KYIV Ė Dave Lewis won three Stanley Cups as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. But now, his sole focus is leading Ukraine to gold on home ice in the 2011 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B.
The 57-year-old native of Kindersley, Saskatchewan, signed a contract with the Ukrainian federation in November. A former NHL defenceman who played 1,008 games, Lewis is known as a playersí coach who communicates well and works hard to get the best out of his team. If he manages to secure promotion to next yearís Worlds in Finland and Sweden, his contract will be extended through the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Lewis is no stranger to the Eastern European hockey scene. He worked as an assistant coach with Belarus at the 2009 Worlds in Switzerland, and reprised that role at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Here, heíll be supported by assistant coaches Mikhail Zakharov, the former head coach of both Belarus and Ukraine, and Dmitri Khristich, who played 811 NHL games as a Kyiv-born right winger, twice topping 30 goals with the Washington Capitals.
IIHF.com caught up with Lewis after a high-tempo practice at the Kyiv Palace of Sports, hours before Ukraineís tournament debut against Great Britain.
How excited do you feel heading into your first game of the tournament?
Very excited. Thereís been a lot of preparation. Weíve had three tournaments and we went through a lot of players. We gave some young guys opportunities early on. Even in the last few exhibition games we had in Budapest, we gave some new players a chance to at least participate in national team games. It was good for them. Weíve selected our team and weíre ready to go.
How much roster turnover have you had since taking over the team?
I guess if you look at last yearís team versus this yearís team, I think weíve added six, maybe seven new players. For the most part, itís a veteran group that have been through a lot together. Weíve tried to put some new guys in, maybe a little bit younger, a bit different blend.
When you look at this team, what are going to be the keys to success?
Iíve told them that what Iím looking for is for them to be the best they can be individually and collectively. Iím looking for some good chemistry. We have to be disciplined and play strong defensive hockey. Thatís all I ask. Letís see what happens. The tournamentís here in Kyiv. Itís their country. Itís an opportunity to enjoy the experience. Thatís another experience.
Going back a little, how did you originally land the job?
It was in the summer. Probably July or early August. A few emails were exchanged, and then we started some conversations. Things just progressed, and I ended up coming over here in November for the first tournament and signed a contract. The rest is history.
Did your experiences working with the Belarusian program convince you that this could be a good fit?
It helped a lot. The international experience in Switzerland 2009, plus the Olympics, was a big plus. I knew Mikhail Zakharov from the Olympic experience. Dmitri Khristich has been great. If heís not the best NHLer to come out of here, well, I donít know whoís better. He brought credibility and pride right away to my situation. Itís been good. Itís a different brand of hockey. Thereís a learning curve for both the players and me. We brought in a strength and conditioning coach from Canada to work with the guys and give them some new techniques, some new-wave hockey-specific training. We worked a little bit with him. Three or four weeks is not a long time in the life of a hockey player, but we managed to implement a few things.
Compared to all the years you spent with Detroit, what have been the biggest changes in your way of doing things that youíve had to adapt to over here?
Communication is one aspect, but I learned a lot about how to communicate with the five Russians we had in Detroit. Vladimir Konstantinov, Sergei Fedorov...initially none of those guys could speak English. I guess itís a matter of respecting their style of play and mindset, but also implementing something that Iíve seen succeed in North America. Itís about implementing a few subtleties that will help them improve in certain areas.
How much insight have you gained from other North American coaches who have made the leap to Europe?
I spent a lot of time with Glen Hanlon in Belarus, naturally. I spent time with Ted Sator. But there hasnít been a lot of time on the phone saying, ďWhat about this? What about that?Ē I think the experience of me being away from North American hockey has helped. Seeing the dynamics of the KHL and all the different teams that participate in these tournaments.
How are you handling the language differences?
As it happens, both my grandparents came from Ukraine between 1905 and 1910. They immigrated through Ellis Island in New York, and went on through Montreal to Western Canada. So my mother is full Ukrainian, but she never taught it at home because she felt you had to learn the language of the country you lived in. I can say a few words, like ďyablukoĒ, which is ďappleĒ, some basic phrases. Itís been very interesting for me to try to pick up the language and communicate with the players.
How do you split up the responsibilities between your assistant coaches?
Well, we sort of share everything Ė the power play, the penalty kill. At practice, the white group is handled by one coach and the black group by another, but itís still a shared thing. Thatís something I learned in Detroit: winning and losing is a shared responsibility. If one area isnít as successful, donít point the finger. Itís a team thing. Thatís the way weíve done it here. On the bench, Dimitri helps me with the forwards and Mikhail runs the defence. Of course, for the language situation, it falls on Dimitri to translate.
Who are some of the guys that will need to step up as front-line players for you at this tournament?
Well, Oleg Shafarenko and Olexander Materukhin have played together in Belarus. They were together last year and had a good tournament. Goaltending, with Kostyantyn Simchuk, is huge. Heís an experienced guy and he looks forward to the challenge. The one thing we want to share is the pressure and the discipline of the game of hockey. Itís not just about avoiding bad penalties, but also line changes and communication. Itís about executing the game plan and playing the system.
You mentioned that this is a veteran group. Is enough being done in Ukraine to grow the next generation of young talent?
Thatís what Iím learning about right now. I think thereís a definite focus on that growth. Theyíre talking about building some arenas. They brought me here, and as I mentioned, I brought a strength and conditioning coach. Weíre trying to change the way certain things have been done. But they have to see some proof of success before itíll grow to a level that they want. Itís one small step at a time.
Ukraine is bidding to host the 2016 IIHF World Championship. If that bid is successful, what would it do for hockey in this country?
I think it would be unbelievable. The kids would watch it. Youíve got to entertain them and help them enjoy hockey. They have to have opportunities to play the game. When they can see it and read about it and talk about it, thatís how you generate the interest. So this Division I tournament is a start. Itís in Kyiv, and theyíve spent a lot of money on this arena to spruce it up and get it ready.