Read an Excerpt
PART 1 SUMMER
July 5, 2005
Some people told me I was crazy to do this, and at this precise moment I’m not sure I would disagree. I am standing on the ice surface at the Magnitogorsk Arena, in the heart of Mother Russia, my new home away from home for the next ten months. I am jetlagged and sleep-deprived and fighting a lot of warring emotions. Thirty-six hours ago I was half a world away in Saskatoon, preparing for the adventure of a lifetime. Midway through last spring I’d been contacted by Serge Levin, a Russian hockey agent, to see if I was interested in becoming the first Canadian to coach a team in the Russian Super League. At the time, he didn’t mention which team it might be. He only wanted to gauge my interest in coming to Russia in the first place.
During the past quarter of a century, the flow of hockey talent between Russia and North America has mostly gone in one direction. The nhl’s appetite for more and better players saw them recruit heavily in Russia, and over time there have been Russians who’ve led the league in goal-scoring, Russians who’ve won the rookie of the year award, and dozens of Russians who’ve seen their names engraved on the Stanley Cup.
More recently, as a result of the political and economic upheaval that has characterized Russian life since the fall of Communism, there has been something of a reverse migration. Salaries have become more competitive there and a handful of teams, with dollars to burn, have lured some of their homegrown talent back.
Then, in the year of the nhl lockout, even some of our best-known Canadian players (Vincent Lecavalier, Dany Heatley, and Brad Richards, to name three) came to play in the Super League. But coaching? That was different. That had never been done before. There have been Russian assistant coaches in the nhl and a few European-born coaches in Russia, but no team had ever been willing to turn the keys over to a Canadian . . . until now.
Two days before I left Canada, I was in Eston, Saskatchewan, for a family get-together. And since training camps open here in early July, I flew from Saskatoon to Toronto to London to Moscow, arriving in the Russian capital at 3:45 in the afternoon.
Unfortunately, the departure time of the final leg of my journey — from Domodedovo Airport in Moscow to Magnitogorsk — had been pushed back five-and-a-half hours, from six to eleven-thirty p.m., thanks to the new summer travel schedule. As Russia hiccups its way along the path towards capitalism the airlines are constantly short of planes, and as a result they need to be in service virtually twenty-four hours a day. On the smaller, less-travelled routes, they commonly cancel some flights and add others based on aircraft availability. So the last thing I needed was the first thing that happened to me — a lengthy layover in the Russian capital. Factoring in the two-hour time change from Moscow to Magnitogorsk, by the time Siberian Airlines Flight No. 12 touched down, it was three-thirty in the morning.
One hour later, in the pitch dark, I surveyed as well as I could my new home, where my wife, Linda, and I would live until the end of the hockey season. My new team wanted me on the ice bright and early that same day, so I had a choice — sleep for ninety minutes or stay up and plod through without sleep. I opted for a quick catnap and then walked from my apartment to the arena, wondering for the first time (but probably not for the last), What am I doing here?
I’m fifty-seven years old. I’ve coached Canada’s national team through three Winter Olympic Games. I’ve had two turns as a head coach in the nhl (with the Calgary Flames and the Columbus Blue Jackets). I spent the past two years in the comparatively stable world of the German Elite League, coaching in Hamburg. And when the Russians called I’d had a job lined up in Helsinki, Finland, for the year.
Even though my contract with Magnitogorsk was negotiated months ago, I really don’t know much about what I’ve let myself in for. I don’t know my assistant coaches; I don’t know the language; and, with one or two exceptions, I don’t know the players.
I’m going into this exercise cold turkey, and even though it’s July, it’s a grey, cold day — perfect hockey weather, in other words. From the outside, the arena matches the weather — and my mood. It’s common in Russia for a building that’s only fifteen to twenty years old (and ought to be in relatively decent shape) to be deteriorating far faster than it should. Under the former political regime money would often be allocated for construction, but nothing was ever set aside for maintenance, so no maintenance would be done. It’s 8:15 a.m. on my first day on the job and the first group of players is scheduled to go on the ice at ten. If this were an nhl practice, everybody would be here already — trainers, equipment managers, and naturally the players as well. Instead, it’s just me and a couple of “key” ladies, one of whom recognized me and let me in the door.
Years ago, I had a Russian player with the Calgary Flames named Sergei Makarov, who was a member of the famous klm line. The Soviets perennially won the world championships in that era, and Makarov had always been a key contributor. He eventually came to the nhl at the age of thirty-one, along with the other members of his “unit” — Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, Alexei Kasatonov, and Slava Fetisov. When he played for me, I could never get used to the fact that Makarov would do exactly what my team was doing right now. He would appear just before practice began and then would be gone minutes after training was completed. I thought that was just Sergei’s way. Now I’m beginning to suspect that this may actually be the Russian way. We’ll see if that changes over the course of the season.