For European NHL players, getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage

Author: Isabelle Khurshudyan,
Date: Dec 21, 2017

Jakub Vrana successfully flashed both turn signals, but when the examiner asked him to flip on the hazard lights next, he panicked. What were those again? Time moved slowly as he scanned the buttons on the rental car. Finally, Vrana spotted the red triangle. Of course, the hazard lights.

“I’m so happy I passed,” the Czech Washington Capitals forward said. “I don’t want to hear ‘driving license’ for the rest of my life.”

Getting a driver’s license is an exciting rite of passage for American teenagers. But it’s a chore for European NHL players who come to the United States and learn their foreign licenses are valid for only so long, and some put it off for years. It can be the difference between a player feeling like he is a tourist or at home here, a card that represents some permanence of residency and grants a certain independence.

“My thinking was I’m not going to buy a car until I’m going to have a driving license,” Vrana said. “Now I have the green light, I can go buy a car, so it’s a big deal for me.”

Russian, German and French players can take the theoretical part of the driving test in their native language, but Swedes, Finns, Czechs — about 140 NHLers — as well as some other nationalities are stuck with English, a language they may not be entirely comfortable with when they first start playing here. Words such as “pedestrian,” “yield” and “detour” initially tripped up Vrana, 21, who said he studied for three days before taking the test earlier this month. He and fellow rookie Christian Djoos, a 23-year-old Swedish defenseman, played for Washington’s minor league affiliate in Hershey, Pa., for two seasons before they finally got Virginia driver’s licenses this year.

“I think you need it,” Djoos said. “I was just lazy my two years in Hershey, and it’s too bad. I should’ve gotten it right when I got over here. It definitely feels good to have it. You need it to go get groceries or pick family up from the airport or do whatever.”

Waiting is actually pretty common; Nashville Predators forward Calle Jarnkrok, from Sweden, relied on teammates Mattias Ekholm and Filip Forsberg to chauffeur him around for two years in Nashville until he finally got a license and bought a car. Every state is different, but in most cases, an international license is valid for up to one year after entering the U.S. One Eastern Conference player, who asked to remain anonymous, admitted to still using his foreign license to drive, and he has been here more than seven years.

“If you have a driver’s license in Norway, I think you should be able to just, like, get it over here when you move here,” Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello said, referencing his native country. “I mean, you took all of the tests and everything in Norway, or wherever you’re from. I came as a 23-year-old or as a 22-year-old and I have to do the tests and stuff and 16-year-olds drive here.”

Finnish Dallas Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen said he’s “heard some horror stories with other guys,” but his personal tale remains memorable more than a dozen years later. Drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2002, Lehtonen got his license in Chicago, where the minor-league affiliate was at the time. “They told me, ‘No worries. Let’s go after practice,’” Lehtonen said with a chuckle.

“So, this older gentleman, Mike ‘The Hat,’ was a friend of the owner and did some work for the team,” Lehtonen continued. “He took me with his Cadillac to the DMV, and a huge line of course was there. We walked in front of the line, and he said something. Then we went in the back and did the test together.

“My English wasn’t great, so he showed me which ones to pick, the answers. Then we needed to do the driving test with his Cadillac there. We’re at the parking lot in front of the DMV, and I needed to turn the car on and drive straight into the next parking spot. And that was it.”

Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky failed the Virginia driver’s license test the first time he took it. “I thought it would be really easy, so I didn’t study for it,” the 22-year-old said. The first part of the knowledge exam is 10 traffic sign questions, and those must all be answered correctly before part two, where an 80-percent grade or better passes. Burakovsky said he just didn’t understand some questions, and he might have dismissed the difficulty after the infamous Swedish theoretical driving test – 70 questions long with at least 52 required to be right.

“When I finally passed that one, I was telling myself that I was never going to study for a driving test again,” Burakovsky said. “Then I came over here and they told me I have to get a license.”

Once a license is acquired, then comes the adjustment to actually driving here.

“I have seen one teammate get pulled over, roll his window down about three inches and just stick cash out the window,” Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “That obviously doesn’t work too well here. And then he didn’t speak English, so he had to call a teammate and have the teammate talk to the cop. I’m not going to say who it was, but that was a little tricky.”

The hard part finally out of the way, now all that’s left for Vrana is buying a car, perhaps that all-black SUV he’s been envisioning for years.

“We’ll see,” Vrana said. “I’ve got to be smart about it, you know? It’s my first car.”

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