OTTAWA - When Sergei Nemchinov was originally selected as the head coach of the Russian U20 team, it was supposed to be a temporary assignment. Even though he had a rough introduction during the 2007 Canada/Russia Superseries, losing seven games with one tie and being outscored 39-13, Nemchinov has stuck with it. At the 2008 IIHF World Junior Championship, he coached Russia to the bronze medal with a 4-2 win over the Americans.
The 44-year-old, who splits his time between his native Moscow and New York, has plenty of experience to draw upon. As a player, Nemchinov won gold medals at the 1983 and 1984 World Juniors, suited up at Rendez-Vous ’87 and the 1987 Canada Cup, participated at the 1989 (gold), 1990 (gold), 1991 (bronze), and 1998 IIHF World Championships. The two-way centre also played 761 NHL games, accumulating 152 goals and 193 assists for 345 points and capturing the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers (1994) and the New Jersey Devils (2000). IIHF.com spoke with Nemchinov at the Civic Centre after Russia’s practice on Monday.
IIHF.com: What are the most important things you want to accomplish in practice as a coach at a short tournament like this?
Sergei Nemchinov: Just to work on some key situations, like the power play, penalty kill, and defensive zone coverage.
IIHF.com: Where do you need the most improvement?
Nemchinov: On the power play, we need to shoot more. Our defensemen have good shots, and they need to take advantage of that. We also need to get better at screening the goalie. Overall, I would like us to play better defensively, too. In the Russian league, we know how to play offence, offence, offence all the time. Our guys need to understand that to win the game, you need to know how to play both sides of the puck. Defence and offence.
IIHF.com: Your team has six players who play for North American clubs. How does that affect your team-building process?
Nemchinov: It helps here, because they’ve adjusted to this game. For our other players, we had exhibition games in November [the 2008 ADT Canada/Russia Challenge] that gave them a chance to taste the Canadian style of play, which is different from the European style. More physical, especially on the small rinks. A lot more shooting, too.
IIHF.com: And the likelihood is that if you want to get to the gold medal game, you’ll have to go through Canada or the United States.
Nemchinov: We’re not thinking so far ahead. We’re thinking about the next game, and that game is Slovakia.
IIHF.com: Your starting goalie, Danila Alistratov, is one of the smallest players on the team at 170 cm and 68 kg. What are the special qualities that made you choose him for the team?
Nemchinov: He’s a number one goalie for his KHL team, Traktor Chelyabinsk. He played 29 games for them, which is a lot. More than probably than any other Russian goalie this year. He’s playing well there in a tight division. He plays in all the big games, and that’s why we chose him.
IIHF.com: Has your team received any messages of support from some of the famous Russian World Junior stars like Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, or Malkin?
Nemchinov: No, we haven’t. But we have some experienced players in our locker room. For instance, Vyacheslav Voinov is playing in his third World Junior Championship, and for other guys, it’s their second time. But maybe we’ll hear from some of those former players as we get deeper into the tournament.
IIHF.com: You gave an interview to Sovetsky Sport a couple of years ago where you mentioned that one of the advantages Canada has in hockey is that they’re very positive-thinking and blessed with self-confidence. Is this something you’re trying to inculcate in your players, and does it help, say, that Russia won the IIHF World Championship in Quebec City this year?
Nemchinov: It helps when you’re winning. Your confidence grows as a team. That’s why Canada is so tough to beat on the junior level. But the other thing is that they have a very good system and very good junior leagues. That means their players get to play in key situations all the time, and they’re leaders on their teams.
IIHF.com: How have you changed or improved as a head coach since the Super Series?
Nemchinov: I hope I’ve improved! [laughs] That’s for other people to decide. It was a tough start with that series. But I got over it. I got over it with the help of my family and friends. Of course, I’ve changed. We’ve changed some things in terms of how we practice. In addition, I’ve started to get to know the players better, which helps me a lot. You’re always learning.
IIHF.com: As a player, you were known as a great faceoff man. Do you teach that skill to your young centres?
Nemchinov: They know the tricks of the trade, but we still practice faceoffs a lot. During the training camp in Moscow, we practiced it almost every day. It’s an important part of the game.
IIHF.com: Let’s talk some more about your playing career. Who gave you the nickname “Sarge”?
Nemchinov: I don’t know. It was on the Rangers. Mike Keenan, maybe?
IIHF.com: You played with three of the most famous leaders in hockey history: Slava Fetisov, Mark Messier, and Scott Stevens. What did you learn from them?
Nemchinov: They were all different, but they were great leaders in the locker room and on the ice. I learned a lot from them. You can’t sum it up in just one word. But they all knew how to change the atmosphere in the locker room in a positive way. It was amazing. You could feel their presence in the locker room. They made your confidence grow.
IIHF.com: You won your first gold medal at the World Juniors in 1983, including a 7-3 win over a Canadian team with Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux where you scored two goals. What do you remember about that experience overall
Nemchinov: It was in Leningrad. I had a good game there, and we had a good team. You know, for that tournament, we had a very good coach in Anatoli Kostriukov. He was old-school. He taught us how to play the game, not just to skate around, but improve our game. I remember we played two pre-tournament exhibition games against Czechoslovakia. They were back-to-back. The first game, we lost 9-1 or 8-1, something like that. The Czechoslovakians had a very good team that year with Vladimir Ruzicka, Petr Rosol, Frantisek Musil, and guys like that. The next day, we had practice in the morning. He put us on the ice and we skated a couple of laps, just easy. Then he called us all over to the boards, and he explained what we’d done, and how we should play in the next game in every zone. He went through it step by step. We finished the practice, and the next game, we went out and beat Czechoslovakia probably 9-1. It was a learning experience. He was a really smart guy. A true teacher.
IIHF.com: As you mentioned, your focus right now is Slovakia on December 30. What do you need to do there to be successful?
Nemchinov: We need to play better defensively, and when we’ve got scoring opportunities, we need to capitalize.