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FEATURE: Late start did not hinder Buffalo State's Vadim Vasjonkin on his international journey


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Most hockey players who make it to the collegiate level were introduced to the game at a very young age. It's pretty rare for someone to pick up a sport, especially hockey, at the age of 10 and compete with players that have had a several year head start. Apparently, Vadim Vasjonkin didn't get that memo. Turns out he was a natural.  Vasjonkin, a Buffalo State sophomore and now captain of the Buffalo State men's hockey team, has come a long way from his hometown in Tallin, Estonia.

The Estonian moved to Kiev, Ukraine with his dad for work when he was 10 and that's where he was first introduced to the game of hockey.

It was love at first skate.

Just five years later he was trying out for elite travel teams in the United States.

"I was trying out for a few triple A teams and you need a visa to play in the US. I made a few teams in Illinois but couldn't live here to play hockey unless I went to boarding school. So, my parents and I sat down, looked up some schools and found one in the Chicago area, Lake Forest Academy," Vasjonkin said.

Determined to play in the United States, they went and looked at the school as a family and ultimately, Vadim applied. At 15, Vasjonkin was so enthralled with the game of hockey he was ready to leave his former life behind and pursue his dreams in a foreign land. 

"It was kind of cool at first, I was really excited to get away from my parents. At 15 years old you're wild and think you can be on your own. But then, things kind of just got boring. You were always in the same forced area and just went to the same rink and the same classes with the same people," Vasjonkin said.

So, before his senior year, he left Lake Forest Academy and continued on with his journey.

"I went and played triple A for Honey Baked in Michigan. After that, I went and tried out for a team in the CHL and then left there to try out for the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the USHL. I got cut from that team and went to play for the Boston Jr. Bruins," Vasjonkin said.

This year of his life was hectic. Bouncing around to different programs and getting cut by various teams would test the spirit of any player, but Vasjonkin remained undeterred. His love for the game continued to propel him forward and every stop was another opportunity, a fresh start. After leaving the Junior Bruins, he wound up playing for another junior team in Philadelphia, where he began to really ponder his future.

 "I didn't really know too much about Division III hockey and I always thought that if I didn't go to a Division I school then I'll just go back home to Europe. Then I went and played juniors in Philly and that's where I first found out about Buff State and the hockey program," Vasjonkin said.

He came to Buffalo State for a visit and that was it.

"I didn't really think about going anywhere else. It just felt right," he said.

It's almost ironic that this hard-working, gritty, Esotnian hockey player would connect with a school like Buffalo State. His whole life he's overcome the odds and pushed through and continued to follow his dreams no matter the roadblocks or unforeseen circumstances. At Buffalo State there is an overwhelming sensation of blue-collar, hardworking people who come from all walks of life. It's a perfect fit.

Vasjonkin has a 3.10 cumulative GPA as a business major and made an immediate impact on his team during, netting nine goals to go with 15 assists 27 games during his rookie season.  Entering this season, he was named team captain as just a sophomore. 

"It's a huge honor for me and I hope to represent the team to the best of my ability," Vasjonkin said.

The humble 22-year-old is also a member of the Estonian Men's National team. He started playing for the under-18 team when he was at Lake Forest Academy and like many other instances in his life, continued to work relentlessly until he was called up to the national team.

"I never really played in Estonia so coaches didn't really know me. Going back to Estonia as a kid who plays in the US is pretty rare back home, but I did really well in my first tournament and they kept inviting me back," Vasjonkin said.

Vasjonkin has represented his country in national play eight times, including three-straight years in the IIHF Group B World Championships.  This past spring, he helped Estonia tie for second in the six-team group in the tournament played in Kaunas, Lithuania, recording a goal and an assist in five games.

As you could probably assume, he's not satisfied.

"I want to make sure we continuously improve our Men's team in Estonia. We don't have a lot of great hockey players back home, but we do have a lot of guys that are really passionate about our country and are really willing to do whatever it takes to get it to the next level," Vasjonkin said.

The Estonian sophomore-captain has two points in three games for the Bengals after missing the first few games due to injury this season and will be in the lineup this weekend as Buffalo State visits Plattsburgh and Potsdam.

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