No more Troika?

Star centre Sergei Zinoviev wants out of Ak Bars Kazan

22.11.2008
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Sergei Zinoviev wants to leave Ak Bars Kazan after seven years. Photo: Zigismunds Zalmanis

KAZAN, Russia – The first waves were made in Russia. There were talks about a magical troika in Kazan. The trio of Danis Zaripov, Sergei Zinoviev and Alexei Morozov ripped apart defence after defence in the Russian league. Not long after, the rest of Europe awed as they witnessed Ak Bars Kazan’s first offensive line during the European Champions Cup.

And it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world met the famous ZZM line. Playing for Russia in the World Championship, the trio wreaked havoc as the KLM line did in the time of the dominant Soviet Union red machine. During the 2007 World Championship they combined for a massive 38 points, a year later they notched 20 points. Talk about a storm.

But symptomatic of storms is that they come and go.

The Kazan storm might come to a sudden end. Centre Zinoviev is reportedly unhappy with the coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov and has stated he wants to move teams, although Ak Bars could refuse to let their star go.

A story about a classic coach vs. star player conflict that is keeping Russians in their grasp.

To understand the conflict one must go back to mid November. On the 13th, at Novokuznetsk, Zinoviev’s birth place, a news agency was the first to report that Zinoviev wanted switch teams. Ak Bars coach Zinteula Bilyaletdinov said that he was unaware of any problem with the player, who was said to be suffering from a foot injury. The player himself disagrees and is looking for answers.

Tired of all the speculation, Zinoviev spoke emotionally about his case on Sport, a Russian TV channel and newspaper Sport Express. The forward, limited to just ten games (two points) so far this season, feels he is not the initiator of the conflict.

“The situation reached a deadlock as he (Bilyaletdinov) does not want to talk about the matter,” Zinoviev said. “I’m ready to leave the club even for less money. I am looking for more ice time in order to keep my spot on the national team. For me that is more important than money.”

It all started during the game against Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod on November 12. “Coming into the dressing room when the third period line combinations were called I learned that my line was benched for the whole third period. No one told us anything, nobody explained why. So as a result I sat on the bench all period. We won the game so I did not complain any further.”

But things didn’t stop there. Zinoviev: “The following two games against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and Severstal Cherepovets I was not even dressed. When journalists asked Bilyaletdinov about my third period absence, he answered that I obtained a foot injury. But this is totally not true. I am healthy and can and want to play,” Zinoviev claims. “Again journalists asked Bilyaletdinov about the reasons for my absence but he never answered. Journalists that attended our team’s practices saw that I worked on full pace, yet I’m being scratched.”

Not shy of interest from other teams, Zinoviev is prepared to leave his beloved team. “It’s open at the moment. There is an information vacuum created around me and I don’t have any contact with the coach. As a result it almost seems like they want the conflict to look like me stating I want to leave to another team for higher wages but I need to play in order to keep my spot on the national team.”

National team coach Vyacheslav Bykov commented that he hopes the player will play again soon. “The World Championship is still some time away from us, but I hope a solution is found between the player and the club,” he told allhockey.ru. “It’s a complex situation but the player needs ice time in order to be selected. I’m sure the team won’t leave him on the bench all season though.”

According to the player, the conflict with the coach is not a coincidence as its history repeating itself. Nevertheless, Bilyaletdinov, a six-time World Championship gold medalist and winner of a gold and silver Olympic medal, has been Zinoviev’s coach for the past five seasons.

“It’s not a secret that he cannot deal with star players. Just think of the conflict with Ilya Kovalchuk during the lock-out season.”

After Kazan was eliminated, Kovalchuk was disappointed by his coach and said he would not play for the national team if Bilyaletdinov was the coach. “I don’t want to be disheartened again while it’s necessary to obtain pleasure from playing hockey,” the Atlanta Thrashers forward said back then. “If the coach benches me for 10-15 minutes in a row and only lets me on the ice playing 5-on-5 then I guess we have different views.”

Similar problems occurred with Gennady Razin when Bilyaletdinov coached Dynamo Moscow.

Regardless of the history, Ak Bars has been a force in Russian and European hockey under Bilyaletdinov’s command. According to Zinoviev, that was not so much to the credit of the coach. “We did win gold medals but this was mainly thanks to the arrival of the Dynamo Moscow players that came to Kazan.

“I do not want to leave Kazan since I like this organization very much. But I don’t want to work with this coach anymore. I don’t see any sense in coming to terms with someone who refused to deny things written in the media like ‘Coach expelled Zinoviev’.”

The player and his agent Igor Popov have lodged a transfer request with the club’s management. “It is necessary for Sergei to leave Kazan as soon as possible”, Popov claims. “When one of the leaders of Team Russia is only receiving eight minutes of ice time per game this is not normal.”

The head of the KHL Player Association Andrei Kovalenko has indicated he can not do anything for his client at the moment.

“It’s to be resolved by the player or the agent themselves. Whether a player is playing or not is a decision of the head coach,” Kovalenko told Sovietsky Sport. “If Zinoviev wants to discuss the matter with me, I’m available but this won’t be done via the press.”

The main stumbling block preventing the player to leave is the fact that Zinoviev’s contract doesn’t run out until 2012. Therefore the agent and the player cannot to talk to other teams.

If it’s up to the Bilyaletdinov and Ak Bars’ management, there is not a reason to open up such talks.

“He has signed a valid contract for four more years,” vice-president Ravil Shavaleyev states in Soviet Sport. “Do not even dream about Zinoviev leaving our team.

“It is clear to see the player is not yet at the level he used to be on. His injuries had a negative impact on his performance. We suppose that Sergei should have individual trainings, work hard and follow the coach’s recommendation in order to regain his form. Zinoviev is and has always been a very important player for this team. We will deal with any conflicts internally.”

Asked when the player would be ready to return to the line-up, Shavaleyev points towards Bilyaletdinov. “It’s up to the coach to decide when he will be part of the roster again. Bilyaletdinov is a very experienced coach and I’m sure he’ll make the right decision.”

In one of his few public comments on the issue, Bilyaletdinov is not aware of any conflict himself. “What conflict? I know nothing of a conflict,” he told a Russian newspaper. “Sergei does not play because he has a foot injury.”

Zinoviev himself does not see the matter getting solved. When asked whether things could change if talks could resolve the situation he is determined. “I do not believe the coach will apologize. I know Bilyaletdinov too well for that,” Zinoviev told Sportstand.

 “It’s clear. A hockey player is paid to play, that is his work. Sergei is a clever person, he understands this,” Shavaleyev told Sovietsky Sport. “When he is in form, the coach will let him play on the team.”

Simple  as that. Or perhaps not? The issue seems to be in a deadlock indeed.

It remains to be seen whether both parties will restore confidence. If not than the familiar “Goal scored by number 42, Sergei Zinoviev, assisted by number 25, Danis Zaripov and number 95, Alexei Morozov” will be part of one of the great chapters of Russian hockey.

Notebook:
  • Despite all the media attention around Zaripov, Ak Bars is having a solid season. After 26 games they are in third place trailing Atlant Mytishchi by seven points.
  • Traktor Chelyabinsk can not have enough Dynamos these days. The team, coached by former NHLer Andrei Nazarov, beat three Dynamo teams in its last three games. First Dinamo Riga was defeated 4-3 before victories over Dynamo Minsk (5-2) and Dynamo Moscow (3-1). Traktor rose to fifth place. The team’s next three games are against the same three Dynamo teams again. This time, it will be road games.
  • SKA St. Petersburg was considered a candidate for the title this season. After a poor start, the team has slowly improved. They recently set a KHL record for longest shutout streak while playing away. Ak Bars forward Oleg Petrov’s goal in a 3-1 victory for SKA on November 19 marked the first time the St. Petersburg team conceded a goal since October 15. The new record is now set to 279:16.
  • SKA’s netminder Robert Esche set a new record for longest shutout streak. The American netminder stoned the opposition for almost 192 minutes.
  • Bottom team Vityaz Chekhov acquired American defenceman Bryan Berard. The team also installed Canadian Mike Krushelnyski as their new head coach. He coached ERC Ingolstadt in Germany. CSKA Moscow obtained the services of former Swedish national team forward Jonathan Hedström.

JOERI LOONEN


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