Woodcroft takes charge of Belarus
by Andy Potts|09 JUN 2021
Craig Woodcroft, then assistant coach, talks to Belarusian player Oleg Yevenko during the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: Minas Panagiotakis / HHOF-IIHF Images
The day after the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, Belarus announced a change in its coaching staff. Head coach Mikhail Zakharov and his team stepped down after a disappointing tournament saw them finish bottom of Group A. In their place comes Craig Woodcroft, head coach of Dynamo Minsk, and his colleagues from the KHL club’s staff.

Woodcroft & Co will initially take charge for the Olympic Qualification campaign in Bratislava in August. Pending those results against Slovakia, Austria and Poland, the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association will decide on their long-term future.

The national team’s preparations will be combined with Dynamo’s build-up to the KHL season, which is due to start on 1st September, just two days after the end of the qualification event in Slovakia. The association is hoping that the players’ familiarity with Woodcroft and his style will ensure quick results as Belarus bids for a first Olympic appearance since 2010. In the longer term, it seems likely that the coaching staff will be tasked with improving on a disappointing showing that would have resulted in relegation from the World Championship elite had it not been for the suspension of the lower divisions this year.

"I saw the Belarus games [at the World Championship] and it's clear that the team is going through a transformation," Woodcroft told hockey.by. "Young players are emerging and soon they will lead the team. Despite the results, the World Championship is an invaluable experience for those youngsters, for all the debutants on the national team. 

"We need to build on those positives so we can study, develop and win together in the next big tournament that awaits us at the end of August. There is not much time for preparation but I hope our players will learn quickly because this is our only ticket to the Olympics."

Familiar face

Toronto native Woodcroft, 51, completed his second successive season behind the bench at Dynamo Minsk and oversaw a transformation in the team’s fortunes. After finishing rock bottom of the KHL in 2019/20, the Bison reached the play-offs for the first time since Woodcroft led them there in 2017. There was a boost in the form of loan deals that brought Yegor Sharangovich and Alexei Protas back to the team for the first part of the season, but there were also promising signs from many of the younger players on Dynamo’s roster. A good showing in the KHL secured Woodcroft a contract extension in Minsk, where he will lead the team for a third consecutive KHL campaign and his fourth in total.

Woodcroft has worked with the Belarusian national team before, serving as assistant to Dave Lewis at three World Championships from 2015-2017, plus the unsuccessful qualifying tournament for the 2018 Olympics. He also made it to those Games, winning a bronze medal as part of Canada’s coaching staff in PyeongChang.

His colleagues at Dynamo include Belarusian hockey legend Mikhail Grabovski, who scored 296 points in the NHL across 12 seasons and 534 games. Long-serving goalie Andrei Mezin, who represented his country at three Olympics and 13 Worlds as a player, is also involved.

Zakharov endorses the Kazakh model

Out-going head coach Zakharov believes that Belarus needs to bring the national team closer to Dynamo if it is to get results. During the recent tournament in Riga, he repeatedly lamented the lack of Belarusian players currently involved in the KHL, suggesting that to ice a competitive team on the international stage, he would need “50 or 60 KHL players” from whom to select. He also argued that the Belarusian championship was not strong enough to prepare players for World Championship play.

And Zakharov believes that Woodcroft and his team are the right choices for the future, citing the progress made by Kazakhstan under the guidance of Barys Nur-Sultan head coach Yuri Mikhailis. “If we want to move forward, then the coaching staff needs to be entirely from the KHL team,” he told the Belarus Ice Hockey Association website. “Anything else isn’t right. I can say now that at the next World Championship, Kazakhstan will be ahead of Belarus. That’s 1,000% certain. Because they play as one team, all their players play together. And it’s easier for the coaches.

“Separate coaches are the wrong way to do it. We don’t need to look for any other options: the head coach of Dynamo Minsk should be head coach of the national team. Right now, Kazakhstan is doing better than us or Latvia.”