Four games to save Belarus
by Andy Potts|08 MAY 2018
Sergei Pushkov was promoted from assistant to head coach to help the Belarusian national team stay in the top-level IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Sergei Pushkov took charge of his first training session as head coach of the Belarusian national team on Tuesday morning – and spoke of the need for an instant upswing in the team’s fortunes.

Belarus has been a fixture in the top division since winning promotion in 2004 but its status is under serious threat this season. Three heavy defeats, including a damaging 2-6 reverse against a French team expected to battle against relegation, meant a disastrous start to the campaign in Denmark. The Belarusian Ice Hockey Association acted swiftly: head coach Dave Lewis was removed following Monday’s 0-6 defeat against Russia and Pushkov was put in charge until the end of the competition.

The 54-year-old, a World Champion with Russia in 1993, admitted that changing the head coach was something of a last throw of the dice.

“It’s hard for me to say how the team will respond,” he told journalists after that Tuesday practice. “Usually, it goes one of two ways. Either the team gets a new shot of energy and starts to play better, or that doesn’t happen and not much happens.

“Let’s hope the changes we just made can help our team in the coming games.”

Pushkov has four games to turnaround Belarus’ fortunes. The sequence starts on Wednesday against Switzerland but the crucial clash looks likely to be the match-up with newly-promoted Austria on Sunday afternoon. Pushkov is pitched into the midst of a high-pressure situation.

“It didn’t take long to understand what it means to be head coach of Belarus,” he said. “Suddenly there are journalists all around me!

“But it’s all part of a coach’s work. The decision has been made, they’ve placed their trust in me, and now we have four games to fulfil our task. We have no specific target but it’s clear that we must do everything we can to secure our place in the top division.”

Following the news of Lewis’ departure there was little time for long farewells. “We spoke with Dave and he wished us luck,” Pushkov said. “Nothing more than that.”

Vyacheslav Kuchkov, sports director of the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association, explained that Lewis’ departure was a mutual decision.

“The decision to replace Dave Lewis was taken jointly,” he told R-Sport. “Lewis himself could see that a change was needed. We parted on good terms, there are no arguments about compensation, no questions for one another.

“We’re very grateful for everything that Dave has given to Belarusian hockey but he said himself that his time was up. He has grandchildren and he is looking forward to spending more time with his family. Sergei Pushkov will take charge for now and we will take a long-term decision after the World Championship.”

Later on Tuesday, the Pressball sports agency in Minsk reported that goalkeeping coach Andrei Mezin had also left the team.

Belarusian hockey journalists noted that the ideas of the North American coach seemed to have won the support of Pushkov and Mikhail Zakharov among the assistant coaches. But while there was applause for the united front among the coaching staff, there was concern that the Belarusian national team was fixated on a mysterious ‘system’ that was oft-debated but rarely defined – and that seldom delivered winning performances. The team missed out on Olympic qualification, losing to Slovenia on home ice in September 2016 and flirted with relegation at the last two World Championships.

Belarus has already nominated a full roster at this year’s championship, so Pushkov has little scope to freshen up the team for the remaining games. However, it’s possible that the Neman Grodno head coach may look to give more game time to forwards Artyom Kisly and Artyom Levsha, both of whom helped Neman win its second successive Extraliga title last month.