Maurice is following in the footsteps of Dave King, who coached Magnitogorsk in 2005-06. King was the first Canadian to coach in Russia, when it was still known as the Superleague. But unlike King, who had fully grown children and brought his wife along for company, Maurice is by himself in Magnitogorsk, living in an apartment in the team’s dormitory, where players are obliged to check in the night before every home game.
Barrasso lives in an apartment one floor down and handles most of the cooking, and defenceman Oleg Tverdovsky, a former NHL player, lives full-time there too, on the grounds that it’s about the nicest accommodation in town.
Maurice left his wife, Mitch, and their three school-aged children behind so they could attend school in Ohio. In August, during training camp, the family spent a week together in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Maurice is coming home in early November for a few days during the first of three regularly scheduled “international” breaks in the KHL season.
As hard as it is to be separated from his family, Maurice says he knows that it was the right call.
“I was right when I thought this would be as big a challenge as you could handle if you were doing it on your own,” he said. “Just the language alone. I couldn’t do it without [interpreter/assistant coach] Ilya Vorobiev. The whole thing would grind to a halt if he wasn’t there. So having him has made it a lot easier, and I’ve got Tom here too. Our personalities have always been well meshed. We both enjoy our time alone. And neither one of us needs their hand held. So we’re fine.”
Maurice and Tom Rowe (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl) are the only two North Americans coaching in Russia this year.
According to Ilya Kochevrin, the KHL’s vice-president of communications, their presence has brought some fresh ideas to the league, which they see as a positive development in a year when there is a record 26 teams and the league has expanded to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ukraine.
“They have their own school,” Kochevrin said. “They have an influence on Russian play. Hopefully, some of them will go into playoffs and demonstrate the possibilities of Canadians coaching and managing a Russian team. That’s what we’re looking for.”
While Maurice is handling a comparatively young Magnitogorsk squad, Rowe took over a new Yaroslavl team, which replaced the one that went down in a plane crash in September of 2011, killing 44 people on board, including their Canadian-born coach, Brad McCrimmon.
Since arriving in July, Maurice has been on multiple domestic flights and says the air travel doesn’t spook him the way you’d think it might.
“Everything is normal,” he said. “We fly on a 737. I’ve never been at the point where I feel I’m risking anything. We played in Kazan the other day. It’s a beautiful rink, a beautiful city and a big airport. It’s nicer than some of the North American cities on the tour.
“Then we go to play Neftikhimik, our last game, and it’s a different situation. It’s a tougher town. I’ve been flying for almost 20 years. I didn’t know how to rationalize that, so I just didn’t bother.”
Maurice’s hockey fortunes changed for the better once the NHL lockout became official on Sept. 15. Malkin and Gonchar showed up right away and Kulemin followed soon after. The KHL is reaping the benefits of no NHL hockey because most of the big-name Russian players – Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk – have all been repatriated for the first time since the last NHL lockout. It has increased the profile of the league, tilted its competitive balance and made Magnitogorsk better.
“Malkin had four points in three games and could have 12, but he hadn’t had a training camp,” Maurice said. “He just threw his skates on and went out there and played.
“It’s really important to the league that the [Russian NHLers] came back. I take my hat off to Evgeni Malkin. This is not Moscow. This is not St. Petersburg. He could have easily gone to those places and people would have understood, but he and Kulemin came back to play in their hometown. And I think that’s fantastic.”