I wanted to share some of my experiences from a three-month whirlwind association with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. It was too good to keep to myself.
Let’s start at the end.
I’m on my way to the rink the day after losing to Jari Kurri’s Jokerit team. Jokerit had lost three in a row and at the morning skate when I spoke to Jari I knew one of us was going to be leaving the game very disappointed.
He’s a friend, and I feel bad saying this, but I hoped it would be him. I also knew that, regardless of the circumstance of the game, if we lost I was very likely to be fired. Our record going into the game was 3-4-0.
We had lost the first two games of the season and then won three out of four, but another two-game losing streak was probably the end.
It was Sept. 24 and my assistant coach Mike Pelino and I were driving to the rink for practice. I had a strong premonition that the day was not going to be great.
I said to Mike, ‘Let’s stop at McDonalds, get an Egg McMuffin and a coffee and discuss our practice plan and lineup there.’
We were a couple bites in when translator (and former NHLer) Denis Grebeshkov called to tell me he spoke to the big boss, Yuri Yakovlev, and I wasn’t required to go to the rink.
End of the adventure.
It began four months earlier May 16 when I was hired as Lokomotiv head coach. My mindset was best described as fearfully optimistic. When friends told me they would be coming to visit, my answer was always the same: “Come early … before I get fired.”
The players, young and old, were a pleasure to work with. They were hard working, dedicated and would do anything you asked, living by the old Animal House adage – thank you, sir, may I have another? There were no issues whatsoever regarding work ethic and passion. That was a surprise. The players very much have an old- school North American mentality of respecting authority. They’re mostly intimidated by authority figures and uncomfortable with communication with the coach.
It took longer to develop trust with the players than I expected. However, over time I came to enjoy them and respect their perspective on the game.
I had lots of help.
Pelino was an unbelievable asset for me. He has spent the last five years in the KHL. He brings a ton of energy, has a big, booming coaching voice and energizes all staff he comes in contact with.
Mike is now the head coach of Yaroslavl; within weeks, they fired the guy who replaced me.
Grebeshkov was born and lives in Yaroslavl. He played for us in Edmonton with the Oilers and had the responsibility of acting as my translator. He’s very good and a sharp guy. The import players used to say that the Russian translation of the drills were far more informative than the original version I provided. Of that I have no doubt. Denis was a huge help to me and important to the Lokomotiv hockey team.
The Yaroslavl facility is world-class and NHL-class. The fitness, medical, sport science and support staff are NHL quality. I was expecting dilapidated facilities and unprofessional support staff, but was instead blown away with the level of funding and staffing for the team and at the practice facility.
I was told that when the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv plane crashed on Sept. 7, 2011, Vladimir Putin asked the team president, Yuri Yakovlev, what Russia could do to help. The crash killed 44 of the 45 people on board. The lone survivor was the flight engineer, who sat in the back with the players, staff and coaches. Three of the men on board were former teammates of mine: Pavol Demitra, Brad McCrimmon and Alexander Karpovtsev.
Yakovlev had the vision of building a legacy facility and providing the resources to develop young players and Putin funded it. It was amazing to me how well-utilized the facility was and the scope of it. There were always young players on the ice with professional instruction. The Yaroslavl program had eight players drafted in the 2019 NHL draft – a very big success by any standard.
I imagined Russian hockey was going to be the skilled, puck possession, passing game that we saw when Anatoli Tarasov was coaching Central Red Army and the Russian national teams from the 1940s all the way into the 1970s.
It took me a while to understand the KHL game. It is a frenetic, high-energy game that seldom sees more than two passes completed in succession. Passing, to me, has always been the most graceful, entertaining form of the game. Glenn Anderson would constantly say, “Can’t pass, can’t play,” and Edmonton saw the greatest passer in history of the game, so I have always viewed passing ability as essential to success.
On 95 per cent of the KHL teams, when the defencemen get the puck – with any time – the forwards take off for a stretch pass and chip to forecheck. This tactic is executed with the intensity of a fire drill. All the defencemen would see was the sight of diminishing players fading through the neutral zone. I thought it was a crazy way to play and still do, but at least I understand the rationale behind it now.
Offensively, they’re expecting and managing the turnover.
KHL logic holds that it’s better to turn the puck over just outside the opposition’s blueline than inside yours. Take the passing skill and decision-making out of the hands of the defencemen, who presumably lack that capability. The hockey is entertaining and fast. Players have good puck skills but the playmaking just isn’t near the NHL level.
Not surprisingly, the two best teams, SKA Saint Petersburg and CSKA Moscow, have the most skilled passing defencemen and deploy a more North America-style of attack.
The coaching part of the experience definitely provided challenges for me early, but I certainly had time to work the kinks out. I arrived in Yaroslavl on July 1 for practice/training camp. The first game was Sept. 4. The reason for this is that Russian players use training camp to get themselves into shape.
I was shocked at the conditioning level of some of the players but understand it slightly more now. Some players, usually veteran players, just don’t do much unsupervised. They’re expected to be in residence – the “Basa” or team base - for 10 months of the year and take the other two months off.
As I was meeting the players, I remember walking up to one who was clearly overweight. As we approached each other in the hallway I was thinking, ‘I really hope this guy is the goalie.’ I introduced myself through the translator and asked him his position.
“Centre,” he said. OUCH!
As it happens, this player became one of my favorite people. He reminded me a lot of Todd Harvey. Both these guys were hockey geniuses but all that intellect was trapped in bodies with design flaws and maintenance neglect. (Sorry, Harv.)
Obvious challenges for me were language, bench management with Russian names, the presence of 60 players, accurate player evaluation, the style of play and working with two Russian coaches I couldn’t communicate effectively with.
But I embraced the challenges and was really enjoying coaching again.
By far the biggest challenge was Yakovlev. I liked him and certainly had a great respect for what he had built in Yaroslavl. I know you don’t run an operation this large efficiently without high-level management. He was a regal man whose management style was to manage by exception – that is, manage by addressing the negative issues only.
No news was good news when dealing with Yuri. As one of the staff told me early on, “When you speak with Yuri, things are either bad or really bad.”
I had a brief introduction to Yuri a few years ago when I was in Yaroslavl scouting the KHL. I was told of his approach by many people, including Dave King, who worked for Yuri twice as coach of Yaroslavl. Every interview I did with Russian media prior to my arrival led with the same question about coaching tenure: “Do you know the history of coaching turnover in Yaroslavl?”
I knew exactly what I was getting into and in no way regret my decision to coach there or consider myself a victim in any way.
My usual one-to-two-hour meetings with Yuri were generally after losses. There was no differentiating between preseason losses or regular-season losses. As Mike Keenan told me, every game was treated as a must-win, Game 7 situation.
The meetings were either at the “Basa” (where all players and coaching staff lived) in Yuri’s office or, if we were on the road, in a boardroom at the hotel Yuri was staying in.
The first meeting was after an intrasquad game that Yuri had streamed to him because he was out of town. The critique of me and the team usually revolved around two issues; first, not enough battle drills in practice and, second, I didn’t berate the Russian players enough.
From Yuri’s perspective, that was the best way to achieve maximum performance from the Russian players. This was, he said, what they grew up with and that’s how they best responded.
I quietly disagreed and felt building a deeper, individualized, trust relationship with the Russian players would help me influence their behaviour, decision-making, buy-in, loyalty and, ultimately, performance level. This was probably the biggest disconnect between Yuri and me.
He felt a transactional, dictatorial relationship with the players was the best way to maximize performance and I was looking for more of a North American transformational style of leadership.
If this management / leadership discussion is starting to sound too theoretical, I apologize. I paid $75,000 to Queen’s University for a MBA program and you’re going to have to suffer through it.
The Russian management attitude was by no means specific to Yuri. It was really the Russian norm. It didn’t make sense to me or anyone outside of Russia to bring in North American coaches but force Russian management theory on them.
I probably had about six of these meetings with Yuri – including one in Riga, Latvia at a pre-season tournament. After a very long morning breaking down the previous night’s loss and preparing for the game that night, I got back to the hotel needing a little rest before the game.
When I arrived at the hotel, there was a big black Mercedes staff car waiting for Denis and me to take us to a meeting with Yuri.
There was another meeting after the first regular-season game, a loss in which we squandered a two-goal lead. Yuri told me we were running out of time. I had better turn it around.
My patience for these meetings was definitely wearing thin.
I’m not a tough guy and I don’t pretend to be, but my mind would wander as Yuri was critiquing me and I was waiting for the translation. I was thinking what the consequences would be if I picked up the chair beside me and broke it over the table beside him. I’d probably end up in the trunk of that black Mercedes (joking) … but I’ve had a long career in hockey and as he rambled on in Russian I smiled at the thought that this wouldn’t be a terrible way to end it.
The translation would snap me out of it and bring me back to reality, but this would become a frequent thought during future meetings.
The last meeting before I was fired I started to push back. The head coach always feels the worst after a loss. To pile on that feeling with these meetings had me questioning if this situation was survivable. I needed to change the way Yuri and I communicated. If this initiative resulted in me getting fired, well, I was willing to risk it.
At our next meeting, which was after a win, I told him that he couldn’t come down to the coaches’ office and threaten to fire me every day – especially after wins! We had to communicate differently or he had to fire me.
He told me “Craig, we’re both going to get fired.” I laughed and so did he. The next time I talked to him he fired me.
I had the same feeling I had 43 years ago when my buddies and I were fired from our tobacco-picking job in Southwestern Ontario – relief and total ambivalence.
The other challenge was the press conferences.
After the game, I would ride up the elevator with the head coach from the opposition to the media room. The other coach and I would chat either directly or indirectly through an interpreter in the elevator. The discussion always revolved around how crazy it was to coach in KHL. We’d share a couple of laughs and then go on to the conference.
I would say 80 per cent of the questions were directed to the losing coach, regardless if we were on the road or at home. Just wasn’t enough juice in the winning storyline. Effectively, every loss the coach’s job is on the line so the story usually started and ended there.
Each coach would give a brief overview of his perspective of the game then the floor was opened up and it was GAME ON!
I don’t know whether this was a survival tactic or not, but I quickly viewed the press conferences as me being trapped in a sitcom. I assigned Edmonton media names to our daily Russian media.
The older, professional gentleman who would ask fair questions and looked generally supportive was Brian Hall. The ambitious young guy reminded me of my early exchanges with Ryan Rishaug when I coached the Oilers and the middle-aged woman whom I felt had the best perspective on the game and asked the most relevant questions was Joanne Ireland.
I’m sure if I lasted another week or two, Terry Jones would have showed up somewhere.
A few memorable exchanges: The ambitious young guy would ask his question in Russian and the longer he went the more negative a question I expected. Denis would whisper the question in my ear; I would stifle a chuckle and attempt to answer.
“Craig, he wants to know if you were happy with your first line. They didn’t have any points or shots on goal and they were a collective minus-6.”
“Craig, he’s wondering if you feel another coach on the bench might help.”
After the press conference we would walk past the suites and on one occasion, I spoke to a couple of executives who came out of a suite to catch my attention. They told me they used to toast before the game to the Lokomotiv but after the first two games (losses) they would toast to me (read pity). And since we had won a couple games, they thought it was working.
I did meet a lot of very good people there and the organization had many very good traditions. One was that every player, coach of support staff would be recognized on the ice by the team on his birthday. The head coach would give that person a gift and the players would gather around for quick acknowledgement.
I have always felt that every experience in hockey is good if that’s what you make of it and this was a good experience.
The KHL was very well run with a high level of professionalism. The refereeing was decent. I had heard horror stories, but overall I thought the officiating was good with a high level of accountability and oversight. There is a huge NHL influence on all aspects of game presentation and operations.
Even the man who fired me, Yuri Yakovlev, I have high regard for. We often disagreed on the methods but our objectives were always the same. He has built a legacy in Yaroslavl out of tragedy and no one could ever question his passion for the youth programs, the KHL team or the city.
Craig MacTavish played 1,093 regular-season games and won four Stanley Cups during a 17-year NHL career with the Boston Bruins, Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and St. Louis Blues. He was an assistant coach for the Rangers and Oilers before serving as Edmonton’s head coach from 2000 to 2009. He has also served as general manager and senior vice-president of hockey operations for the Oilers.