A Belarusian Canuck

Platt ready to play key role for Worlds hosts

05.05.2014
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Geoff Platt played his first games for Belarus during a tournament in Gdansk in February. Photo: Mirek Ring

He has already won the hearts of the Dynamo Minsk fans. Now Ontario-born Geoff Platt hopes his performances can help World Championship host Belarus.

Having missed out on Olympic qualification for Sochi, memories of their fourth-place finish at the 2002 Olympics were in the distant past for Belarus in February.

As the cream of the crop of the hockey world gathered in Sochi to showcase their talents at the 2014 Olympics, Belarus headed west, for exhibition games at the Polish Baltic Sea coast. While defeats in Gdansk to both Poland and Italy hardly will make prospective opponents quake in their skates, the offensive threat by high-profile newcomer Platt was one positive for Belarus to take with them as they hope to use the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship on home ice as a springboard for future success.

"The expectations for the World Championship should be high, because the last eight or ten years the hockey program has been unsuccessful so it's about time to put your foot down and expect something better from yourself, because you cannot continue the trend," said Platt, who opened his scoring account against Italy after his eligibility to represent Belarus was given the green light by the IIHF in October last year.

A big shift is expected from the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl star Platt who swapped the red jersey of Canada for one of Belarus thanks to events he describes as "almost like a folklore."

"The Dynamo Minsk fans almost planted the seed into the media's head, and then the media planted the seed into my head, and it created this big cycle or circle," said Platt, who first joined Dynamo Minsk in the Kontinental Hockey League for a short-term deal at the start of the 2008-09 season and then later represented the team well beyond the four full consecutive years which enabled him to represent his adopted country. "Once I realized I had carved out a pretty good reputation within Dynamo, in Minsk and Belarus, I realized it could become an actual ambition of mine to play for Belarus at an international level. I also thought it would be a very good way to try and give something back to hockey in Belarus as I think I can help its development," he said.

Having previously tasted success with Canada, as a gold medallist at the 2003 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in a team which also featured future two-time Olympic champion Ryan Getzlaf, Platt's journey to the Belarusian national team has been one driven by an incessant desire to improve his game.

Frustrated of the lack of opportunities to have a proper shot at glory in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets or Anaheim Ducks, Platt decided to try his luck across the Atlantic signing a one-year deal with traditional Finnish powerhouse Ilves Tampere at the age of 23.

With his contract at Ilves not starting until October and eager to find playing time, Dynamo Minsk stepped in to offer him a short-term deal to help him get up to speed. Such was the sudden impact made by Platt during his one-month stint in Minsk at early autumn of 2008 that the Belarusian club attempted to buy him out from his contract with Ilves. Platt, however, stayed true to his word and his contract with the Finns, where he was to enjoy a productive season while falling in love with the Finnish way of life and its style of hockey. But knowing what the KHL had to offer and eager to push himself forward in his career he returned to Dynamo Minsk for the 2009/2010 season to play in a highly-competitive league he has stayed put in ever since.

"Since coming to Europe I had to adapt greatly and change my style of play," Platt said. "I guess what has changed the most is that I continue to play with the puck more and more, but the style of hockey is also changing in the KHL. I remember arriving here six years ago and the puck could go into offensive zone, but the defenceman wouldn't literally hit you or close the gap. In those days you could back and literally retrieve the puck, turn around and face the guy one-on-one. These days you are getting run for the glass and the league has become more physical," he said.

But while the KHL have been making great strides, the development in Belarus has not quite followed its course despite major investments. Having made the play-offs just twice during his years at Dynamo, Platt started to feel his career was "becoming a bit stale" and felt a change of scenery would do him good. His wishes were granted mid-way through this season and he bid farewell to the Dynamo home crowd at the Minsk Arena in late December last year moving to Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to be part of something "where winning was expected every single night."

"The development of hockey in Belarus has not moved as far forward as I would have anticipated five years ago. There is passion for the sport from the people at the top, so it is difficult to pinpoint where exactly it has gone wrong," said Platt.

"But if you look back at the Dynamo team from that first season when I joined up with them, many young players are no longer with Dynamo, in the KHL or playing elsewhere in Europe. It has been disappointing to see so many of them not pan out and be successful players, and a lot of it has to do with management and coaching changes as it is very, very hard to develop under such circumstances."

A similar trigger-happy approach has also been transmitting itself to the national team. In 2011 Finnish head coach Kari Heikkilä had been brought in and earmarked as the man to lead and prepare Belarus for the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. He was gone before the end of 2012 as his attempts to significantly shift the team's style of play had not brought instant success.

Heikkilä's replacement, the former national player of Belarus, Andrei Skabelka, survived one World Championship and stepped down after being unable to guide Belarus past the Final Olympic Qualification round for Sochi.

With Minsk 2014 fast approaching, Belarus opted for the tried and tested Glen Hanlon, who returned for his third spell at the helm of Belarus. The Canada-born American who previously guided them to a fine sixth-place finish at the 2006 World Championships now has the tall order to turn the tide after three consecutive 14th place finishes at the World Championships.

"Glen has in the past done very well with the national team, but like so many times, he wasn't perhaps given enough time to develop the system, because it takes a tremendous amount to groundwork to build up where perhaps four years is not enough, maybe you need ten," said Platt. "Look at Switzerland which is a good example. Sean Simpson has been their head coach there for a long time and that is what you will have to do, commit to one person and one ideology."

While Hanlon hopes to once again prove he is Mr Right for the job on the Belarus bench, the North American flavour out on the ice is also being increased as Platt is likely to be joined by another dual Canadian/Belarus passport holder on the final roster for the World Championships. 27-year-old netminder Kevin Lalande of Dynamo Minsk made his first start for Belarus in December last year when they beat Switzerland after penalty-shots, and with Belarus entering their final preparations, Platt is already looking forward of what is to come playing for a host-nation.

"With everyone being on your side and with the country going every end to make it as comfortable as possible is going to be a lot of fun," he said. "I was not sure what it would mean to wear the symbol (of Belarus) or what not, but in the end the rewarding part is just being on the ice with everyone having the same goal, which you don't get in a club team until you are at the play-offs, so it is a cool feeling and one I have not had for many years."

Platt, who received a fine reception from the Dynamo fans upon his return to the Minsk Arena at the end of January this year as a Lokomotiv player, now hopes his drive for success and his displays will once again get the Minsk crowd on their feet come May. While the neighbours down the road, Russia bowed out at the quarter-final stages in Sochi, Belarus would look at a similar feat as a big success and step in the right direction after years in the doldrums.

"If you look what you have to do to reach the quarter-finals I think it’s very possible, and then almost anything can happen, you can catch fire or have a goalie who will win games for you, but for that we need to improve our execution and our system. We need to become more predictable to each other because that's what I think makes a good hockey team, when you have a game plan and you stick to it. If you expect one guy to do something I expect him to do it 100 times out of 100 and not just 99, so if we can build that predictability within our team, we can be successful even with a lower skillset than a lot of other teams."

HENRIK MANNINEN

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