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Michael Garnett – the Canadian at home in Russia’s Canada

18 November 2013, 20:55

Gar1-478x268.jpgGoalies are often viewed as an eccentric and exotic breed among their fellow sportsmen (philosopher Albert Camus, conspiracy theorist David Icke, and Pope John Paul II all kept goal in soccer before finding fame), and Canada’s Michael Garnett is no exception. Like his forebears, who conquered Canada’s wilderness and gave hockey to the world, he is a true pioneer – arriving in Russia to pursue his career before the KHL came into being. 

He arrived as a naïve 24-year-old and is now a veteran of 30, so he and the League grew up together. He shared his experiences, insight, and yes, his philosophy with our correspondent.

How does someone become a goalie? Do you need to be so useless in the field that they put you between the pipes?

“I think that’s how it used to be, but now you get a lot of kids that are the best athletes and they want to be goaltenders. For me, I saw that they get to play the whole game. As you know, when you’re a little kid, it’s no fun just sitting on the bench, not playing, so that was appealing to me. It was also a big challenge. You have a lot of responsibility and I think that’s attractive to some people, and that was the case for me.”

So from the very beginning you wanted to be a goalie.

“At a very young age, yes. I was actually captain of my team when I was a forward, when I was probably nine or ten years old, but after that I wanted to play in goal.”

Did you discover some hidden talent?

“Well, back then it was just fun. And I enjoyed a new challenge and thought it was more fun for me.”

You’ve spent a lot of time here, and you are one of the most experienced - or even the most experienced foreign player in Russia. You saw it all, even before the KHL, so it would be interesting to hear you summarise this experience. How you feel about the changes that came with the KHL era? Do you think it’s improving?

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“Yes, I think there have been a lot of really big improvements. The facilities are much better than they were. There are still some exceptions, but for the most part the facilities and everything are going in the right direction. And the economics: it is incredible how much more money is involved in the game now and I think that’s great for the players. You see some really big NHL stars playing: Leo Komarov came back from the NHL, and Kovalchuk’s back. It’s very positive for Russian hockey and for the fans to see those kinds of guys playing in our League, and that would never have happened in the first couple of years – guys coming back from the NHL. Those are probably the two biggest things: the economics of the game here and the facilities. They’ve really improved.

But you came here before the KHL, so even at that time Russian hockey must have been attractive in some ways.

“Yes, at that point in my life it was a fresh start. I had been thrown away by the NHL and I saw it as a great opportunity. I wanted to continue my career, I was still very young and I was very happy to have the chance. As for the hockey side, it was attractive just to come and try something new. On a personal level, I was very excited about living in a new country, trying to learn a new language, and meeting new people. It was very adventurous and something I wanted to do, so I’m really happy I came. Every day I’d see something new, and I knew that every city I went to was a new experience. I’m a pretty adventurous guy and that was really appealing to me.”

So no need to ask whether you have any regrets. It seems you’re getting along fine here.

“Yes, I don’t have any regrets about coming here. I think that Russia has given me a great opportunity and I feel like I’ve really seized the moment and taken advantage of it. The part of my career I’m most proud of right now is what I’ve accomplished here.”

After such a long time playing here, do you feel Russian or even Russified?

“Yes, I do, I feel very comfortable here and it feels like home. I’ve been here long enough. It’s nice going back to Canada, but I’m there for such a short period of time every year now that it almost feels like a little vacation. I’m very comfortable here. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

You’ve lived in all sorts of environments: in the capital, in a small provincial town, and in a big and rapidly-developing city like Chelyabinsk. What do you think of Nizhnekamsk, Moscow and now Chelyabinsk? They are very different cities.

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“Well, it was all very much the same to me, if that makes any sense. Just being out of Canada and being in Russia, especially the first couple of years. Back then, I didn’t really know which city I was in. We’d go on the road and all I really knew was the airport, the hotel, and the arena. At the beginning, at least, it was just culture shock, but I didn’t get to know the cities very well because I was pretty isolated. That changed when I came to Moscow and I got to ride the metro, explore, and get to know people. I really enjoyed my time in Moscow. The only downside was there was so much traffic; it would drive me crazy. I lived just far enough away from the station that I still had to sit in traffic to get to the metro, but on every day off I’d try to get down and explore the city. I really liked it and it was very western. I could find comfort food and things like that, that were little things but that were important to me, especially if you have a bad game and you’re feeling down, it’s nice to be able to go and grab a steak somewhere, and it feels like you’re back in North America. In Chelyabinsk I just love it. It’s a perfect size, it’s got good people, and I can drive to the rink in fifteen minutes from the center of town. It has great restaurants, good people, and there are lots of good places there. The only thing they don’t have is a Starbucks. I wish we had, so if you’re listening, please, get a Starbucks in Chelyabinsk.

Maybe you know that in Russia we often call Chelyabinsk, “the Russian Canada,” because it has a very rich history of providing ice hockey talent. The city’s hockey school is very strong and it supplied top players to teams everywhere over many decades, so we see it as a sacred place for ice hockey.

“I feel it. There’s a lot of pride in the city around the hockey team and I feel I have a lot of responsibility to play well and represent the city well, because everywhere you go in this city everybody knows about the team, everybody’s always recognizing me and saying positive things and encouraging me. I feel that it’s a hockey city, and it’s everywhere you go.”

Even at the arena there are many special things; they have a club museum, they have a fantastic club store.

“Oh yes, you go in there and look up at the rafters and there’s about thirty names up there of players from Chelyabinsk, and that’s just on the one side, the world champions, and on the other side there’s a whole wall of great players that have played with Traktor. So I know there’s a ton of history. I should learn more about it, but it’s just something you can feel. You get into the arena during a game and it’s full of people and it’s just, you know, an energy., You feel it in some cities and you don’t in others and Chelyabinsk definitely has a pride and a love for hockey that’s up there with the best of the cities in Russia.

We’ll talk about good experience, and you have plenty of it, of course, reaching Gagarin Cup finals with different teams. What can you tell us about the so-called Znarok phenomenon, because we respect him as a coach who can work wonders with teams without having star-studded line-ups. You know it from inside from working with him for a few years, and from outside as well, playing against him and his team last year. What is so special?

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“Well, when he first came to HC MVD it was my first year with that team and that organization. We were all learning and we had a really, really rough year, that first year, and we didn’t make the play-offs. That was a big moment for him, for us and for that organization. It was very humbling and we were embarrassed and upset, but I think from that point on, the following year, it’s been a really good group of guys, young guys, that have been together with him from the very beginning, and they’ve had so much time together to learn and build. Five years these guys have been together. After that much time you can really teach the guys how to play and how you want them to play and then you can focus more on motivation. I think they’ve had such a good group of guys there together for so long that it’s almost natural for them: they know how he wants them to play and he knows how to motivate them on a personal level, so I think he’s done a great job there.

Unexpected things do happen, however, like a player comes during a season, or even just for the play-offs, and straight away he just feels at home. Guys like Mikhail Anisin the other season, or Alexei Sopin and Jakub Petruzalek last year.

“Those guys are good players and they’ve got a lot of experience too, but with that team, I think there’s such a good core group of guys there that have been together for so long that you can add players here and there and players will go here and there but there’s still that big group that’s really been together and played together. Things change and you get little tweaks here and there and when you bring in quality people to add to that base. They’ve done a really good job of it.

I must ask you why you left Dynamo. You seemed to be one of the key players.

“In my final year with them I had two injuries to my groin, and the second time was in our last game of the play-offs. In my opinion, that’s why they didn’t want me anymore. I was offered a contract that was significantly less than what I was offered in Chelyabinsk and I came back to them and said if you match this, I’d be happy to stay. But they said, “No, go ahead.” So I did want to stay but it’s a business and I’ve got to try and take the best opportunity. I don’t know that for sure, but I remember the final game in Riga when we lost in the first round and I pulled my groin. It’s a sour point in my memory of my time there and I’m sure when they think back it’s not the best moment for them. That’s my guess.

Anyway, you found a team; you fit in very well at Traktor.

“Yes, it’s been a great two years with Traktor. I couldn’t have come to a more welcoming team. It’s been great here so I’m very happy with the way things worked out.”

And again, a team that is just developing, building, starting from nowhere, after they missed the play-offs a couple of years ago. So once again you’re involved in the process of building a team.

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“Yes, and I enjoy that. I’ve always felt like an underdog in my career. Even in the NHL, the only reason I played was because there were two injuries in front of me, so I’ve never been the guy that was supposed to win or even supposed to be a starting goalie. I like going into a situation of trying to knock down a favourite or knock down a big dog, or trying to get into the play-offs when you’re not supposed to, or win a series when you’re not supposed to. That motivates me. So it’s been fun these last few years - so many moments where we weren’t supposed to do it but we did, and I’m very proud of that.

What’s the key factor? The head coach?

“I don’t know if you can find a reason. It all comes down to play-offs, and very few games in the play-offs that really matter, and when we needed to win, the guys pulled through and we won. There’s a lot of character in the dressing room. We might have a couple of bad games in a play-off series and throw a few games away but – with the exception of the final – we manage to find a way to win four games. It’s pretty incredible. And the coach, he’s got a way about his coaching that lets the guys find that in themselves. He knows how to motivate his guys, just like Znarok knows how to motivate his. There’s been a good group of guys here for a long time; he’s had the ability to work with them, and to a large extent I think coaching is psychology.

Guys need different ways of motivation?

“There’s not always one right way of doing it. There are many different ways and everybody has their own strategy and psychology and it’s interesting to see which way will prevail in a hockey game. But I think that motivation from a coach can only go so far, in that you have to be self-motivated in order to play professional hockey. Some of the younger guys can be easily affected by their coach but I think many of the older guys show up ready to play every night; they’ve just got built within. I love sport and I love hockey because you really never know what’s going to happen, and some of the things we’ve been able to accomplish here in Chelyabinsk in the last couple of years have been incredible. I don’t think anyone saw it coming.

After an impressive performance in the regular championship you somehow managed to carry this good form into the play-offs. We often say these are two completely different tournaments and whoever is the star of the regular season will not necessarily be a star of the play-offs, but in Traktor you somehow manage it.

“I think a lot of it comes down to luck, too. If you look at the odds, there’s a favorite in a series: they’re going to win it 55% of the time while the underdog’s going to win it 45% of the time in a best-of-seven series. So the odds against you getting that far are incredible. I don’t want to take too much credit and say that there’s something we’re doing that’s out of the ordinary. I just think the guys played well when it really mattered. If you want to say that’s character, I can agree, but it’s rare and it’s something that we’re all very proud of.

Even in the final, eventually lost, you really showed some character, especially in Game 5, when you blew a 3-0 lead but still managed to win 4-3.

“You never know what’s going to happen in hockey. It’s crazy!”

But there’s skill…

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“I know, but how many professional hockey players are in this League? They’ve all got skill, they’ve been playing their whole life, but it all comes down to tiny little things. Does the puck bounce over a guy’s stick here at one point, or does this guy take a penalty? The difference in the games is so small. I just think it’s a beautiful game. Things can always go different ways and that’s why it’s special when you do win, because you know that it may not happen again. Any time you’re that far into the play-offs you pinch yourself, thinking, “Wow! We really got here!” and you look at all the other teams that are out and all the other guys that aren’t playing. I know I really appreciate it and I love playing that far in the play-offs, I don’t take it for granted and I really hope we can get back there again, but I never expect to get that far. It’s something that you can really be proud of when you do, but the sheer odds of it - it’s incredible. That’s why I’m so proud of the guys for what we’ve been able to accomplish the last couple of years. Coming up a few games short is devastating, but we made it further than a lot of other teams with a lot bigger budgets and a lot bigger stars.”

If you say that anything can happen, so does that mean that before the game you never feel that you expected to beat an opponent? Or that you should never be disappointed at losing a game to a team you were supposed to beat?

“Well, I wouldn’t say that I don’t have high expectations of myself, but I’ve played enough games and seen many, many things. I mean that my emotional range is much smaller than it used to be, so when I was younger, I would have a bad loss and I’d get way down; then I’d have a big win and get way up, on a roller-coaster the whole time. But now I know you can only lose one game every night, so you could have the worst game of your life, you could lose 100-0, and you still only lost one game. The next day you come out and win, and you’re 1-1. That’s the way I look at it. You lost, so what? It’s one game. We’ve got to move on and we’ve got another game tomorrow, so I’m going to go into that game and do everything I can to win. At the same time, I’m one guy on a team, and we all have to work together. I’ve got to go on and do my part and that’s all I can worry about.

When I say anything can happen, I mean I could still play my best game and we could still lose, and I have to be OK with that because it’s a team sport. And that’s hockey. On the flip side, I could have the worst game of my life, give up five goals, and the guys could pull through for me and win 6-5, and that happens all the time, too. So keeping a pretty standard emotional level and not getting big highs and lows is one of the biggest parts of my game where I probably have an advantage over a lot of guys. I think that comes with experience, just knowing that the sun’s going to come up in the morning. And they’re not going to name a street after you or put a statue up if you win one game, so there’s no need to get a big ego or to get too down on yourself. 

It’s very interesting, your philosophy, but can you name some special points in your career, some special games after which you started thinking differently?

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“I don’t know. I’ve always kind of had the mentality that this is a thinking game. It’s a lot like chess. If all you do is practice moving your pieces and ignore the strategy of the game, you get very good at just moving pieces. I look at hockey like that. If you just work on catching pucks the whole time, you get really good at catching pucks, but you’re not going to know what’s happening on the ice, or which guy’s passing to whom. So I think it’s a lot more of a strategy game and a thinking game. I’m in the game but I’m part of a bigger team and this isn’t just all about me. I’ve realized that I can’t worry too much about what everyone else is doing, and I just relax in my own little world and avoid taking things personally and getting angry. When I was working with the Dynamo goalie coach, Rashit Davydov, I used to get a little bit more upset and worked up. Someone would make a mistake, my heart rate would go up and I could feel myself getting a little bit angry. The referee would miss a call, or I’d let in a goal, and I’d get a bit more emotional. Then I’d look over at him, and he’d be looking at me, saying, “Deep breaths, deep breaths, calm down, calm down.” Thinking back, he helped me with that part of my game, especially that first year when we got to the finals against Kazan, and lost. I’d never really been in an experience like that, the finals of a major championship, I remember in time-outs going over to the bench and he’d just say, “relax, relax, relax, take it easy” so yes, he helped me with that, and I saw some success from that – I realized it was OK not to be so focused and so aggressive all the time. Now I can take a step back and I play better when relaxed.

Rashit helped me a lot. I went there from Nizhnekamsk and we had three years working together. From the time I got there, HC MVD, the first year to the time I left, just looking at my play you can see huge improvements. And look at what he’s done with Yeryomenko, who’s playing amazing hockey.

Do you have plans to become a coach yourself, with all your philosophy and views? Or do you want to protect your nerves?

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“I would love to be a coach. Right now I try not to let myself analyse too much or watch too much, just because I need to stay calm and stay relaxed, but it’s very interesting for me. I would love to get a lot deeper into the strategy of the game, what all the forwards are doing, the systems of hockey, and I’d like to learn more about that. Right now I feel like I’m just reacting to everything and it would be nice to have a bit more control.

As you may know, we already have a former goalie as a coach, Peteris Skudra at Torpedo, who says that goaltenders have a very good and complete view of the game.

“It’s an interesting perspective: you know a lot about how you want your defense to play, and how the offense is attacking you and what’s dangerous for you, so you could tell your forwards that it’s really difficult to save the puck when you do this or that. I’m 30 years old right now and I like to think I’ve got a few years of playing ahead of me, but I always want to be around hockey and I want to be part of the game. So after I end playing I would never rule out coaching. I think it would be a very, very interesting and fun experience. Hopefully.

Oleg Vinokurov, special to khl.ru

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