Last season, Dave King produced miracles in Yaroslavl. With just four games to play in the regular championship, he took over a struggling team and under his guidance, Lokomotiv won all four, snatching the last available play-off spot and eventually turned into a giant-killer, reaching Western Conference final at the expense of two top-seeded rivals, Dynamo Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg.
Six months later, Lokomotiv is struggling again, and the intelligent Canadian is back. In his first game in charge, he overcame Dynamo yet again, and the next morning after the emphatic 4-2 win talked to khl.ru.
Let’s start with your spell at Lokomotiv last season. From outside, it seemed like a fairy tale. What was it like from inside?
Yes, it was like a fairy tale. The players seemed to come together and there seemed to be a new chemistry. They played very well in the playoffs - everybody elevated their game and every player seemed to play better. The reason? I don’t know, but the energy was good, about the middle of the Dynamo series you could sense our team was starting to believe. Suddenly, we were a better team; we had some good luck, and we won a series or two.
It’s really hard to imagine how it worked out so well. There was a break in the Championship; you had no games, nothing, but you came here, saw what this team needed, and you got it from somewhere. How did you do it?
We had almost two-and-a-half weeks of training together. We started here for three or four days, then we went to Garmisch Parkenkirchenin in Germany, where we had a camp, and we came back. That preparation was very important for us, as it allowed the players to get to know me and I got to know them. We had three games in that period - one against Davos of Switzerland, a very good team, and two in Germany against Magnitogorsk, another very good team, so the preparation was very helpful. That was good.
Now, for the second time in six months, you have inherited a team. How hard is it to take over a team built by someone else?
The one good thing is that I know the team; it’s almost the same; maybe only three or four players have changed. It helps that I know the personnel and how they play. Every coach coaches differently. I think we all coach in a similar way tactically, but the personalities are different. It’ll take some time. What you have to do as a coach is to prioritize: what are the most important things? You can’t come in and change everything quickly. You must decide, “These are the two key areas I want to change,” and then you slowly make your changes. So, it’s an evolution - to change your team takes a little time, but I think we can do it.
Have you had a situation like that before in your career?
Yes. Once, in Sweden, I took over from a coach in the Swedish Elite League, and that was a similar experience. I came in; I didn’t know the players; I did not know the league; so it’s always interesting. It’s a good coaching challenge; a very interesting challenge.
You also worked with Team Canada for many years, of course. Is that a similar situation, in that you have limits on time and on the players available?
Yes, when working with team Canada and going to the World Championships, you have to put together a team very quickly and all the players come from different teams. It’s a good experience and it helps you in a situation like this, because you know the process that you’re going to go through. You’ve done it before. But the KHL is a very good league, a difficult league, and every game is so challenging, so we’ll see how it goes.
You can make comparisons, of course, because you worked here in Russia a few years ago. Have you seen major changes?
Yes, I worked here at Magnitogorsk when it was the Russian Super League, and now it’s the KHL, and I can tell you, this league is so professional. It was a good league then, and very professional, but now I see all the new arenas, and the expansion of the league to twenty-eight teams, and it’s amazing. There’s the television aspect, and all the things they’ve done to improve the KHL - it’s really quite impressive to get all this done in such a short period of time. They’ve raised the league to such a high level, and they did this through good leadership.
How about the constant pressure? Do you think that modern sport in general is too big, and the pressure is too great? Everyone seems to want results as soon as possible, and coaches don’t have enough time.
I think the financial aspects of professional sport - whether we’re talking about soccer, football, baseball, ice hockey, it doesn’t matter what team sport - there is so much money being paid to the players and the coaches that the expectations are very high and no-one is patient. In any league in any country, it’s the same, worldwide. Coaching is difficult because you have to win to keep your job, and that is not easy. Winning is the most difficult thing. The players, the coaches - they’re humans: some nights they’re good; some nights they’re not so good. What you have to do is have more good nights than bad ones. It’s a big challenge but I enjoy it, I love coaching; it’s been my life for a long time.
Now a philosophical question, one that no-one can answer exactly, but you can always try. Getting the desired result, as we all know, is a combination of many factors: organization, budget, coaches, and players. What can a coach do, and what can he not do? What imposes limits on what he can achieve?
I think in sport, now, it’s difficult to make changes, such as to the personnel of your team. As a coach you have to take what you’re given and you have to make that work. It’s difficult to bring in players and take out players – it’s not easy and it’s very expensive, so our challenge is to take what we have and find a way to maximize the potential of that group. There are some players you are successful with and some that don’t get any better. That’s the way it is, but hopefully your team gets better. Not every player will improve under a certain coach, because some players like a certain style of coaching and others don’t. It’s a very complex philosophical question you’ve asked, but the main thing in coaching is to be patient and work day-by-day. Progress is never straight up – it’s going to be up and down, and you have to believe in your players. I think if you care about your players and you believe in them, they sense that from you, and I think that’s the start of things going in the right direction. As coaches, we have to know the tactics and how to teach the techniques, but we must also know how to deal with people. You’re working with people, and to change and improve things it is the motivation of people that makes the difference – not so much the tactics. It’s their attitudes and mindset, it’s how they feel about themselves, and that’s a big challenge in coaching,
When you prepare your team for any given game, do you study the opposition? When you arrived last season, for example, you just had four games remaining in the regular season, and against teams you had never seen. Did you study them, or did you purely concentrate on your own team and not care about your opponents?
I care about both. I always care about my team, because I care about how they play, but on the other side, you have to know how the opposition plays so you can adjust your team to be at its best, so I always watch them. Take this morning: our video is of our game against Moscow Dynamo. I show some good things; and some things we must improve upon. Our next game is against Vityaz, so today I will watch two tapes of Vityaz and do a short video report on what we have to expect; so you have to scout the other team, but I think there’s a still greater emphasis on your own team. You must know what the opponents can do, but you still have maybe pay more attention to your own team to be successful.
To return to that short period of training in February: I talked to some players afterwards, and they were quite surprised by how much you knew about their opponents. Where did you find the time?
I watch a lot of video. Coaching is not a short day – you don’t just practice and go home, have coffee – you go home and you work. At night, you watch videos. We played last night against Moscow Dynamo, and I got up this morning at 4:30 and made my video summary of the game to show this morning. That’s coaching - utilizing your time to the best of your ability; it’s a long day, seventeen or eighteen hours out of twenty-four, and that’s the way it is.
Looking to the future, and at your team, what needs to be improved? What do you feel you need to do first?
Well, if you look at our team on the ice, our penalty-killing, is last in the league, or second-to-last, so we must improve it. That is one tactical aspect of our game, our penalty-killing, which we must improve. Secondly, we have to improve our fitness, our strength. Each player maybe gets a little more emphasis on off-ice training for strength and power. The third thing - as a coach, you never know what’s going to happen; there are always some unknowns: injuries, fatigue from travel, - so I think the other important thing in the future is to always have the ability to talk to the coaches you work with; talk to the doctors and the trainers and the fitness people. How is the team feeling? Always keep in touch with how your team feels about itself. Does it need some recovery time? Should we work harder? Use the people around you – I think that is what coaches have to do. You can’t make all your decisions on your own. You work with good people, so ask their opinion. We have to make sure we take the pulse of our team. And your needs will change; there may be a phase in the future where we’re very good in some aspect of our game, and then sometimes it disappears. One of the biggest jobs in coaching is being able to adjust to uncertainty; because you cannot tell what’s going to happen in the future. Being able to adjust, to find solutions, to be positive at bad times - that’s coaching.
What about things which are just not achievable? For example, you had no chance to train with the team in preseason and that time is lost.
That time is gone. That’s one of the difficult things when taking over a team: now we’re in the season, so we don’t have a lot of very good practice time. We played last night; we have off-ice training today, ice training tomorrow, then go to play Vityaz, then a day off, then play Moscow Dynamo, come back home for a few days, play Torpedo, then Severstal, so for a coach, now, with the financial aspects of the league, you play a lot of games. It’s a very big league; it is spread out and the travel is very great. I think if you asked every coach in the KHL if they wanted one thing, they would say, “More practice time - quality practice time,” but it’s not possible.
How? Fewer games or a longer season?
Maybe the season has to be a little bit longer.
There are also problems with the IIHF tournaments.
Exactly, I don’t know if there’s a solution unless you play fewer games, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. In every country, and in the NHL, we talk about more practice time, but it’s impossible to achieve.
But people don’t want to see practice; they want to see real games.
Yes, and the players want to play games and don’t want to practice, so it’s the real world. It’s reality, and we must deal with it.
Photo: Yury Kuzmin, Yaroslav Neyolov