MOSCOW – It’s party time for Russian hockey – but for the national team’s head coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, a successful first year in the hot seat is some way from mission accomplished.
On the contrary, the intense focus on the task at hand remains as powerful now as during the team’s flawless progress towards World Championship gold in Sweden and Finland. Russia has welcomed its heroes with fanfare and applause from the very top, culminating in a presidential reception after a parade through the streets of Moscow, but even as the preparations for that celebration were in their frantic final moments, around Bilyaletdinov an aura of calm remained.
It was visible in the details: each task tackled methodically, then set aside, complete, for the next one. The staff quickly realized the importance of doing a job quickly and effectively – from the execution of a mass of individual tasks, the final goal is achieved. And, even allowing for the distraction of a brief interview, the bus leaves on time.
It’s a microcosm of Bilyaletdinov’s season: plucked from club coaching at Ak Bars Kazan, where his steely style saw back-to-back Gagarin Cup triumphs to add to old-school Super League success in Tatarstan and at Dynamo Moscow, he found himself responsible for the national team alone. It’s a change for Russian hockey, and within a year a team which failed to medal in Slovakia posted a perfect ten straight victories to steamroller its way to gold in Stockholm and Helsinki. Comparisons with the great Tikhonov have been heard.
Not that anyone should assume international hockey is easier than the club game, nor that the hard work is done for the Red Machine. In conversation, without giving away much detail, Bilyaletdinov makes it clear that the road to raising the cup was not a straightforward one.
“Now we’ve won the championships, everyone is happy,” he said in his office in the Russian Hockey Federation’s Soviet-era HQ on the edge of the Luzhniki sports complex. “But before there were a lot of problems, a lot of questions. This team is still developing and we thought we needed changes, new people. It took a lot of work, mostly during the Euro Hockey Tour, to see what we’ve got and make some decisions. In the end, it was positive and we’re happy.”
Those problems Bilyaletdinov mentioned were highlighted by an unhappy local media during some stuttering Euro Hockey Tour performances. A tournament win in the opening round in Finland didn’t impress everyone, with alarmed commentators diagnosing an over-reliance on star forward Alexander Radulov. Then a disappointing December on home ice prompted more wailing and gnashing of teeth – and unlike a club coach, who sees games coming thick and fast – Bilyaletdinov had to wait for the chance to put things right.
“At first I was a little bit against the idea [of only coaching the national team],” he admitted. “It was very new for me. Of course it was very difficult to start with: I needed to quickly understand what I should do, and how I should do it. That caused some problems, but then I calmed down and it started to work it out.”
As for whether it’s better to work exclusively in the international arena, or important to get more time behind the bench week-in, week-out, Bilyaletdinov is unwilling to commit himself. “I don’t think it’s ever easy working with the national team, whether dealing with the KHL or only with the Russian Hockey Federation; whether you combine with a club position or not,” he said. “Now I’m only working with the Russian national team, but if you are combining jobs you can work with the players throughout the season. If, like me, you don’t combine the jobs, you can only call them into the national team and do something with them here. That causes some difficulties.”
To address at least one of those problems, the KHL has acted on suggestions backed by the coach and tweaked its schedule to create more blank days around the Euro Hockey Tour stages and in the build-up to the World Championship. Shorter play-off series should mean no repeat of this season’s finale, which saw Russia take to the ice for a pre-competition game against Finland barely 24 hours after the Gagarin Cup final had been settled. “The schedule is very tough for our players, and recovery time is needed to prepare calmly for Euro Hockey Tour games,” Bilyaletdinov explained.
And preparation is about more than winning Eurotour games and even World Championships: there is just one more full season before the Sochi Olympics brings the biggest prize in the sport to Russian ice in 2014, and Bilyaletdinov expects total commitment from those who hope to be handed the chance of ending Russia’s 20-year wait for gold. “There is not much time left,” he warned. “This is why we want to hold a training camp in Switzerland to look at our players – especially young players – one more time. We need to see who they are, what they can do and what prospects they have. We are already setting this up.”
Mention of young players inevitably raises the specter of a Trans-Atlantic trail of talent taking its chance in the NHL. Much has changed here since Bilyaletdinov’s earlier spell with the national set-up in 2004, when the roster was dominated by North American-based players. But while KHL president Alexander Medvedev loudly proclaims the new-look Russian competition as a natural rival to the NHL, the coach is cautious about dismissing the allure of Stanley Cup dreams. “Of course [KHL players] are right here in front of us and we can say exactly how they play and what they do,” he said. “On the other hand the NHL has a very high level of hockey; the best players are there, world class players, and it’s very prestigious.”
Keeping NHL players involved in the national set-up remains a challenge – participation in Euro Hockey Tour during the season is impossible, World Championship action is limited and even the Olympic rosters themselves may be left without the North American contingent according to some in the New World. While Bilyaletdinov is confident that the threat of an NHL-free Olympics will be averted, he acknowledged the difficulties of dealing with the more distant members of his potential squad, and highlighted the importance of those World Championship games. “Players have a chance to play there so we understand what they can do, and they get a glimpse of the direction we are moving in and how we play,” he said. “There is an opportunity. It’s not big, but at least it exists.”
And for the players themselves, the likes of Yevgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Ovechkin and Semyon Varlamov, made a huge impact on the World Championship – none more so than tournament top scorer and MVP Malkin. And if in previous tournaments there was uncertainty at times about the ease with which returning NHLers could integrate into Russia’s gameplan, Bilyaletdinov insisted this time around there was no such difficulty.
“These are great players and everything went as you’d expect. I’m grateful to them,” the coach said. “We were a team, and everyone understood how to prepare, what had to be done. There were no questions.”