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King of Russia: A Year in the Russian Super League Paperback – September 30, 2008
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover," illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Learn more
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About the Author
Dave King was coach of Canada’s national team for nine years, during which he coached the team to three Olympic games and a silver medal at Albertville in 1992. He has also been the coach of the NHL’s Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets, as well as the assistant coach for the Montreal Canadiens. He had taken a job with the top team in Finland, Helsinki IFK, before Magnitogorsk began to court him.
Eric Duhatschek was the winner of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for “distinguished contributions to hockey writing” in 2001. In 2000, after twenty years of writing about the NHL and the Calgary Flames, he joined globeandmail.com, where he writes a five-times-a-week NHL column. A frequent contributor to Hockey Night in Canada’s Satellite Hot Stove segment, he has covered four Winter Olympics, nineteen Stanley Cup finals, every Canada Cup and World Cup since 1981, plus two world championships. Most recently, he was appointed as the newest member of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s annual Selection Committee.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
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King had a couple of chances to coach NHL teams (Calgary and Columbus), but those didn't work out for the usual reasons -- it's not a business for the insecure. But King has always moved on, looking for students and a fresh sheet of ice.
That search led him to Russia some years ago, where he became the first Canadian coach of a team in the Russian Super League. That the backdrop for this often compelling book, "King of Russia."
King took over the team in Magnitogorsk, a medium-sized town dominated by the steel industry on the Ural River in the middle of Russia. He didn't know the language, didn't know his players, and didn't know the league. But he did know he was ready for an adventure.
It's fair to say he got one. The hockey part of the 2005-06 season takes up most of the story. The Russian Super League was something of a mystery to North Americans, even if they might recognize a few of the names here. When King was there, his best player was Evbeny Malkin, a high draft choice who is now doing well with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Former NHL players Anders Erksson, Dmitri Yushkevich and Igor Korolev also were around. Since only three imports are allowed per team, more or less (rules sometimes get stretched in Russia), the rest of the squad consisted of Russians who weren't good enough to play in the NHL or who simply wanted to stay in their home country. So the talent level probably is around that of the American Hockey League -- think Triple-A baseball.
There are obvious differences between North American hockey philosophies and Russian ones -- much more training over there, different lines of communication in the front office, etc. But it's the story of day-to-day life that probably is the most interesting part of the book.
Russia is slowly becoming more democratic and capitalist with each week, but the growing pains are obvious to King. Many have built large fortunes, and aren't shy about spending that money. But the safety net has some holes, particularly the elderly who saw their pensions reduced in value by inflation and have been forced to peddle in the streets to make ends meet. Fresh fruits and vegetables still can be a luxury at certain times of the year. Crime is a major problem; travel has some unexpected complications, even for hockey teams.
One illustration is King's ongoing story about a family of stray dogs he virtually adopted when he discovered the group shivering in the Russian winter. There are some homeless humans who weren't much better off.
Magnitogorsk didn't have a particularly dramatic season, which would have helped the tale a bit -- although King gets a surprise ending to the story. Still, it's great fun to read about an outsider in a strange land, a constant in literature all over the world. "King of Russia" captures that spirit nicely. Hockey fans with an interest in the international aspects of the game should breeze through this readable book.
Having lived a couple of years in the former Eastern bloc, it jogged memories of my experiences and some of the struggles. You'll get observations and insight on a wide range of different aspects of daily life and nuances of the culture. The discussion of youth hockey in Russia (page 103 and following) is fascinating. It's no surprise that so many Russian-trained players are excelling in the NHL. Be sure to read the Epilogue and Afterward, which put the whole adventure in nice perspective.
You will recognize the names. A good book.
King takes us along on a fascinating journey that turns your conventional assumptions of big-league hockey upside down. Russia comes alive as a place where players are developed with world-class hockey skills and a tireless work ethic, but the support structure around them hints at times of Third World status. A few teams are owned by some of the richest men in the world, spending millions on players if they offer a chance of success, but they also might have to munch on a bag of stone-cold McDonald's food after a game. While this book is a few years old I've found it to be the most enjoyable hockey read of my summer.
Most recent customer reviews
Yes its an amazing book and absolutely true story about many famous persons. Thanks coach for your view on my country.Read more