By: Monty Mosher
Rita Dorofeeva jokes that she got tossed out of her home country before she was a teenager.
Now 18, the native of Moscow is a first-year forward for the St. Thomas Tommies, one of five rookies in the team's lineup for 2017-18.
Fredericton might be relatively new, but Canada isn't. She arrived at King's-Edgehill School in Windsor at the age of 12, spending five years learning a new language and culture and honing her on-ice skills.
"My parents sent me over here," she said this week. "In Russia, it's really hard to get education and hockey at the same time, but I really wanted to play hockey and do school.
"They decided that Canada was the best option for that. They found the school, and the school was very welcoming. So they just kinda like kicked me out of Russia, I guess."
If it was a hard adjustment, she really can't recall. It was too long ago. "I was still a kid. But there was a warm atmosphere. And the staff at the school made it so easy for me. I didn't feel like I was homesick at all."
She's an experienced international player, skating for the Russian national team at two world under-18 championships. Her team won the bronze medal in each tournament.
She didn't start out in hockey.
"I was in figure skating for five or six years. It was boring. It wasn't a team sport. I was by myself all the time. And I would see the boys in Russia play hockey and it got my attention. I tried it and it was my thing."
The hardest adjustment to life in Nova Scotia was the language. She had some English language instruction in Russia, but not enough to sustain her in or out of the classroom in Canada.
"It didn't help at all," she said. "When I came I couldn't speak anything. So I was forced to learn English. It got better every year, but it was hard in the beginning."
As if there weren't enough adjustments to life away from home, Dorofeeva said that the hockey requires some adjustments as well.
"It's a lot different than Russian hockey, for sure," she said. "It's a lot faster since you have NHL-sized arenas."
Some of it wasn't that much different. The language on the ice is spoken everywhere. "That was easy for me."
Acceptance was never a problem. She'd slip up in English and somebody would tease her, but it was always good natured.
"Actually, I felt for myself that I was a Canadian," she said. "No one judged me that I was from another country or anything like that."
She always imagined she would play her university hockey in the U.S. A top student at King's-Edgehill, she could have gone anywhere.
Tommies coach Peter Murphy invited Dorofeeva for a tour.
"I never thought I would go to St. Thomas and always thought I would go to the U.S.," she said. "I came for a tour and I saw the campus and I saw the facility for hockey and I got to meet some people. They were really welcoming. I felt like I wanted to be there. I had a feeling that I fit in there perfectly."
Part of the allure was the size of the university. Her time at King's-Edgehill left her wanting something cozy.
"For sure, I like the idea of small and knowing everyone. Small classes, small campus—everything is a five-minute walk. That was good for me."
There's no Russian food in Fredericton, at least not that she's been able to locate. She stocks up at a store in Halifax every chance she gets.
The team lost four one-goal decisions in the pre-season and opens the regular season on Friday night against St. Francis Xavier. The Tommies are coming off a 17-4-3 season, second in the AUS standings.
The rookies have been getting their minutes.
"There are five of us and we're all playing," said Dorofeeva. "We're getting a lot of experience. It's a lot different from high school hockey. The pace is so much faster and the girls are bigger and stronger. It's a lot of competition and I love it."
Murphy, with the program for 17 years, has had many international players, so Dorofeeva is not all that unusual. Her transition may have been made easier by the fact she's been in Canada for so long already.
"Our goal will be to make her as good a hockey player as we can for St. Thomas, but also to see, if her long-term goal is to get to the Russian national team, that we do everything we can for that."
For now, Murphy believes Dorofeeva has plenty on her plate just to adjust to university life on and off the ice.
"I have no doubt she will excel in anything she does. For right now she is looking at playing hockey and getting her first degree and then going on to another degree or a specific job. But she's just a great kid and she's going to do very well in life. Our job here is to help prepare her for that."