QUEBEC CITY – Who can stop the Canadians in front of their fans?
They are on a mission. To win this first tournament ever played in Canada is considered no less than a national duty.
Just having a smart game plan will not be enough to stop them.
Maybe only Vyacheslav “Slava” Bykov can do it. He’s a man on a mission here in Quebec City.
This is one of the greatest stories in international hockey: Bykov, a Russian with a Swiss passport who speaks perfect French, is the head coach of Team Russia here in Quebec. This is the globalization of hockey at its best.
Watch out for Bykov. It is an emotional trip to Quebec City for him.
In February 1987, he was part of Rendez-Vous ’87 when the NHL All Stars played two games against the Soviets. And then he turned down offers from the now-defunct Quebec Nordiques to play in the NHL. Instead, he signed with Fribourg in 1990 to play the rest of his career in the Swiss National League A.
“It was not my dream to play in the NHL,” he says. “The Nordiques were always fair to me. But I had the feeling that I was just another player for them. Fribourg GM Jean Martinet came to Moscow, and I understood that Andrei Khomutov and I would be franchise players for them. I could stay in Europe, have my family with me, and play in a league where I could come home almost every day. That’s why I decided to go to Switzerland.”
He is happy with his life. His son Andrei, 20, also plays for Fribourg, and will soon be a member of the Swiss national team. The Bykov family got Swiss citizenship, and they feel at home both in the Russian capital (where Slava coaches CSKA Moscow and the national team) and in Fribourg.
Only a well-travelled hockey man like Bykov is able to coach today’s Team Russia. It is still the most fascinating in the world. It combines the best things in hockey. The Russians have always had amazing skills since they took the world of hockey by storm back in 1954. From Bobrov to Kharlamov to Makarov to Malkin. From generation to generation, they are the most gifted players in the world.
And there has always been this passion to play hockey and not just to “work the game.” When the coaches could handle these offensive racehorses, they ruled the world of hockey. Back then, Russian coaches had absolute power over their hockey soldiers, like military commanders in the Red Army.
But today, the Russians have become NHL millionaires, familiar with the Western lifestile. The national team coach is no longer a military commander. Since so many of the top Russian players make their money in North America, the most difficult job in international hockey is to coach the Russian national team.
The Canadians don’t rule today’s hockey world because they have better players than the Russians. They would not fare well in a skills contest versus their archrivals. But the Canadian players have always been better-coached than the Russians. They know it’s for their best to accept the authority of a coach. Even the toughest ones, like Mike Keenan or Dave King were father figures, compared to Viktor Tikhonov. The old-school Russian coaches always ruled by absolute institutional authority, and not by natural and personal authority like the Canadian bench bosses.
Bykov may be the first Russian national team coach who rules his team by natural and personal authority. That’s because he’s also the first Russian national coach who understands both the Eastern and Western worlds of hockey from long personal experience.
And he is one of the few coaches nowadays who allows his players to play real firewagon hockey. Last year, Bykov’s team went down in offensive flames in front of their fans at the Worlds in Moscow. The home ice curse was just too strong. Ever since the former Soviets won the gold medal in 1986 in Moscow, with Bykov as a player, no other team has succeeded in capturing the title on home ice. Other titans of international hockey, like the Swedes, Finns and Czechs have failed.
Now Bykov is back with his offensive symphony orchestra. He’s facing his biggest challenge ever - to win a title on his archrival’s ice.
The last team to win gold with pure firewagon hockey was Team Russia in 1993, with Bykov as a key player.
Now he’s on a mission to do it again as a coach. Watch out for Bykov and his offensive circus here in Quebec City.
Klaus Zaugg is a Swiss hockey journalist who has covered the IIHF World Championship since 1981. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.