The first thing one notices about Mikhail Nesterenko is the iron-vice grip in his handshake.
Those with easily-broken hands would be advised to try a fist bump instead.
The second thing you notice is his accent.
Mikhail may live in Brooklyn, New York, but he grew up in Russia, and the accent has never left him.
The third thing you notice is that he is extremely proud of the son he has traveled 3000-plus kilometres to visit.
“I think Nikita (Chilliwack Chiefs forward Nesterenko) is on top of his game right now, probably the best I’ve seen in the last 10 years,” Mikhail said with a smile. “You do a lot of things in the game other than scoring goals, and he has become a more complete player.
“Blocking shots. Getting the pucks out of corners. Helping teammates wherever they needed. He’s learned a lot from his time in Chilliwack and that’s why his successes are getting bigger and bigger.”
Each season the Chilliwack Chiefs bring parents in for a weekend to watch their sons play.
It’s a fun experience for the parents and a big morale boost for the players, many of whom are away from home for the first time.
It’s tough for any parent when a kid leave the nest, and Mikhail’s son spread his wings earlier than most.
The teenager enrolled at Lawrenceville School in New Jersey when he was just 15 years old.
“Freshman year at Lawrenceville was tough because I boarded there and I had to meet a bunch of new people,” Nikita said. “But everyone was going through the same thing, so that made it easier.
“And Dad came up to Lawrenceville every weekend to see my games.”
Mikhail said he was at the school far more often than that in the first year.
“Nikita and I, because of hockey we’ve been in the same cars and hotels since he was five, and there’s more of a brothers vibe with us, so him leaving was a big challenge for me,” Mikhail said. “You see someone you’ve been with for so many years, you’re attached and a disconnection happens.
“I really wanted to go there and support him.”
Mikhail said he would be up at Lawrenceville twice a day at first, making sure Nikita was settling in okay.
“Then it gets to the point where he’s comfortable there and you as a parent haven’t adjusted yet,” Mikhail said. “You’re asking him if he needs food or needs his laundry done, and he’s like, ‘No, I’m good.’
“You find ways to see him more, but eventually you back off from being there every day.”
By the time Nikita was in his third year at Lawrenceville, Mikhail was down to visiting once a week, mostly popping in for the games.
Then the conversation about Nikita moving to Chilliwack came up.
“And Lawrenceville really helped with that because he was there three years, and after that experience we felt confident he was prepared to move this far away from home,” Mikhail said.
With a continent between them, father and son now FaceTime three times a week, “just to catch up.”
“We talk Sundays after the games are done,” Nikita said. “He tells me what he saw and gives me advice and I tell him what I saw.”
But there is a big difference between screen time and face-to-face time, which is why ‘Parents Weekend’ is so valuable.
“Seeing him in person is way better,” Nikita said. “Every kid wants to see their parents, and getting home for Christmas was good.
“But having them actually come up and see what life is like here – my daily routine and all of that stuff – it makes me more confident and comfortable.”
This was Mikhail’s second time visiting Chilliwack.
The first time, he drove all the way from the east coast of the United States to the west coast of Canada, just to deliver a car to Nikita.
On the day that his boy graduates from the Chiefs and heads off to NCAA hockey, Mikhail is planning a father/son road trip from Chilliwack back to New York.
“We don’t know the route yet, but maybe I’ll throw one or two surprises in,” Mikhail said. “Maybe the Grand Canyon or something like that.
Nikita was busy Friday and Saturday with game day activities. He was eyeing Sunday as the opportunity to play tour guide for dad.
Despite being here since August, Nikita hasn’t ventured up the freeway into Vancouver, so that was the plan.
“I’d like to check out the city, and do some shopping, but nothing crazy,” Nikita said. “When I’m back home I visit New York City a lot because I have several friends there, and I’m sure I’ll get some New York City vibes from Vancouver.
“If we end up sticking around Chilliwack, I’d probably take him to see one of the mountains, or maybe do some fishing, because that’s something I haven’t had the chance to do yet.
“We did the Elk Mountain hike as a team and my dad’s a big hiker, so maybe that one.”
Turns out Nikita probably needed a good head-clearing hike Sunday after his Chiefs lost both of their weekend games.
The Island division’s fifth place team, the Victoria Grizzlies, walked out of the Chilliwack Coliseum with a 4-1 victory Friday and the Nanaimo Clippers won 3-2 in a shootout Saturday.
Nesterenko has gone pointless during Chilliwack’s five game skid, but he said he’s not judging his success by goals and assists.
“As long as you’re helping your teammates and doing the right things, the points will come, so I’m not too worried about that,” he said, sounding a lot like his dad. “I’m just focused on getting stronger and better to help my team win.
“That’s all that matters.”