"Yes" is the answer

Pride and passion make players answer when coaches call

14-05-10
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Lanxess Arena Cologne  Germany
Long season or not, Ilya Nikulin and Alexander Ovechkin came running when coach Bykov called. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images

COLOGNE – Roger Fisher’s and William Fry’s management book “Getting to Yes” must be high on every national team head coach’s reading list. It’s getting that “yes” from a half a dozen key NHLers that can be the difference between a gold medal and a sixth-place finish – and between going home as a national hero or as a coach waiting to get fired.

It’s the same story, every year. Who’s coming, who’s not coming?

This year, the top nations are missing most of their most established stars. Canada has just one player from the Olympic gold medal team, the U.S. one from the silver medal team. Finland has four, Slovakia three - two of whom are goaltenders not named Jaroslav Halak - Sweden one, and the Czech Republic five.

Russia has twelve. Russian Olympians don’t seem to be tired after a long and disappointing - and since they’re here, it must be a disappointing - NHL season. They don’t nurse injuries. They don’t worry about their contract statuses. Even if it in Ilya Kovalchuk’s case means a contract possibly worth a hundred million dollars.

“After we lost in the NHL playoffs, I took a couple of days to relax and then I came here. I like to play for my country, and when I get the chance, I will,” says Alexander Ovechkin.

According to media reports, the Russian players made a pact after the disappointing Olympic tournament to come to Cologne, and win the nation’s third straight World Championship gold.

Don’t be surprised if the latest umours in the media that Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar will join the Russians become true.

But whatever the team’s goal is, adding another three weeks to the season must be worth it on some level. It must be fun. The Russian team is having fun, and it shows. The players are joking, laughing, and one practice in Cologne ended in a strip shootout competition.

“There’s been a big change since (Vyachselav) Bykov was named head coach. He’s changed the atmosphere and that’s why players like him and why they want to play for the national team,” says Denis Grebeshkov, one of the players on both 208 and 2009 championship teams.

“We want to win, we care about our country, and thirdly, it’s more breezy now. We’re having fun, and really enjoy playing for Russia,” he adds.

Sweden’s Bengt-Åke Gustafsson may have had the same kind of pull in 2006, but his charisma isn’t working anymore. This year, he placed over 30 phone calls only to get “no, thanks” back. The Olympians were, according Swedish media reports, not happy with his coaching in Vancouver.

Neither were the Finns with their coach Jukka Jalonen and for example, Olli Jokinen, 31, announced his retirement from the national team right after the bronze medal game in which he scored the game winning goal.

A few days ago coach Jalonen blamed the media for scaring players away from the tournament.

“There are guys who’ve had a good NHL season but think that a poor World Championship can spoil everything. It’s partly media’s fault, the players don’t like always hearing just criticism,” he says.

Of course, the players that are in Cologne and Mannheim have answered the call, and mostly for the same reason. They love hockey, and they love to represent their countries.

“I wasn’t ready to stop playing hockey yet, summer is long. I got the opportunity to play and I wanted to play. Every opportunity you play for your country might be your last so you should take it,” said Jack Johnson, the lone American Olympian.

And for players from the smaller hockey nations, the tournament seems to matter even more. Denmark has all their available NHLers (4), as does Norway (1). Belarus’s NHLers Mikhail Grabovski and Ruslan Salei are here, too, as always. According to head coach Eduard Zankovets, the Kostitsyn brothers would also have come to Cologne, had the Montreal Canadiens been out of the playoffs.

“We were never turned down. All the players we wanted for Belarus we got,” says former Belarus coach Glen Hanlon, who finds himself in a different situation with Slovakia, his new team.

“There are options for Slovak players. You can play in the KHL and make a ton of money. For some of the Belarusian players who play in the Belarusian league, the tournament is an option to attract interest elsewhere. The top players like Ruslan just love to play and take responsibility. Andrei Mezin, the goalie, says he just loves the World Championships,” Hanlon adds.

Grabovski, 26, says he grew up with the World Championship being a season highlight.

“The World Championship was the big thing when I was a kid. Also, I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t play hockey, it’s my life, I love to play,” he says.

“It’s difficult for my family in Belarus to come to North America to see me play, but they can come to the Worlds. I enjoy playing for my family and my country,” he adds.

With only a handful Belarusian players in the NHL, is there pressure for Grabovski to always don the red Belarus sweater with number 84?

“There’s no pressure for me to come. And Ruslan (Salei) is probably like me, just like the Russian guys. They always come, and they have fun,” Grabovski says.

“But I understand players who decline the invitation. I don’t have a family yet, but if you have a family, it’s a big commitment to be here,” he adds.

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