Denis Kuzminov described it as "a vacation feeling," as he packed his bags and boarded the plane headed to Dulles International Airport in August 2015. The native Lithuanian had traveled to the United States before, spending past summers in Florida, but this time he was heading to Maryland alone for the long haul. That didn't quite register as he met his host family and St. Mary's Ryken hockey Coach Chris Palombi at the airport.
"It was just like, I'm going to the U.S.," Kuzminov said. "It didn't feel like I'm really going for a long time."
Seventeen months later, Kuzminov has established himself as a standout hockey player at the Leonardtown private school St. Mary's Ryken and is pursuing opportunities at the college level. Last season, the 5-foot-10 forward was a second-team All-Met recording 21 goals and adding 13 assists in 18 games. The senior recently returned from the IIHF World Junior Championship in Estonia, where he won a Division II gold medal with Lithuania's U-20 national team.
Palombi discovered Kuzminov through his contacts in Europe after watching video of Lithuania's U-18 national team. St. Mary's Ryken, a budding team on the local private school scene, has imported hockey talent from Europe in the past, enrolling Djordje Jaksic and Petar Stepanovic in recent years.
Kuzminov said he was intrigued by the possibility of playing at a high level and getting a college education in the United States. Kuzminov now plays for Team Maryland after helping lead the Southern Maryland Sabres club team win a championship last season.
Kuzminov's talent stood out immediately. The week after he arrived, he scrimmaged with junior Dominic DeLong, his host brother, and some of his friends.
"We noticed and were like, he's really good," DeLong said. "The hands, mainly. That, and just a good shot."
Kuzminov said he has grown more comfortable since his arrival. He had some difficulty communicating initially since he was taught British English at home in Europe, but remained a vocal leader on the ice. This season, Kuzminov has 11 goals and 14 assists in only nine games for St. Mary's Ryken (6-4-1, 4-2-1 Mid-Atlantic Prep Hockey League AA Division).
Kuzminov has been applying to colleges with the goal of playing Division I or Division III hockey, and is considering a gap year. For now, though, he is embracing the end of his senior season and his journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
"I was kinda this Christopher Columbus, and came and explored all the things here," said Kuzminov, whose younger brother, Nikita Kuzminov, plays goalie in Lithuania.
"It's a great experience, honestly. Because as I said, when I was coming here, I didn't know anything about it. I didn't know about the U.S. in general, what's going on here, what systems you have. How am I going to get to the next level of hockey? How am I going to get to the [best school]? Now, I'm experiencing all that."