The goal was simple for Florida-based real estate agent Alex Braverman and Professional Hockey Players Association (PHPA) writer Clarence Paller — to utilize the NHL’s platform as an avenue to help Russians living in North America keep their roots.
As co-founders of Russian Heritage Night/Network (RHN), the two have dedicated their lives to help bring their vision to life with the help of former NHL players.
“I wake up at 5 a.m and I start to talk to my Russian contacts,” said Braverman. “My wife says you should spend all this time on your real estate business, not on hockey, but I just love it.”
In 2018, Braverman and Paller finally came together in Sunrise, Fla., to celebrate the inaugural edition of Russian Heritage Night at a Panthers home game against the Washington Capitals.
It was at that moment when they realized that this is more than hockey, and that an opportunity for young Russians to demonstrate their pride was possible.
“An American family came up to me and said we adopted our child in Russia and we want her to keep her Russian heritage,” said Braverman.
The family later thanked Braverman for organizing the event and giving their child an opportunity to embrace her roots.
For the past two years, Braverman, Paller and RHN’s CEO, Steven J. Wong, have organized designated nights at team’s home games to highlight the impact Russian culture has had on the sport through hockey diplomacy.
Through that platform, attendees of the event have had the chance to showcase their culture and further understand their origin.
“After the game we have the group photo part when the players come out, and that’s the pinnacle (of the night),” said Paller. “You have all these families come out with their kids celebrating their culture, and when the players see it, you know it’s going to be a night they remember.”
Former NHLer Mikhail Grabovski embraces the initiative
At the start of their journey, both current and former NHL players were contacted. One of those players was Belarusian native and former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski.
“Russian Heritage night is not just (for) Russian people,” said Paller. “If you go back and look at the Soviet Union, there’s 15 different countries, and we wanted to unite everyone.”
Grabovski led the first Russian Heritage kids skate in Toronto in 2019. It’s what Paller describes as a breakthrough moment for the organization.
“I saw this thing really coming together when we started these kids skates, on top of the (Russian Heritage) nights,” said Paller. “We worked with (Grabovski) to create our very first kids skate where we gathered kids in the (Toronto) community.”
The kids that they gathered were from various backgrounds in the Russian culture, and having Grabovski as the spokesperson for the event made the initial vision of unity come to life. Typically, skates occur two days before a Russian Heritage Night takes place in a particular NHL city.
“The most important thing is to unify and (create) something that helps the kids keep their roots and be proud of being both North American and cherish their heritage at the same time,” Paller stated.
Just like Grabovski, another former Maple Leaf took notice of the work Braveman and Paller were doing for the Russian community. This time, Oskemen, Kazakhstan, native, Nik Antropov.
“This is an important initiative that encompasses the Russian contribution to the growth of hockey from past, present and future players,” said the former 10th overall pick of the Maple Leafs in an email. “As an NHL alumni and a father myself, RHN is also an outlet to give back to the community, introduce kids to hockey and to show the kids born in North America to the culture of their parents and connect them to their roots.”
During the 2019-2020 NHL season, Russian Heritage Night was celebrated 10 times, in 10 different professional cities. Among the teams to participate were the Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils, and Los Angeles Kings.
The celebration will restart post-pandemic
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the nights have been put on hold for this season, but that’s not stopping the founders from continuing to look for new ways to connect to the Russian hockey community.
“We’re waiting to see when fans can come back, but when the time comes, we’ll get these nights going again,” said Paller. We can do a lot of digital content right now and different things virtually.”
The new goal for Braverman and Paller is to have a league-wide celebratory month that recognizes Russian heritage and its impact on hockey, as opposed to just one night periodically.
“That’s the dream,” said Paller. “There’s Russians in every major city. It can be done if every (NHL) team saw the value in doing it.”
Before that though, executing the biggest heritage night ever is the priority and it starts with reaching out to the Russian embassy in the United States.
“We want to get the Russian ambassador to drop the puck in Washington … (Alexander) Ovechkin has expressed interest in being part of this,” Paller stated. “These are two glorious nations — America and Russia. Always pushing each other to be better.”