That particularly Russian tradition of firing our coaches has already invited much comment, so I hesitate to add my voice to this chorus.
But add to it I must, due to the unprecedented nature of Thursday’s simultaneous dismissals of their head coaches by the two teams which contested the latest Gagarin Cup final. Unprecedented not just in Russian hockey, but surely hockey anywhere.
It would only be fair to mention that in both cases the hapless – and now jobless - coach was not the man who guided the team to last year’s final, and some might say this makes Thursday’s events less bizarre.
But there are others who say this moves the issue not down, but a couple of notches further up the absurdity scale. Judge for yourself the logic behind hiring a head coach and later, a mere one and a half months down the line, firing him. From a logical point of view, we have two explanations:
1. The coach is genuinely not good enough.
2. The coach is fine, but for some reason could not do his job, or was prevented from doing his job.
If we go with the second of the two, then we can have the usual conversation about the impatience, haste, and lack of trust shown by modern hockey club management.
But if we go with the first explanation, then according to all our rules of logic, rhyme and reason, the incompetent coach should be followed out the door by the individual who appointed such an incompetent (or more often – allegedly incompetent) candidate. Reason tells us the hirer is either a fifth columnist, plotting against the club from within, and so should be summarily dismissed, or he is another incompetent and should fall on his sword “by mutual agreement.” But this logical outcome is so rare it is nearly impossible to find an example.
There is, I concede, a third possibility: the coach is a good one, but the players simply do not like him. It is said there have been such instances where the players shackle the coach, but others dismiss this as a factor: it is one thing to confront the coach; it is quite another if this stretches to deliberately trying to lose. It is not the players who were overlooked during certain defeats which is the key here, but rather the conspirators, who in the close-knit world of hockey face living with the reputation for being capable of betraying their immediate superiors.
And as far as player-coach conflict goes, the coaches are much closer than the players to the club management. It may be possible for someone of Crosby’s standing in the NHL to rid himself of an inconvenient coach by marching into the club owner’s office, maybe even with just a snap of his fingers, but were a discontented player in Russia to try it, he would more likely need to perform a full dance for the chairman, and then probably in vain.
One way or another, there is the philosophy we call determinism: this states that every event is the result of conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen. So when a team plays badly it is the fault of the players, as it is they who go out onto the ice.
But we can apply the philosophy to the question of why the players underperform. They play badly because the coach is not doing his job. Determinism tells us to pose the follow-up question: who is to blame for the fact that an underperforming coach is working at the club? Sadly, in ten out of ten occasions the journey along the chain of logic has stopped at the guilty coach.
We can, of course, divide coaches into two kinds: successful and not very successful, simply because in every tournament there are many coaches competing for just the one title.
Incidentally, both Sergei Mikhalyov (pictured) and Bengt-Ake Gustafsson have both proved they can bring success at various levels and on several occasions - in every case for those who did not jettison them after just a month and a half. That is, one and a half months into the season, or if you prefer to include the preseason, two and a half months since starting their work with the team.
So, we have successful and not very successful coaches, but there is no such thing in nature as a coach that entirely deserves to be unceremoniously dumped a mere six weeks into his job.
There is often a murmur of voices accusing the KHL of being too eager to copy the NHL. These protests are not entirely without foundation, but at the same time they are not exactly radiant with wisdom. It would be just as stupid to blame, for example, a young auto company for producing a car on the tried and tested formula of four wheels driven by an engine rather than gambling on producing something revolutionary.
I believe there is at least one thing, however, in the NHL we should consider adopting, and this is the patience shown toward the coaches and the sympathetic understanding of the complexities of their job. Let’s just find out who is considered the most qualified of all those specialists working there right now. It will be Barry Trotz, boss of Nashville Predators. Barry’s “honors” for Nashville are as follows: six failures to make the play-offs (including five in a row), five first round play-off exits, and one lone journey as far as the second round. He is in his thirteenth season coaching Nashville. Yes, thirteen years, not days, not months, but years. And nobody, but nobody, doubts his qualifications, in spite of his trophy count of zero.
Oleg Protasov, special to khl.ru