Stu Cowan Billet family helped Canadiens” Mikhail Sergachev adjust to North America

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Mikhail Sergachev’s parents travelled from Russia to Montreal to watch their son play in the Canadiens’ home opener Tuesday night at the Bell Centre against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Meanwhile, his second set of parents were watching on TV from their home in Tecumseh, Ont.

Brian and Michelle Reid are a billet family for the junior Windsor Spitfires and Sergachev lived with them last season after leaving his home in Nizhnekamsk, Russia, to pursue his dream of playing in the National Hockey League. When Sergachev arrived in Windsor, Ont., he was a 17-year-old who barely spoke a word of English. He travelled to North America along with fellow Russian Daniil Vertiy, who had already played one season with the Spitfires, and they both moved in with the Reids as their billet family.

“It was a really good transition for him to have another Russian in the house to get him adjusted to North America and customs and food, lifestyle … just everything,” Michelle Reid said.

But last November, Vertiy was traded to the North Bay Battalion and Sergachev was left by himself with the Reids to learn a new language, a new culture and adjust to a new form of hockey on the smaller North American ice surface.

“He was shy and nervous, as you can understand,” Michelle said. “He was 17, coming to a new country to live with people he doesn’t know. He had no English really … just enough to say hello. That was about it. He was a little quiet, but as time went on he came out of his shell and learned the language.”

It really is remarkable now when you listen to Sergachev speak perfect English with only a trace of a Russian accent. 

“I swear, he was almost self-taught,” Michelle said. “He did have an English teacher that worked with him weekly for maybe an hour or two hours at most. The kid just honestly worked his butt off.”

The Reids started off using Google Translate to help communicate with Sergachev, but then encouraged him not to look up the proper phrases in English and just try to use the words he already knew “and we’ll figure it out.”

“He wanted to learn and he said he was going to learn and he did,” Michelle said. “And now he’s fluent.”

Michelle said she was blown away when Sergachev made a speech in English at the end of last season in Toronto after being named the Ontario Hockey League’s outstanding defenceman as a rookie. The Canadiens selected the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder in the first round (ninth overall) at this year’s NHL Draft.

“He’s come so far,” Michelle said. “People don’t realize how far this kid has come.”

One person who isn’t surprised is Sergachev, who is the first 18-year-old to play for the Canadiens since Alex Galchenyuk four years ago. No 18-year-old defenceman has spent an entire season with the Canadiens since Petr Svoboda in 1984-85.

Brian Reid recalled a conversation he had with Sergachev early last season after the teenager had started to learn some English.

“I said: ‘You’ll be here living with us this year and you’ll be here next year, too,” the billet dad recalled. “And he just looked at me with a straight face and said: ‘No. I’m going to The Show next year.’

“And I’m like: ‘Oh, aren’t you a cocky little guy,’ ” Brian said with a chuckle. ” ‘The Show.’ That’s what he kept saying … ‘I’m going to The Show.’ ”

Sergachev’s parents — Alexander and Ludmilla — and his younger sister, Anna, were at the Bell Centre to watch him play in “The Show” Tuesday night. When the Canadiens drafted Sergachev, his parents and the Reids were sitting together in the stands in Buffalo watching. The Reids drove back to Buffalo last Thursday to watch Sergachev make his NHL debut with the Canadiens in a 4-1 win over the Sabres.

“They helped me a lot with my English and they supported me throughout the year,” Sergachev said about the Reids. “Especially my billet mom.”

When asked if Michelle was a good cook, Sergachev showed his sense of humour, saying with a big smile: “Questionable. You can tell her that.

“Sometimes she wants to make something different, but I don’t like it and I was just telling her just make the same thing every day,” he added. “I don’t care. I just like it.”

That would be chicken Parmesan with pasta on the side.

“I’d always ask him what he’d want as a pre-game meal and he’d always say: ‘Chicken Parm and pasta,’ ” Michelle said with a laugh, adding: ” ‘Not too much garlic, Michelle.’ ”

Sergachev battled homesickness early last season in Windsor — which is understandable — so his parents, who speak no English, travelled from Russia and spent 10 days living with him at the Reids’ house. 

“He comes from a very hard-working family,” Michelle said. “Everything that he has achieved up to now he’s worked very hard to get there. A lot of hard work and dedication, which his family has instilled in him.

“From the day he got here, his goal was to be in the NHL this year,” the billet mom added. “He’s very, very dedicated to what he wants. He’s a real gem. We’re very blessed, honestly, me and Brian, that we’ve had the chance to spend the last year with him. Going forward, we’ll always be his family and we’ll always follow him wherever. The kid has made his dream come true.”

Added Brian: “Montreal will be surprised how lucky they got with this kid. This kid is going to excel. Trust me.”

Sergachev’s parents — and his billet parents — won’t be the only ones watching.

scowan@postmedia.com

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