The 50-year-old was announced in Moscow on Tuesday, following deliberations by an ‘expert council’. The group considered the candidacy of several coaches, including Oleg Znarok, who was unofficially announced by Vladislav Tretiak last week, before voting to give the role to Zhamnov.
At first glance, it seems an unlikely choice. Since retiring as a player in 2006, Zhamnov has mostly worked as a GM with Vityaz Chekhov, Atlant Moscow Region and most recently Spartak Moscow. During that time, he had a spell as an assistant coach to Alexei Kudashov with Atlant and took over as head coach at Spartak for part of the 2018/19 season following Vadim Yepanchintsev’s departure. However, that is the full extent of his coaching experience.
However, Zhamnov’s supporters point to his involvement with the Olympic Athletes from Russia’s golden Olympic campaign in PyeongChang. During that season, Zhamov took charge of scouting a KHL-based roster in the absence of Russia’s NHL stars. He was also a bench coach during the gold medal game and, according to some accounts, was instrumental in calling the game-saving play that saw Nikita Gusev tie the scores in the final moments of regulation time. Since then, he has been an assistant coach with the “Red Machine”.
In addition, with the upcoming Games set to feature NHL stars once again, Zhamnov’s long experience of playing in the NHL – something that Znarok lacks – tipped the balance in his favour.
After his appointment was announced, Zhamnov gave an interview to Championat.com. In it, he brushed off worries about his lack of experience as a head coach – “Everything has to start somewhere, and my coaching experience is solid enough” – and spoke of his plans to work with the NHLers available to his team.
“It’s good that we’re on the same wavelength as our NHL players,” Zhamnov said. “My coaching staff and I will be following every candidate, watching and studying who is in what kind of shape. We can’t rule out the possibility of injuries either.
“The national team will take only the strongest. Nobody will get credit for past victories. We need to live in the present.”
And there will also be room for top performers from the KHL, especially given the current shortage of available centres for Team ROC.
“That’s definitely a problem, but we have strong players in the KHL as well and we’ll definitely be following their progress,” Zhamnov added. “We can use the Euro Hockey Tour to try them, we’ll analyse and work with everyone.”
Zhamnov added that he is already in discussions with Sergei Zubov and Sergei Gonchar, two more men with vast KHL experience, about roles on his coaching staff. However, he is not planning to name his final choices until 12 October.
And he is quite clear that finding individuals who are the right fit for the locker room will be a priority – on and off the ice.
“Olympic hockey is a two-week tournament,” he said. “We’re not playing for our personal reputations, we need to put aside all personal ambition. It’s time to fight for our country. If we come to work as a single team, everything will definitely work out.”
How the appointment was made
In Russia, there had been concern about who would coach the hockey team at the upcoming Games in Beijing. Valeri Bragin, who led the ROC party at the most recent World Championship in Riga, suffered a quarter-final loss and was not widely expected to continue until the Olympics. Last week, speaking to reporters in St. Petersburg following a legends game to celebrate René Fasel’s presidency of the IIHF, FHR President Tretiak said that Oleg Znarok would get the job. However, there was no official announcement and on Monday Tretiak rowed back on that claim, saying that no contract had been signed and alerting journalists to ‘a lot of very interesting information’ due to be announced.
That ‘very interesting information’ turned out to be an account of an expert panel comprising Tretiak, Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kamenski, Pavel Bure and Zhamnov himself that met on Monday and voted to give the job to Zhamnov. Znarok and Bragin will be involved as consultants to the national team.
“We are grateful to both [Znarok and Bragin] for agreeing to take on this role,” Tretiak said. “These experienced professionals will assist our team during our Olympic preparations and participation.”
Kamenski added: “Alexei has many years of experience in the management group of the national team, he helped our national team win the Olympics in South Korea and perfectly understands the specifics of working with stars from the NHL.”
And Mikhailov told RSport that this was an appointment for the longer term. “The council members chose Alexei because of his experience of playing and communicating with top players, of work as a GM and a coach,” he said. “We don’t want to start looking for a new coach again [after the Olympics] so we are inviting him to continue further.
“The main thing is that this decision is balanced and considered. It’s not a person for one season. He was appointed for the future. In my opinion, we will not consider replacing the coach for the next two or three years.”
The reaction in Russia
After the initial surprise at Zhamnov’s appointment, several people in Russia’s hockey community spoke in support of the decision.
Two-time Olympic champion Alexei Kasatonov said: “Given that NHL players will take part in the Olympics, Alexei Zhamnov’s appointment is the best option from all sides. He’s worked for many years as a GM and a scout for the national team. He has a great relationship with Russia’s NHLers and is well respected among the players. The Olympics is a special tournament, where the NHL philosophy is more important. I think with Alexei on the team, we can count on a decent result.”
Andrei Nazarov, another experienced coach and player, pointed out that Zhamnov had been part of gold medal teams as a player and a coach. “A lot of people think that Zhamnov has little coaching experience, but in reality he has a great deal. And another important thing, Alexei is well known to all the Russian stars in the NHL, he’s a respected and authoritative figure.”
Veteran coach Vladimir Krikunov, who took Russia to the 2006 Olympics and Belarus to the 2002 Games, suggested that Zhamnov’s role might be more psychological than practical. “I think on this coaching staff, Zhamnov will be more of an inspiration, rather than taking direct charge of how the team plays,” he told Championat.com. “Yes, he has great experience in the NHL, but he has never been a head coach. We can expect some experienced coaches to be involved with the team: Oleg Znarok and Valeri Bragin. I think they will be directly dealing with tactics and game plans. And I’m sure that Sergei Zubov, one of the best Russian defencemen in the NHL and a man with experience at three KHL clubs, will be an excellent choice.”
Renowned hockey pundit Leonid Weisfeld gave a neutral response. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a surprise or not,” he told Sport-Express. “The whole question is who made the decision, and what was the logic behind it. If we understood why Zhamnov was chosen, that would be something to discuss. I can see a certain logic in this choice – Alexei played in the NHL. But I can’t say whether this is good or bad, whether he’s better or worse than Znarok.”
But Maxim Sushinski, a World Champion with Russia in 2008, was doubtful. “For me, it’s an incomprehensible decision,” he told REN-TV. “Why would you announce [Znarok] one day, then change your mind the next? What could have happened in those couple of days? I don’t understand this decision.
“Alexei Zhamnov was a great player. As a person, he’s also terrific. But as a coach, I don’t know.”
There was even a response from the Kremlin, where Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, answered a question about Zhamnov’s appointment. “We’ll find out at the tournament if it’s a catastrophe or not. Of course, it’s not our prerogative to get involved with [the running of] Russian hockey,” Peskov said.
“The head of state loves hockey. Let’s put it this way: the main thing is that our hockey is no worse than our football.”
However, despite the comments from many respected hockey figures, there’s still scepticism among Russia’s hockey fans. A poll on the Sport-Express website found that 62.7% of more than 4,500 voters felt that Znarok should have the job. A similar survey on Championat.com had support for Znarok at 57% from just under 4,000 replies.
Zhamnov’s career to date
Born in Moscow in 1970, Zhamnov began his career as a junior at Dynamo Moscow. A prolific centre, he enjoyed success for club and country. Zhamnov won Olympic gold in 1992 on the Unified Team and followed it up with silver and bronze for Russia in the next two games. He was part of the Dynamo Moscow team that won the last two Soviet championships but played the bulk of his hockey in the NHL, starting in Winnipeg – where he famously scored five goals on the Kings in one game – then moving to Chicago where an eight-year stint saw him captain the Blackhawks from 2002-2004. Across 13 seasons in North America he was always a consistent scorer, putting up 719 points in 807 NHL games.
Zhamnov hung up his skates in 2006 after a season in Boston and became GM of Vityaz, the Russian team where he played during the 2004/05 lockout. He later moved on to Atlant Moscow Region, then joined Spartak Moscow after the Mytishi-based club folded in 2015. During his time at Spartak, he became involved in the Russian national team coaching set-up and was a bench coach during the gold-medal game in PyeongChang in 2018. After six seasons as GM at Spartak, this year he began a new role as Youth Hockey Supervisor.