The two players went on to add Stanley Cup honours to their achievements, and both are back together on Team ROC as Bragin seeks a rare coaching double – winning World Championship and World Junior golds in his first tournaments at each level. His two former proteges, who join another Buffalo boy in the shape of team captain Anton Burdasov, have already made an impact in Riga.
Both Orlov and Tarasenko picked up assists as ROC turned a 0-1 deficit into a 2-1 lead with two goals in 12 seconds against Sweden on Monday. Then Tarasenko scored the shoot-out winner, applying the killer blow to the Tre Kronor's hopes of making the quarter-finals. Tarasenko then had another helper in the 6-0 demolition of Belarus to keep the Red Machine on top of Group A as the first round came to an end.
‘Bragin is like a second father’
For Tarasenko, who has battled against injury all season and might easily have opted to rest after his St. Louis Blues went out of the play-offs, Bragin was a key factor in his decision to join the national team.
"I have the same coach that we had at the World Juniors," he said. "The biggest thing there was relationships inside the team. I really believe that if we have strong relationships if we support each other and play for each other we can make it happen and win the gold. That’s why we’re here. We have a great team."
And, since arriving in Latvia, he's finding a similar environment once again. "There's a really good atmosphere on this team," he added after the Sweden game. "Everyone’s playing for each other."
That chimes with Tarasenko's memories of Buffalo.
“When we were on the [junior] team, he was like a second father to us,” the forward recalled when Bragin was appointed to the top job. “We could discuss anything with him, not just hockey. There was never any barrier between the players and the coaches. Quite the contrary, we discussed everything. When a coach approaches young players with complete honesty, with faith and belief, that means a lot.”
It’s also a reunion for Orlov, who was an alternate captain to Tarasenko in Buffalo. “We all remember the World Juniors that year, it was a hugely significant tournament,” he said in his first interview after completing quarantine and joining his team-mates for practice. “It’s good to work with Valeri Bragin again, I haven’t seen him for a long time. And it’s going to be interesting to see how things go this time. Of course, we will do everything we can to get the gold.”
‘We knew we could do the impossible’
In 2011, ‘doing everything’ involved pulling off one of the most spectacular comebacks in international hockey. Down 0-3 after two periods against a Canadian team buoyed by almost a hometown atmosphere in the arena, Russia’s chances looked bleak. Possibly nobody outside Bragin’s locker room believed that his team could win. Yet the youngsters rallied, with Tarasenko potting the crucial tying goal, and went on to take a 5-3 victory in regulation.
“During the second intermission our coach told us that we deserved this championship, that we couldn’t just give up, that we had to believe in ourselves and in Russia,” Tarasenko said after that unforgettable game. “That was it, but that was enough. We realised that we still had a chance to save the game and that belief was always somewhere inside us because we had already produced two big comebacks to win games. Even at 0-3, nobody thought it was hopeless.
“We knew we could do the impossible, and we did it.
“It’s hard to explain, because even now we don’t quite know how it happened.”
Seeking a first adult gold
In adult hockey, Tarasenko has a Stanley Cup but has yet to win a World Championship. In 2011, he was fast-tracked into Vyacheslav Bykov’s team and scored one goal in six games but Russia lost in the semi-final to Finland and Mikael Granlund’s lacrosse-style goal and finished in fourth behind the Czech Republic. In 2015, he was back on the team and got all the way to the final before falling to a Crosby-inspired Canada, which won 6-1 in Prague.
“I’ve never won the Worlds as an adult, so my only desire is to change that,” he said. “[Dima Orlov and I] getting ready for the tournament and nothing else matters right now. We went on the ice with the national team for the first time and, despite the way our [NHL] seasons finished, it felt really good to be there.
“We know lots of the guys, we know the coach Valeri Nikolayevich [Bragin]. All are thoughts are on this and we can worry about the rest later.”
Tarasenko is one of just three NHL forwards in the ROC party this year, and Mikhail Grigorenko missed the last game through injury. Orlov, who got a gold with Oleg Znarok’s team in 2014 as well as bronze in 2016, 2017 and 2019, joins a D-core stacked with NHLers. But he is not worrying about competition for places.
“I hope everything goes well and we quickly fit into the team,” he said. “It’s not about competition for places, we’re all here for one thing. Whenever you come to the national team, you want to win. When the games come round, we will see how is playing, but we will all work together. It’s not like I’m going to sit behind someone’s back muttering about how I should be playing more. We’re all here for the same thing.”
And while Orlov is enjoying life in a red jersey once again, he's mindful that there is no room to rest on old glories and he needs to be ready to fit into with his team ROC team-mates, old and new.
"It’s been 10 years [since Buffalo] and hockey has changed," he said. "Now we’re playing at an adult level. Those were good times back then, but things are different now, hockey is different. It doesn’t matter who is on the ice with you, the more your talk, the better you play."