At the behest of a Russian friend who was playing midget (ages 14-16) hockey in Texas, of all places, Sinitsyn flew to the U.S. for a tryout in 2010 and made an elite team in Dallas. All he did as a defenseman was lead the team in scoring with 11 goals and 31 points in 36 games and play in the national under-16 tournament.
By then scouts from the junior United States Hockey League and colleges were following the 16-year-old's exploits. He was drafted by the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL, who were over the league limit for foreign-born players and traded his rights to the Sioux Falls Stampede.
Because he had finished his high school education at a small private school in Dallas, Sinitsyn no longer had a student visa. Stampede officials messed up his visa application, and he wound up with a limited tourist visa instead. Sinitsyn visited the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to plead his case, but it fell on deaf ears.
That's when UMass Lowell entered the picture. Bazin's assistant coaches, Jason Lammers and Cam Ellsworth, had scouted Sinitsyn as a midget player, and they were determined to get him here.
"I've had experience with recruits from France, Norway and Sweden," Bazin said. "But this is the first time we've tried dealing with someone from Russia, and I never knew it could be this difficult."
Had Bazin and his staff demurred at all, it's likely Sinitsyn would have been snatched up by some other high-powered Division I university.
"We want to be aggressive in our recruiting efforts," Bazin said, "and when you see someone who fits your blueprint for the future, you have to go after him."
Not only is Bazin impressed by Sinitsyn's hockey skills, he's just as impressed with the kid himself.
"He's trilingual, articulate, intelligent, and a wonderful student," the coach said.
When the River Hawks play Northeastern twice this weekend, they will be the first Hockey East games Sinitsyn has ever seen. As the youngest player in Division I, he's aware that despite his impressive size and skills he'll be competing against players up to six or seven years older than he is.
"I just knew it is a great league to play in, a much higher level than U-16," he said of Hockey East. "I thought the USHL could be hard for me. But now I'm in an even harder league."
It took only two practices for UML goaltender Doug Carr to announce that Sinitsyn already as the best shot on the team. Sinitsyn said Carr hasn't seen anything yet.
"I didn't get my sticks yet, so I have to use somebody else's. They're too wimpy," he said. "The part of hockey I care about most is my shot. I can't shoot now, and it frustrates me."
The anticipation is that when Dima Sinitsyn finally gets on the ice for a Hockey East game, he'll start frustrating UMass Lowell's opponents.