Exceeding expectations
by Henrik Manninen|12 JAN 2020
Alexei Nikiforov, the man that taught Dainius Zubrus and Darius Kasparaitis the basics of hockey. Here as head coach of Lithuania´s U20 national team that won silver at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championships Division II Group A in Tallinn, Estonia.
photo: Hendrik Soots
Despite leaping across the Atlantic almost 40 years ago, the legacy of enigmatic coach Alexei Nikiforov still holds a strong influence in Lithuanian hockey. 

While the Lithuanian players aim to rise to the occasion in front of their home crowd in their final game against Japan at the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championships Division II Group A played in Vilnius, they will be supported from the stands by one of their all-time greats, Dainius Zubrus, now President of Hockey Lietuva, Lithuania’s governing body for ice hockey.

It’s two generations of Lithuanians hockey players, who both have been taught the basics of the game through the teachings of Nikiforov.

"Nikiforov was my first coach. My first organized hockey steps were with him. He was really good, he gave me lots of time. He paid lots of attention to me, told me to come twice a day. He was also Darius Kasparaitis’s first coach. Kasparaitis was six years older, and his team was really good at the time, so I was just in the corner, skating around cones, doing various drills Alexei told me," said Zubrus about picking up the game in the early 1980s, growing up in Elektrenai, a 45-minute drive northwest of Vilnius. 

Nikiforov emigrated to the United States in 1991. He has since gained legendary status developing players from his base on Long Island’s Hauppauge, an hour’s drive from New York City. But while having been faithful to the New York Islanders organization, Nikiforov has also kept Lithuania close to his heart. Apart from holding annual summer camps in Vilnius, he recently worked as head coach of Lithuania’s U18 national team in 2017/18 and was in charge of their U20 national team last season. 

One of many current U20 players that benefited from Nikiforov’s know-how is Dino Mukovoz, who first met Nikiforov in Lithuania’s capital in the mid-2000s.

"I had just started to skate and I was maybe four-five when I attended one of his summer camps in Vilnius. He helped me a lot and was like a mentor. He was always kind to me and if I made a mistake he would come to me and tell me what was wrong," said 19-year-old Mukovoz, who this season plays in the USA for the Islanders Hockey Club.
Dino Mukovoz, one of many players on the Lithuania U20 roster who benefited greatly from working under Alexei Nikiforov.
photo: Evaldas Semiotas
Separated by the Atlantic Ocean and two political systems, Nikiforov’s life story is one of two halves. During the Soviet Union era, he was brought up on the teachings of Anatoli Tarasov as a student of physical culture before playing under Viktor Tikhonov. His newly acquired skills were soon put to practice. Newly graduated Nikiforov was hand-picked to train future hockey players in Elektrenai, a town of 14,000 people where an indoor ice arena had been inaugurated in 1977. It was there that Nikiforov in short succession started to coach Kasparaitis and Zubrus – the two sole Lithuanians that so far have graced the NHL.

Nikorovov’s life then took a drastic turn following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and with Lithuania re-gaining independence. Just like his adepts Kasparaitis and Zubrus would later do that same, Nikiforov decided to try his luck in the USA in 1991. He found a job as a demolishing labourer to keep himself afloat while trying to adapt to a new culture and language. Then one day when visiting Long Island, an ad in the local paper about a midnight hockey league caught his eye. 

"My wife made the call and I was out on the ice the next day. An agent soon found out about me and took me to a New York Rangers practice. Roger Neilson was the head coach for Rangers then and together with Alexei Kovalyov and Sergei Zubov we started to talk. The next day the New York Islanders called. They put me on the ice and I then made the decision to stay on Long Island and work with the Islanders organization. The Islanders helped me with my green card and I had many offers since, but I am still in the same place, same arena. I am a loyal guy," said Nikiforov. 

These days he is running a busy schedule holding clinics while working for the NY Islanders organization with the U15s and the NCDC, a tuition-free junior hockey league. The slogan on his personal website says: "Train with me - Exceed your expectations." and includes glowing reviews from Chris Higgins and Mike Komisarek, two former NHL players from the Long Island area, Nikiforov helped to reach their goals.  

With almost four decades in the USA and having coached players on both sides of the Atlantic to the heady heights of the NHL, how does he compare the two different systems of schooling hockey players he has been part of?

"When I first came to the United States, I thought that the Soviet Union system was the best. But training in Soviet Union was old school. I think it is too much training. When I played at Dinamo Riga we had no energy, no interest to do anything else. We were always at a training camp. In United States you belong to yourself. It is your commitment. If not, another guy will take your spot. In the U.S., they practise much shorter time with more intensity, which I think is much better. In Russia it is still the same routine. I talk a lot to Russian players and coaches and they say that nothing changes. I think that is wrong and also why a lot of Russian athletes finished their careers too early. Pavel and Valeri Bure are just two examples because of a lot of pressure put on joints and muscles. I know when one of the players I coached in the U.S., Matt Gilroy went to Spartak Moscow and I told him what to expect, doing 400 metres 40 times. It makes you stronger, but how long can you stay healthy? Not for long," said Nikiforov.

Following two consecutive seasons coaching Lithuania’s junior national team program, Nikiforov’s busy schedule over on Long Island saw Doug Boulanger step in as head coach of Lithuania’s U18 and U20 national teams during this season.

"We want to play a little bit more exhibition games, lots of camps and maybe extend pre-tournament practices. So I spoke about it with Alexei and we both agreed. With Alexei also having his teams and his obligations in the United States, his schedule makes it a bit hard for him. That is the only reason he is not here," said Zubrus.

With 1,293 NHL games (and 106 post-season games) Zubrus was the last of the two Lithuanians to play in the NHL in 2016. With his finger firmly on the pulse on the Lithuanian game, does Nikiforov think there could soon be another player to follow in the footsteps of such esteemed Lithuanian greats? 

"A guy like Kasparaitis loved the sport so much and he was so competitive. He always wanted to be number one. If you’d beat Kasparaitis you were in trouble, believe me. The guys these days are happy being number three or four, but not number one," said Nikiforov.