KYIV – The Polish national team had some of its best moments with Russian coach Anatoli Yegorov in the ‘70s. Can gold-medal winning coaches Igor Zakharkin and Slava Bykov bring them back to former glory?
When watching the team’s first game of the Olympic Pre-Qualification in Kyiv, Polish fans at the arena had some reason to dream. The players’ red jerseys even reminded some of the CCCP jerseys Bykov wore in the ‘80s when watching the players from behind, as did the lopsided final score, 8-0. Just that the front was covered by the Polish eagle rather than by Cyrillic letters, and the opponent was Estonia, which was just promoted to Division I level last April.
Poland used to be a regular participant of top-level events. Between 1972 and 1992 the national team played in every Olympic Winter Games. Since then the country has only qualified for a top-level event once when it played in the 2002 IIHF World Championship. After that one-year stint, the Poles haven’t managed to get promoted.
Now a new leadership wants to bring Poland back on track. In May Piotr Halasik took over as President before searching for a new staff for the national team.
One of the staff members is no unknown in Poland. Former NHL forward and Olympian Mariusz Czerkawski ended his playing career in Switzerland in 2008 and in January 2009 with a farewell game in the Polish league between his hometown team GKS Tychy and Gdansk.
Today Czerkawski is the team leader, lives in Warsaw, takes care of his youth hockey foundation and plays golf.
Some years ago he already helped the Polish national team, but parted ways soon after.
“After the Swedish coach Peter Ekroth got fired I kind of didn’t agree with what happened and I didn’t like the situation in the last two years, that’s why I wasn’t around,” Czerkawski said.
Ekroth was replaced after one year in 2009 before Wiktor Pysz was reinstalled as head coach. In April the Pole’s stint came to an end after missing the promotion to the Division I Group A, the second level of the World Championship program, following a defeat to Korea on home ice.
“I love to see the changes that were done in Polish hockey in the last few months also with more competition in the league and with the coaches. That gives us hope,” said Czerkawski.
“Zakharkin and the President asked me and wanted me to be around, that’s why I’m here. Watching Zakharkin and the way he practises with the team and works off the ice and all the ideas and Bykov as a consultant around gives us positive energy for a great future for Polish hockey.”
Czerkawski hopes that Poland can get back to the top level where the country played with him on the team.
“It’s been 20 years since we played last time at the Olympics in hockey. We slipped away from the level we should play and now it’s time to pick it up again and chase the teams that are ahead of us,” Czerkawski said.
“But the young guys in Poland have to want to become hockey players and they have to see that if they work hard they will have the privilege to represent the national team. They need to be proud of wearing the Polish eagle on the chest.”
It was big news for Polish hockey when the rumour spread during the off-season about contacts between the federation’s leadership and the Russian coaches. Bykov and Zakharkin already worked together in Russia from 2004 to 2011, first with CSKA Moscow, then with Salavat Yulayev Ufa and the Russian national team.
The tandem coached Russia in five World Championships including back-to-back golds in 2008 and 2009. For Bykov these came after already winning five world titles and two Olympic gold medals during a successful player career.
After a one-year break the duo is back in different roles. Zakharkin took over the position as head coach with a two-year contract while Bykov joined him as a consultant.
“For me it’s a challenge like any other. I get to know a new level of play and I can see how hockey is being developed in Poland and what it needs from me,” said Bykov, who lives in Switzerland with his family.
In early autumn the new team staff got to know the team during a camp with two exhibition games in France.
“Now we had a five-day camp in Poland to get ready for this physically and mentally. I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm and quality in this team, but we have to work on the small details,” Bykov said.
“To get Poland back at the top level it needs a lot of work, new methods and good co-operation with the clubs. In the end the national team represents the level of play within a country.”
Is the dream of having Poland once back among the top nations realistic?
“Absolutely,” said head coach Zakharkin. “But a good organization needs time to develop. At this moment there are just a few players who could possibly play at a higher level like the KHL.”
So far Zakharkin has visibly enjoyed the experience and communication is also not a challenge. Everybody speaks his mother tongue as Polish and Russian are similar, the 54-year-old explained.
“The guys play well and work with a high level of enthusiasm,” Zakharkin said about his new team.
After playing Spain on Friday the Poles await the big game against host Ukraine on Sunday evening. Although the team wants to take it game by game, the players and staff know exactly which game will matter most.
“Everybody wants to win here, but we know that there’s just one favourite, the Ukrainian team,” Czerkawski said.
“If we play ten games against them they would win most of the games probably. We don’t know where things are right now with all the changes. But we’re here to win as well. It’s going to be fun. Against Ukraine we will see where our team is.”
Defeating and overtaking Ukraine would be an early and pleasant surprise for the new staff. The Ukrainians had also been on a decline recently, but since 1998 they have always finished with the better ranking position than the Poles.
However, last spring Ukraine was demoted to the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B and will host the event on home ice in Donetsk next April. Poland will be the second-seeded team so the neighbours will have two big clashes this season.
Although he hopes for more, Zakharkin remains modest.
“All these games are like a test to see how ready the guys are,” he said. “The main target that we have this season is to win in Donetsk and to go to the Division I Group A.”