ST. PAUL — Wild forward Kevin Fiala has been playing professionally in North America since 2015, debuting with Milwaukee in the American Hockey League before pivoting between the minors and the NHL until he latched on with the Predators for good two years ago ahead of last season’s trade to the Wild.
But the native of Switzerland experienced a first on Thursday.
He celebrated Thanksgiving.
“I’ve actually never had a real one,” Fiala said. “So, I’m looking forward (to) this year. … We were always gone kind of, but it looks fun — like you see in the movies.”
Fiala isn’t the only one on the Wild to grow up without the tradition of turkey, stuffing and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
It’s a new custom for all those born in Europe, one of the many lifestyle and cultural differences players adapt to while shifting their hockey careers from overseas to the best league in the world — a change that, in comparison, makes the transition at the rink feel smoother.
“I’m always home when I’m on the ice,” Fiala said. “Being here with the teammates, it’s family. I’m here because of hockey. I feel comfortable playing hockey and being around hockey people.”
As far as holidays go, Thanksgiving is the most significant addition for the European-born players.
Christmas is familiar, though it’s on Dec. 24, and so is Halloween — just not to the extent it’s embraced in the United States.
And much like they’re trying to fit in with the team’s style and structure, players have adopted this ritual, too.
“Once you get family and all that,” captain Mikko Koivu said, “you kind of want to celebrate that, as well, and try to take something from it.”
For his first Thanksgiving, Koivu was invited to former Wild player Willie Mitchell’s house.
“Nothing’s open,” Koivu said. “That’s how we learned the lesson.”
Now the Finnish center is the one who will hand out invitations.
“You kind of know how it feels, so you want to invite them if possible,” he said. “But at the same time right now, we’ve been away so much so obviously you kind of keep it with the family, too, and relax and spend some time with the family as well.”
Defenseman Jonas Brodin’s first Thanksgiving came while he was with Houston in the AHL, and he remembers getting asked to stand up and recite what he was thankful for.
“I didn’t really know what to say there,” he said.
That was in 2012, his first professional season in the Wild’s pipeline after getting drafted the previous year 10th overall, and Brodin said it took him a couple of years to get comfortable living here after moving from Sweden.
“I had some people help me, but it was still pretty hard,” Brodin said, referring to tasks like getting a Social Security number, setting up banking and even getting in a groove at the grocery store.
Those aren’t the only adjustments, though.
The cities are larger, there’s more traffic on the roads and the skylines are taller.
“People are more friendly, more open here,” said Fiala, whose plan for his first Thanksgiving was to spend it with his Swedish teammates. “I feel like you get more compliments here from people.”
What isn’t as jarring to players is the action on the ice, even though figuring out how to acclimate to the smaller rinks and hectic schedules in the NHL all the while learning a new system can take time.
But that environment is what they know.
“The easiest part is just to play hockey,” said Swedish center Joel Eriksson Ek. “Then you have your life outside of the rink. You just try to figure out what to do and where to go.”
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