He is on his cellphone speaking from Yaroslavl, where former Canadian Olympic hockey coach Dave King has just assumed control of Lokomotiv – tragically the one KHL team that pretty much everybody in the hockey world knows.
King was the first North American to coach in Russia, opening the door for the likes of Barry Smith, Paul Maurice and Mike Keenan and others to follow. Last week, he took on the challenge of coaching Lokomotiv, the team devastated two and a half years ago by a plane crash that killed all of its players and coaching staff, including Brad McCrimmon, a fellow Saskatchewan native and close friend of King's.
It put King on the ground in Russia a week in advance of the Olympics, where he could take the temperature of the place, with the men's Olympic hockey tournament set to begin mid-week. King last coached here in 2005-06 with Metallurg Magnitorgorsk, which at the time included an emerging young Russian star named Evgeni Malkin.
Thus, the three-time coach of Canada's men's Olympic hockey team was in opposition when Russia defeated Canada in the quarter-finals of the 2006 Olympics in Turin, but then subsequently flamed out in the semi-finals and then in the gold-medal game. It gave him a first-hand appreciation of how things are not so different here than in Canada when it comes to hockey – expectations are immense, to the point where they can have a tangible effect on performance.
King recalled being in St. Petersburg for the 1999 world championships, a year when he says, "a whole bunch of the right Russian players got knocked out of the playoffs – Pavel Bure and that generation – and so were available. Russia had an unbelievable team and they were playing at a brand new rink. They had had some years of not having success at the world championships, so this year, it was going to happen – and yet it didn't. They were completely dysfunctional. Everybody was trying to put a show on. They were not playing with that continuity and collective play that Russian teams were so famous for.
"When the Russians come to North America now, I see so many that can make good plays, but they can be individualists. A lot of those guys are not all that easy to play with. So beyond the expectations, there's always that question in the back of your mind, 'will they be able to play together and share the puck? Are they going to play for the crest in the front or the name on the back?'"
King took a leave of absence from his job as the Phoenix Coyotes' development coach to join Lokomotiv for what could be as few as four games – or what's left of the KHL season once the Olympic break ends. His mandate is to get them into the playoffs and salvage the season for a team that, out of necessity, is playing all the young players coming through its system. The contact came out of the blue, but King didn't hesitate when the offer was made.
"All of us in the hockey world have an attachment to this team because of what they went through," said King. "The plane accident makes it a special organization and it is a long recovery process from that. We have a young team, a good group and a great organization, so that made it intriguing to me."
Oddly enough, after being here for a fortnight, King will soon be on his way to Germany for a mini training camp just as NHL players were scheduled to arrive Monday for their first day of practices. King is both the long-time mentor to Canadian coach Mike Babcock and a friend of his Russian counterpart, Zinetula Bilyeletdinov.
"It's going to be an interesting competition for us," assessed King, "because we've not won it on the big ice, so for Mike and his staff, they're going to want to be able to prove they can. They've done well at world championships on the big ice. The competition here is better than at world championships, but our team is better too.
"What I find unique is the format. It's almost like having a three-game training camp because nobody gets eliminated. You get to work on your game and your combinations with no huge amounts of pressure. It is user friendly for all the teams, when you consider how many countries now are affected by the NHL. I think we'll win enough to get a bye (into the quarter-finals), and then you go from there.
"I think we'll be all right."
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