Sunday, January 20, 2008

King of Russia

A Year in the Russian Super League

Dave King coached Canada’s national team for nine years, followed by stints with Calgary, Columbus and Montreal in the NHL. Later while coaching in Europe he was courted by Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian Super League, which includes such fabled teams as Central Red Army and Moscow Dynamo.

In taking the job King became the first Canadian to coach in the league, and led Metallurg to their most successful season ever. They finished first overall with only five regular season losses in 51 games. They also won the Spengler Cup, a five-team mid-season tournament played in Davos, Switzerland. However, they fared less well in the league playoffs. They were hit with a lot of injuries and went out in the semi-finals, losing 3 games to 1, all their losses being in overtime.

Nineteen-year-old Evgeny Malkin was the star of the team, and King has a lot of good things to say about him. When the team played in Finland for the Tampere Cup, Malkin did “such dazzling things with the puck that the fans just stood up and applauded.” But it’s not just his natural skills that make him a great player. “Sometimes Russian players can be extremely dour. Malkin smiles all the time. He seems to enjoy practice. He loves to compete. He plays the game with tempo. He’s unselfish.” Eric Lindros played for King as a nineteen-year-old, and King ranks Malkin ahead of Lindros at that age.

At the start of the season King thinks the team needs more grit, and convinces the management to bring in a couple of warhorses, ex-Leafs Dmitri Yushkevich and Igor Korolev. It was a smart move, as both players made major contributions to the team. King is particularly complimentary about Yushkevich, who with a bad knee is “as close to a one-legged player as you can get.” His great heart makes up for this deficiency. During one game he's hit in the face with a puck. King says:

I didn’t think I’d see him for a while, but the next day, who’s there at practice? It’s Yushkevich -– and he looked like hell. If little kids on the street had seen him they would have run the other way. He looked like a character in a horror movie, with all those scars of his and now his face all lopsided.

Likewise Korolev. In the playoffs he’s cut by a skate and receives 23 stitches. “It was so bad that our doctor was practically throwing up.” Korolev refuses to stay out of the game and comes back “with a great big patch over his eye, blood all over his sweater and his face.”

Observations about Russian Hockey

Before the season begins a Russian Orthodox priest enters the dressing room and sprinkles the players with holy water.

Not only must teams travel vast distances for league play, but Metallurg's pre-season training took place in the Swiss Alps, and included an exhibition tournament in Finland, while mid-season dry-land training was located in Dubai.

For top-level players the Russian Super League is as lucrative as the NHL. Yet on some teams players went unpaid for months.

The amount of physical training is phenomenal. King says:

I’m no doctor, but we don’t have nearly as many groin strains here [as in the NHL] and I’m wondering if that has something to do with the tremendous strength the Russian players develop in their quadriceps... To a man, the leg strength of a Russian player will amaze you. The quadriceps muscles, which deliver so much power to the stride, are huge on virtually every one of them. Right from the time they turn eight or nine years old, they do an immense amount of work to build up their leg strength.

Also the whole approach to coaching is different:

The players rarely complain or give you any emotional reaction... I blame it on the fact that, starting at young age, coaches confront players one-on-one on the bench, in the dressing-room, or on the ice, scolding them harshly for mistakes. They rarely do it privately, so in order to cope the players simply don’t react. They absorb the comments and show their strength to their teammates by wearing a blank expression. I’ve seen grown men coaching young ten- or eleven-year-olds go nose-to-nose with a youngster, ranting and raving almost incoherently -– and the young player simply takes the medicine...

King decided to stay for the 2006-2007 season, but many of his top players had moved on, including Yushkevich and Malkin, who is now with the Pittsburgh Penguins. After just eight games King was fired. His record was 3-4-1.