More than 6,500 kilometres from his Baltic hometown, the 45-year-old Macijevskis has instructed U18, U16, U14, and U12 players as a head coach in the Beijing Hockey Association for nearly two years.
Macijevskis started his new position in the Chinese capital just before celebrating his birthday (26 June) in 2019. An eight-time IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship participant between 1997 and 2008, he had spent the preceding two seasons as the head coach of HK Kurbads in Latvia’s Optibet Hokeja Liga when he got this exciting offer.
“I can share my ideas, my experience, and my passion for the game, because I want to be around hockey as much as I can,” said Macijevskis. “And I’m kind of a fanatic that way. So I’m trying to also give that to the kids. They must be really, really involved to get success on a different level. It doesn't matter if they go to the NHL or the Chinese national team or wherever. If you play the game, you want to have personal and team success. Otherwise, there’s no sense in doing it.”
The Chinese sit 32nd in the IIHF Men’s World Ranking and face an uphill battle prior to the Olympics. This nation of 1.39 billion has just 9,506 registered players. Meanwhile, by comparison, Latvia – with 1.9 million people – has 7,460 registered players and sat in 10th place in the Men’s World Ranking prior to the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Riga.
China has produced a handful of players drafted in North America, headlined by defenceman Andong “Misha” Song. Currently with Cornell University, Song was chosen by the New York Islanders (sixth round, 172nd overall) in 2015. The Islanders’ partnership with Chinese youth hockey – ranging from donating equipment and building rinks in China to providing playing and training opportunities in the junior USPHL (United States Premier Hockey League) – dates back to 2005.
Many of Macijevskis’s players are taking U.S. school classes remotely. Some also aspire to play for Kunlun Red Star. But that’s a tall order, as Beijing’s KHL club, which launched in 2016/17, is generally dominated by Russian, Canadian, and Finnish talent.
Macijevskis described his current daily routine: “We wake up and have breakfast in the special hotel where we live, about 30 kilometres north of central Beijing. Basically, that’s like a permanent training camp right now. Then we do planning for practice. Next comes a gym session for about an hour and an on-ice session for an hour and a half. In the evening, there’s more planning, sometimes meetings with the boys, and then dinner and sleep. So the U18 boys are practicing six days a week. And three times a week, we work with those younger age groups, late into the evening.”
While Macijevskis’s Mandarin language skills remain pretty basic, he has enough English-speakers among his youth cohort to ensure that on-ice drills don’t get lost in translation.
The Chinese U18 team has enjoyed some modest successes recently under well-known names. Alexander Barkov Sr. – the Russian father of Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers – helped China secure promotion by winning Division III Group A in 2017. Steve Kasper, who earned the 1982 Selke Trophy with the Boston Bruins, was behind the bench for a fifth-place finish in Division II Group B in 2018. In Macijevskis’ experience, individual skills are less of an issue in China than hockey sense and team play.
“Here, when I first started, it was more individually focused. For the players here, the best thing was when a guy took the puck, beat maybe two or three guys, and then scored. Of course, they’re all excited. Of course, you must sometimes go around and beat someone one-on-one, but the game structure is more important. Especially when you get older and face better competition, you must play as a team, as a unit. That’s how I was trained.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has kept Macijevskis away from home for a year, which has limited his contact with Latvian family and friends to video calls, he has plenty of fond memories from the Latvian national team to look back upon.
Playing on Swedish coach Curt Lindstrom’s scoring line with Aleksandrs Nizivijs and Aigars Cipruss in Salt Lake in 2002 remains his highlight – albeit with some regrets. First, Latvia beat Austria 4-2, and then Macijevskis got two goals in a wild 6-6 tie with Slovakia as the Latvians rallied from a three-goal deficit. Unfortunately, a 4-1 loss to Germany ended Latvia’s hopes of advancing to the next round.
“The whole tournament for me was really good,” Macijevskis said. “Except that we didn’t go to the main tournament, and then play Canada, Sweden, or Russia. Canada had Mario Lemieux. Sweden had Mats Sundin. Russia had Pavel Bure. Those were the players you dreamed to play against when you were a kid. When we lost to Germany in the decisive game, some of our players had tears in their eyes. That was a sad moment. I realized how close of a chance it was to play against those guys, and we basically didn’t use it. But I took away lots of positive stuff from the Olympics.”
“I knew him for a long time. We actually also played juniors together since maybe the age of 18. When I got into [Pardaugava Riga], I was one of the youngest guys there. And he was just one year older, but he was already the captain in that team, although there were some good older players on the team. He was something. Yeah, he was a warrior. On and off the ice, he was giving 100 percent. A really nice guy.”
Macijevskis did his part during the best era for independent Latvian hockey. The 177-cm, 85-kg forward appeared on the first two Latvian teams to come seventh at the Worlds (1997, 2004), a finish they’ve only equalled once since then (2009).
In 1997, as a rookie, he saw firsthand the leadership qualities of Olegs Znaroks, who paced Latvia with 10 points, years before winning the World Championship (2014) and Olympics (2018) as Russia’s head coach. And Macijevskis now feels a touch of nostalgia when he recalls the late Sergejs Zoltoks feeding him in 2004 for the 5-2 empty-net goal against Austria that booked Latvia’s ticket to the quarter-finals in Prague.
Naturally, Macijevskis is excited to have the Worlds taking place in Riga now for just the second time in history after 2006. His son, who also plays hockey, is a tournament volunteer. Above and beyond the pleasure of watching coach Bob Hartley’s squad competing hard against the world’s elite hockey nations, Macijevskis also can't overstate what bringing fans back into the arenas means.
“Last year when sport was cut out from our lives, that was a big depression and big loss. So when people start coming to the stands again, it’s another big step forward.”
Someday, Aleksandrs “Sasha” Macijevskis aspires to take his next step forward among the top professional coaches. For now, he’s doing his best to give wings to the big dreams of young Chinese hockey players in a city of 21.5 million people.