MAGNITOGORSK, Russia – After 20 years behind an NHL bench, legendary coach Mike Keenan is trying something slightly different at 64 years old. The man known as “Iron Mike” finds himself in Russia’s steel city as head coach of Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL after signing with the club in May.
So far so good in Russia, as Keenan’s team is positioned in the top-three of the KHL’s Eastern Conference.
We caught up with the former NHL coach/general manager/hockey analyst to discuss a variety of things including Russian pizza, Olympic pressure and whether or not Keenan would consider a sales pitch to Yevgeni Malkin for a possible hockey homecoming.
What's the biggest difference between the North American style of hockey and the Russian/European Style?
I’d say the biggest difference would be the amount of skating that’s involved in the Russian/European style of hockey on the bigger sheet of ice. You have to spend more time and energy “containing” and “regrouping” in this style.
What's the biggest similarity between coaching in the two leagues?
As someone who has coached on both continents, I can tell you that the biggest similarity is getting the most you can out of each of your players – no different here than in North America.
How do you communicate with players? Any "lost in translation" moments yet?
The translation hasn’t been an issue because the club has provided great resources. We have an excellent coach in Ilya Vorobyov, who is fluent in English and in Russian and he’s doing the translation for us.
Your team is playing really well. To what do you attribute the fast start?
Good preparation by our staff (Assistant coaches: Mike Pelino, Ilya Vorobyov, and goaltending coach Tomas Bjure) in both our practices and in our game strategies and advance scouting of our opponents. And of course, we have a few really good players.
What makes the sport of hockey so unique in Russia?
Much like in Canada, and North America in general, the fans are passionate about their hockey and their teams. It’s a tremendous emotional uplift for the fans when their team is successful.
Just how passionate are fans in Russia about the sport?
Very simply, I’d call the people in Russia “die-hard fans” who are great supporters of the game and their team and with that, they carry very high expectations.
Some people call Magnitogorsk the "Pittsburgh of Russia". Is that accurate? What would you compare it to? Have you seen the famous steel factory?
The Magnitogorsk Steel and Iron Works factory (MMK) is incredible. It takes up over 6 miles of land and employs over 60,000 people. We have seen the factory – it is directly across the river from our arena, and we have had the opportunity to tour it. The owner of MMK is also our team owner. Everyone in the city is very proud of the factory, as are we.
How is your lifestyle different there? What are the day-to-day things you are adjusting to? What do you miss from North America?
The lifestyle here is good. My assistants and I live in the “basa”, which is along the lines of a university residence with each apartment being self-contained. We have a driver who takes us where we want to go. The food is excellent and there are some good casual restaurants that we frequent. Social networking makes life easier with the most difficult thing being away from family and friends.
There are teams all over Russia. How has the travel been? What's the longest trip you've taken or will take?
Russia is huge. There are 28 teams in the league, and I believe nine countries represented. Our longest trip going west is to Prague and Zagreb (approximately a five-hour flight), while our furthest east is to Vladivostok, which is about an 8-hour flight from Magnitogorsk. Our schedule is fairly friendly in spite of the travel. There are not any back-to-back games scheduled and the majority of the time we have a four-game road swing and then a four-game home stand to make the travel bearable. The road games tend be close to each other, which helps a lot.
What's your new favourite food item in Russia?
We’re enjoying the fresh vegetables, but my favorite ‘new’ food would be the “Russian pizza”. (Note: some of Russian’s favourite toppings include: sardines, tuna, mackerel, salmon, onions and red herring)
What's your new favourite Russian saying?
“Spasibo”, which means thank you. Also, “dobroe utro”, which means good morning.
Who is the next big-time Russian star that you've seen in the league?
There are a lot of good players in this league. Yevgeni Kuznetzov, who plays for Traktor and was drafted by the Washington Capitals, is pretty impressive. We have some pretty good ones on our team as well.
What's the feeling in Russia about the Olympic ice hockey tournament? What are the players and officials saying?
There is a lot of excitement with the upcoming Olympics. Players and officials are looking forward to a great event. The thought is that this will be the best hockey ever played. Sounds like most people think Canada is the biggest threat to Russia winning.
Have you talked to Yevgeni Malkin? Are there any plans to make him rejoin his old team?
Malkin is from Magnitogorsk and played here last year during the lockout. Obviously it would be tremendous for the city and the organization if he was ever able to play here again.
What was the reception to your YouTube video that the team made when it announced your hiring?
The fans in Magnitogorsk are very knowledgeable and passionate about the team. I think they were pretty excited to see the direction the ownership and management was taking in hiring a former NHL coach.