DeKALB — Every corner of the U.S. is represented in NIU’s American Collegiate Hockey Association Division 1 hockey roster. There are two players from California, two more from Alaska and one from Virginia.
But one player had to travel 5,246 miles to get to DeKalb.
Osman Cholak took three planes and a full day of travel to come to DeKalb and play for the Huskies. Cholak, a first-year forward, is from Kazan, Russia, a city with a population of 1.2 million people.
Kazan is referred to as Russia’s sports capital because it has an abundance of sports influence. Kazan is home to professional soccer team FC Rubin Kazan, professional hockey team Ak Bars Kazan and professional volleyball team VC Zenit-Kazan.
Cholak’s arrival was a sign of things to come for the program, as the Huskies are signing players from farther than ever to join the hockey team.
“At first, it was a little surprising because we’ve never had an international player before,” senior center and team captain Brad Krauser said. “It showed that the program was recruiting from all over the place, and [it was] ready to compete.
Krauser said the team didn’t know what to expect from their new international teammate, but Cholak has developed into a great player and a great person to be around. He’s a goofy guy who can get some laughs out of the team and is a good person as well, Krauser said.
Before NIU, Cholak was a forward for the Tottenham Steam of the Greater Metro Hockey League, a junior league in Ontario. Cholak credits his former head coach Matt Hamilton for connecting him with universities trying to recruit.
When NIU Assistant Coach Andy Wallace was cold-calling GMHL teams on the search for recruits, Hamilton directed him toward Cholak.
“He asked if we were potentially looking at international prospects, and his international prospect was Osman, so I said sure,” Wallace said. “At that stage we were talking to anybody and everybody. I started conversations with Osman, and he expressed an interest. He was looking to study kinesiology and NIU has a good program.”
Once Cholak verbally committed to becoming a Huskie, there were still some hoops to jump through before it was official.
“International students are a whole lot different than [students] coming from Wisconsin,” Wallace said.
Before an international student can join a university in the U.S., they must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam. The TOEFL tests the English speaking abilities of those trying to join English speaking universities, and NIU has a score that international students must achieve to join the school. Then, the student must do an interview with an embassy to apply for a student visa.
Cholak has been playing hockey since he was 5 years old and said it’s helped him experience things he may not have, like living in Tottenham, Ontario, Canada and in the U.S., pursuing a degree in kinesiology.
When Cholak first arrived in Canada, he didn’t know any English. He took English classes at the University of Ottawa, but said having regular conversations helped him learn the language more than anything else. Despite this, he still needed help translating opponents’ trash-talk.
“Sometimes I couldn’t tell if they were talking bad, so I’d ask my teammates or they’d tell me,” Cholak said.
While his English improved, Cholak had no hesitation when answering what he misses most about being home ‒ speaking Russian.
Despite everything he misses about Russia, there are some things about being in DeKalb that Cholak can appreciate.
Besides adjusting to playing with his new teammates, Cholak had to make some other changes on the ice as well. International hockey rinks and North American rinks are both about 200 feet long, but international rinks are 15 feet wider.
“In Russia, you can play more by yourself and skate more,” Cholak said. “But not here, you need to pass more because you’re going to get hit. You need to move the puck fast. I like international rinks more because they have more space. I can skate around more. The junior hockey team I played for last season has smaller rinks, so I’m more comfortable with it now.”
When Cholak made it to DeKalb, he was excited for what was in store for him.
“I felt like it was going to be pretty fun, and I was going to live on campus around all the students, and NIU isn’t a small school, right?” Cholak said.
When he isn’t playing hockey, Cholak is either hitting the books or spending time with teammates.
“It’s pretty hard for me right now,” Cholak said about balancing hockey with school work. “Especially main classes like biology. But, in other class I’m doing pretty good.”
“We do recreational stuff, hang out with hockey players,” Cholak said. “[We] play sports like basketball or roller [hockey]. Sometimes we play football, too. With the flags. Otherwise, I’m doing homework, bunch of homework. We have midterms coming up, I’m trying to study more.”
There are some things that Cholak has struggled adjusting to, the main one being the local cuisine. He is used to homemade food from his days in Russia and Canada.
“You have fast foods all around here, and I have problems with the food here,” Cholak said. “You have more burgers, all that stuff, you eat more of that. Fries, pizza, you like that stuff, right?”
Cholak does have a dining hall pass, but that doesn’t always do the trick for him, either. He feels like he gets much of the same at the dining halls.
“It’s not bad, but they do have to improve it a little bit,” Cholak said. “I’d tell them to have more vegetables, I mean, not fast food. More rice, healthy foods.”
Cholak’s teammates realized he might need help getting acclimated to his new environment, so they help out wherever they can. They even took Cholak to buy a suit before their first game of the season because he didn’t bring one to NIU. It’s tradition that hockey players wear suits to home games.
“First, they took me out with other hockey players, and they set me up with school,” Cholak said. “Then, they showed me campus, all around. They drove me to stores to get what I need.”
Krauser said Cholak was shy when he first made it to DeKalb, but it didn’t take long for him to get comfortable in his new environment. He said Cholak gelled with his teammates during their first week of training camp, and it helped that there were so many new faces on the team. There are 18 first year players on the team’s 22 man roster.
“Myself and a few other guys on the [Division three] team met [Cholak] at Stevenson when he got dropped off [after first landing in Chicago],” Krauser said. “We helped him move his stuff in, but he really didn’t have a lot. It’s been everyone helping out, getting him what he needs. I think as a team we try to help out, just like with anyone.”
Cholak said he hopes his junior hockey days and playing for NIU will help him achieve his goal of playing professional hockey in Europe after he graduates.