UFA – The Russian U20 national team’s coaching staff owns the most titles at the World Juniors in Ufa. Mikhail Varnakov and Vladimir Myshkin can boast a combined 11 titles at various levels.
In June last year, the 54-year-old Varnakov was appointed as head coach of the Russian U20 national team. He replaced successful coach Valeri Bragin, who won World Junior gold in 2011 and silver in 2012. Bragin left the team to lead CSKA Moscow.
It was Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, the head coach of the men’s national team, who recommended hiring Varnakov. From 1979 to 1987 they played for the Soviet national team and for Dynamo Moscow during the North American tour in the 1985/1986 season.
After this they worked together as coaches at Dynamo Moscow (1997-2000, 2002-2004) and Ak Bars Kazan (2006-2008).
“Bill,” as Bilyaletdinov is nicknamed, thought that Varnakov would use a style of play and ideas similar to his on the junior team. At the same time as Varnakov came on board, Vladimir Myshkin became the goaltending coach for all Russian national teams.
Varnakov and Myshkin got to know each other with the club Krylya Sovietov Moscow when it was on tour against NHL teams at the end of 1978. The line of Alexander Skvortsov – Vladimir Kovin – Mikhail Varnakov from Torpedo Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) was invited by the Moscow team. It became the best line and scored more goals than any other. That was the way how Varnakov piqued the interest of Soviet national team coach Viktor Tikhonov, despite turning down the chance to play for Tikhonov’s club team, CSKA Moscow.
Tikhonov took Varnakov and Myshkin to the 1979 Challenge Cup, a series of three games between the USSR national team and an NHL All-Star Team in New York. In the crucial third game, the “Red Machine” won 6-0, and goalie Myshkin became famous, as he played in place of starter Vladislav Tretiak. Varnakov also did his part. In the second game, which the guests won 5-4, he scored the second goal to reduce the deficit to 3-2.
However, Varnakov was not invited to play at the 1979 IIHF World Championship or the 1980 Olympics. He waited for six long years to debut at the World Championship, but during this period he did participate in Transatlantic series against NHL clubs and at the 1984 Canada Cup. Varnakov loved to play against Canada – although in that country he is best known for being on a 2-on-1 with Kovin during the semi-final of the ‘84 Canada Cup, which Paul Coffey broke up just before the overtime winner was scored by Mike Bossy.
He also played against Team USA’s Phil Housley, now head coach of the U.S. U20 national team, for the first time one year later in a 7-4 win of Dynamo Moscow against the Buffalo Sabres.
Varnakov scored a lot, but for the 1984 Olympic Games in Sarajevo, Tikhonov invited only Skvortsov and Kovin while their usual linemate was left off the national team. The coach was not pleased with Varnakov’s decision not to play for CSKA.
After the success in the 1979 Challenge Cup, Myshkin's career thrived. At the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid he replaced Vladislav Tretiak in the famous “Miracle on Ice” loss to the United States.
Varnakov made his debut in an official IIHF tournament only in 1985. It was the World Championship in Prague, where the Soviet national team won bronze. But Varnakov was in good standing, and a year later he participated in Moscow and won his first World Championship gold medal. In the next World Championship in Vienna his history with the national team came to an end as did Bilyaletdinov’s.
Myshkin wasn't called to play on home ice in 1986. On his place 19-year-old prospect Belosheikin got the call.
Myshkin’s national team career was interrupted for three years. Tikhonov didn't forget a curious mistake of his goalie in a 2-1 defeat against Czechoslovakia when Vladimir Ruzicka opened the score. Fortunately, Myshkin was invited to play in the 1989 and 1990 World Championships, albeit as a backup.
Varnakov’s coaching career is not as rich in titles. He was coaching his hometown club Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod and Amur Khabarovsk. Prior to his appointment with the U20 national team he worked for a small team, Sarov, in the second-tier league VHL. But as Bilyaletdinov’s assistant coach, he won two championships in 2000 with Dynamo Moscow and in 2006 with Ak Bars Kazan.
He hit rock bottom when Salavat Yulayev Ufa ousted Ak Bars in the 2008 play offs. He was blamed for everything. Some players said they disliked working with him and alleged that he was checking the car’s temperature to find out whether they were having a party.
But Bilyaletdinov didn’t drop a friend who was in trouble. Now they are back together.
Of course, Varnakov is doomed to be compared with the previous U20 coach Bragin in light of Russia’s U20 success over the last two years, even though the squad is not stronger than it was previously. To play on home ice with huge expectations certainly doesn’t reduce the pressure.
Varnakov's debut with the team was difficult. In the summer series against Canada, dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the epochal 1972 Super Series, the Russian team won twice, and lost once in regulation and once in overtime. During the November tour in Canada Varnakov's team won half of the six games against the all-star teams of the OHL, QMJHL and WHL.
“We know how to play against Canadians,” the head coach said. “It is unlikely that they would surprise us.”
After losing the last Preliminary Round game against the team with the red Maple Leaf, Varnakov didn’t hide his thoughts.
“We lost because of a stupid penalty,” he said. “The Canadians shouldn’t be given such an opportunity. Some of our forwards didn’t do a good job.”
Myshkin, on the other hand, is very diplomatic. He doesn’t speak a lot to journalists. He adopted this habit after five years on the coaching staff of Swiss club HC Davos.