On-ice coaching sessions in Lokomotiv Yaroslavl's arena resemble mini United Nations' summits, except on skates. The players jabber away in Russian, English, Finnish and Swedish. The American coach, Tom Rowe, speaks only one of those languages and relies on his two Russian assistant coaches to interpret, since perhaps only nine of the 25 players understand English. The babble comes with a lot of inquisitive looks.
But Rowe is wondering if he is being deceived about the English comprehension figure. "The funny thing is that I had conversations with three of the young Russian kids not too long ago," Rowe says. "And I looked at one of them, and I said 'You son of a bitch, you speak English.' Then another kid, the same thing ... he just started talking to me in English one day. He said, 'I didn't want to say anything until I got to know you.'"
Rowe, a big, bald guy with a booming voice, can be an intimidating figure.
It's possible the young Russians were taking refuge behind the language barrier until they felt comfortable with the imported coach. By all accounts the comfort factor is rising fast because the boys are playing high-octane hockey, with near-spectacular results. With an 11-5 record, the team is placed second overall in Russia's 26-team Kontinental Hockey League – the KHL – behind mighty Dynamo Moscow, last season's champion.
The standing is all the more impressive, when you consider the stunning circumstances of a year ago. The Yak-42 jet chartered by the team crashed shortly after takeoff on Sept. 7, 2011, killing all 37 players and coaches; a flight technician was the only survivor. Among the dead were Canadian head coach and former Calgary Flames defenceman Brad McCrimmon and several former NHL stars, including Slovakia's Pavol Demitra, who had played for the Ottawa Senators and the Vancouver Canucks.
The tragedy broke Russia's heart and shattered the spirit of hockey-mad Yaroslavl, a UNESCO Heritage city of 600,000 about 250 kilometres northeast of Moscow, hard by the mighty Volga River. Shortly after the disaster, the KHL held an emergency draft to allow Lokomotiv to play the season; some KHL teams simply donated players. But the team opted to play in a lesser league, away from the glare of the KHL media machine, while it mourned its dead and pulled itself together. It's back in the KHL this season.
Rowe first appeared on the Lokomotiv ice on July 17, after he was hired for $800,000 (U.S.) a year by club co-owner and president Yuri Yakovlev, a hard-ass local businessman who had grilled the American for two days in a Moscow hotel room about his coaching style (state-controlled Russian Railways is the main sponsor, hence the name Lokomotiv).
"He asked me an enormous amount about team chemistry and building a team," he says. "I said that once players know they will all be treated the same and all will be treated fairly, that's step No. 1. Step No. 2 is making sure you have an open dialogue with the players on a daily basis. I really do try to have a conversation with every guy every day."
Only a few months ago, Rowe never dreamed he would coach a major-league hockey team, let alone one in Russia. He is 56 and his coaching days seemed over. When Yakovlev approached him, he was scouting for the Carolina Hurricanes, where he has once been assistant coach. Born in Massachusetts, Rowe is best known as the first American player to score more than 30 goals in one NHL season, accomplished in 1978-79 with the Washington Capitals.
Lokomotiv's roster is one of the youngest in the KHL, possibly the youngest. The players' age range is 19 to 37, with an average age of 24 or 25. "We do not have any superstar players," Rowe says. "But we have an entire roster of good players."
Based on the results so far, the good have the potential to become great.
Assistant coach Dmitri Yushkevich, a former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman, attributes the early success to gruelling hard work and an emotional commitment to rebuild a team shattered by one of the worst disasters in sporting history. "The players didn't just join because they got contracts," he says. "They came here to play for Lokomotiv. Here, we have no passengers."
Indeed, playing for the new Lokomotiv is considered an honour. Artem Anisimov, 24, the Yaroslav native who is one of the three locked-out NHLers on the team, says, "It means a lot to me to be part of rebuilding this team. When I was a kid, I watched every single game."
Rowe is trying to do something unusual, if not quite unique, in the KHL. He is trying to blend the best playing features of the Russian and North American games.
The Russian game, played on the bigger international-size rinks, breathes more than the NHL game. There is more passing, more attention to making plays, more creativity, fewer bodies running like freight trains into one another. The tighter NHL game is more aggressive, with more hitting and certainly better defence.
"Yakovlev wants more of a North American brand of hockey, which means being aggressive on the fore-check," Rowe says. "Russian hockey is very artistic and flowing and I don't want to take that away from these guys either. It's very pretty to watch. We scored a goal the other night where four of the guys touched the puck before it went into the net. Their play without the puck – their defensive play – is their biggest weakness and that's universal in Russia."
Lokomotiv has several players – the three locked-out NHLers and two Canadians who left the NHL, Curtis Sanford and Mark Flood – who can teach the Russians how to rough up the game a bit. "You're out with players who don't normally do a lock of checking," says Sanford, 33, who is from Owen Sound, Ont., and whose last NHL gig was with the Columbus Blue Jackets. "Checking can get lost in translation. … Sometimes the [Russian players] don't want to check as much as Tom wants."
In remarkably short time, the new Lokomotiv team is coming together. Things are not perfect. The young team has to learn how to cope with jet lag in a country nine time zones across (the first road trip took the team within 30 kilometres of the Chinese border, where they loaded up on red and black caviar). Rowe says training and nutrition were such big problems that he brought in a professional trainer, Sean Guevremont, who is from Montreal by way of Calgary, to push weight-room training and good eating habits. "They would sometimes eat cookies and chocolate bars for breakfast and afternoon snack," Guevremont says.
Rowe is being watched by all Russian hockey fans and is under enormous pressure not to let them down with a losing team. Yaroslavl is especially keen to see the new Lokomotiv team succeed in honour of their hockey dead, who still haunt the city.
Rowe and his players are reminded of the tragedy every time they enter the arena. The arena entrance's entire western flank, right up to the roof, is covered with portraits of the lost players and coaches. More than a year later, fans still place flowers on the ground beneath the portraits.
Inside the arena, there is another row of portraits. On a recent Friday after the team returned from a tour in Russia's east, a man starred at them in silence. He was Vladimir Malkov, the team's PR man for 18 years. His eyes welled up in tears, then he blessed himself as he turned away and smiled, happy that a team destroyed did not mean a team forever vanished.