Some months ago, on his way to coach hockey in Russia, former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice bumped into one of his ex-players, Nolan Pratt, at the airport in Columbus, Ohio. Pratt had played in the Continental Hockey League (KHL) and Maurice thought he could get a quick primer on what to expect.
“So I asked him, ‘What was it like?’ and he looked at me and after a long pause, he said, ‘It’s different. Just different,’” Maurice said. “It was the way he said it more than what he actually said, but honest to God, that’s been it exactly. It’s different. My assistant coach, Ilya Vorobiev, is Russian born but English speaking and he must have said that to me and to Tom Barrasso a thousand times: ‘Hey, things are different here,’ and they are.
“The hockey’s different,” Maurice added. “How they view it is different. The travel’s different. How everything moves is different. It’s so difficult to describe. Your first month, you notice everything that’s different, and everything seems to be different.
“Then after you’re here for a while, you start to notice some of the similarities, and you realize there’s not much difference in a lot of areas after all. And I guess you get to the point where you realize, just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
Maurice is coaching Metallurg Magnitogorsk, a perennial KHL powerhouse that was in a rebuilding year until the NHL lockout became official. At that point, Magnitogorsk received three valuable reinforcements: Evgeni Malkin, the NHL’s reigning MVP; Sergei Gonchar, the Ottawa Senators’ defenceman; and Nikolai Kulemin, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward.
All three played for Magnitogorsk during the 2004-05 lockout and Gonchar helped smooth Malkin’s NHL transition to the Pittsburgh Penguins when play resumed in the fall of 2005. Pittsburgh is a steel town, Magnitogorsk is a steel town, and Maurice grew up in a steel town, Sault Ste. Marie, so the sights, the sounds and the smells are not much different than what he was used to in his hometown.
Maurice, 45, tackled the challenge of coaching in Russia for multiple reasons, among them, career development. With 1,084 NHL games coached under his belt, he was at a point in his life where he was looking for something new.
“I’ll give you the exact honest truth,” Maurice said. “I knew at the time I was coming over here that I wasn’t getting an NHL job and I wanted to work. So I got this phone call from Russia, out of the blue, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go over and check it out.’ Professionally, it was something I wanted to do. I thought it would be such a challenge to try and communicate with a team that doesn’t speak English and to translate your ideas like that.
“But there was something missing. Maybe it was the distance from home, or the age of my family. but when I left the first time, I thought, ‘Geez, I’d like to take this job, but it might be too big a challenge. I probably won’t do it.’
“Then, when I got home, the Barrassos came over for dinner one night and I said to Tom, ‘I need a goalie coach, an assistant coach and a strength coach. Do you want a job in Russia?’ And he just said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go.’ And that was it. We decided.
“Maybe it was a small part of a midlife crisis,” Maurice said. “I’m never going to get a chance to do this again. I didn’t travel in Europe as a teenager, I didn’t do any of those things that other people do. I was coaching from the time I was 20 years on. You know exactly what your life is, every day of the week. This? This was a bit of an adventure.”
That nicely sums up Maurice’s first three months on the job. It has been an adventure, an experience that has roused him out of his comfort zone.
“I haven’t watched TV, other than the KHL network, in three months, and realize now, ‘Boy, I burned a lot of time watching stuff that didn’t matter.’ There’s just a lot of things that you suddenly don’t have in your daily life. I haven’t driven a car since July. That’s unusual. All those kinds of things that change in your life, you enjoy. I’ve walked more in the last four or five months than I have in the last 25 years. That’s the way it’s gone.”
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.”
Maurice will have one type of team if the lockout persists and another if it ends. The KHL plays a 56-game season and then three rounds of playoffs, but if the NHL season is salvaged, come crunch time, Magnitogorsk will not have its Big Three around. Coaches need to worry more about the task at hand – the next game – than what the team might look like in January or March, but Maurice says he’s trying to think big-picture thoughts and have a Plan B in mind if the lockout ends.
“I don’t follow it [the lockout], because I’ve seen it and been through it before,” Maurice said. “Everybody always asks ‘What’s going on over there?’ and the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ But I don’t know any more or less than I would if I was in North America. I know probably what most people do – that it’s going to take some time.”
Is Maurice happy? The question, at the end of a long, illuminating conversation, made him pause momentarily.
“Happy is … ask any coach during the season, ‘How happy are you?’ For that part of it, nothing’s different. The moods you’re in, when you lose, it’s exactly the same. Some things just don’t change.
“What I had hoped to accomplish as a coach philosophically, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have that accomplished when I leave here, just in terms of my own development and trying to find different ways to teach.
“I will tell you,” Maurice added, “I have a completely different appreciation for the personality of European players now. They spend their whole life playing hockey a certain way, with a certain mindset. Then you bring them to North America and talk to them for a week and expect them to change. It’s not going to happen.
“They think the game differently because that’s how the game is played here. When they’re throwing the puck rink-wide across the blueline and you’re on the bench, saying ‘dump it in,’ they’ve never heard that before. They don’t know why they’d do that. The turnover, for them, is not that big a crime. The one good pass, through 12 guys and then onto the tape, for them, that’s awesome.
“So the challenge for a young European player to come over and play in the NHL, even if his English is good, is huge. As a young coach in the NHL, I didn’t have an appreciation for that. I started to understand that later, but now that I’ve been here, I fully grasp that picture.”
Because this is, after all, Russia, where Nolan Pratt’s words to Maurice all those months ago have proved prophetic. It’s different. Just different.
KULEMIN HAS A FAN IN MAURICE
Kulemin may not have had much of a year playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season (28 points in 70 games), but he already has a big fan in the ex-Leaf coach. Maurice didn’t know much about him before arriving in Russia because Kulemin joined the Leafs just after Maurice was fired. By contrast, Malkin and Gonchar have crossed his path frequently as opponents.
Beyond their talents, Maurice says that trio helpfully brought some of their NHL sensibilities to the KHL, which has made his coaching job an easier sell.
Example: Maurice had been having a hard time convincing his team to shoot the puck more on the power play “because here, on the big ice, you can hang on to it the whole time. So Gonchar and Malkin show up and they say, ‘We’ve got to shoot the puck more’ and so it’s done. Everybody says, ‘oh, okay.Gonchar has been such a great pro, in terms of working out and going on the ice twice a day,” Maurice said.
“Malkin is only 25 years old. People forget that. It’s amazing, when he walks in, to see how young he is. But Kulemin was the one, I didn’t realize how powerful a man he was. He has absolutely worked as hard as he could and it’s so noticeable. I spent 2 1/2 months trying to convince the guys to be in better shape, and then these guys come in, and you say, ‘That’s what I’m talking about. Work like that. Work that hard every time.’”