“Of course, we need some time to analyze everything that occurred. We knew who we were up against, but at the same time, I’m very proud of the team. They kept battling and battling, they never gave up. Game four was the story of our whole season. CSKA deserves respects, they are an incredible team, there’s not a single weakness in their lineup. My players are winners, but CSKA became the champions.”
What did you say to your players after your season came to an end?
“When you’re working with professionals, you always have to set stands and make time to look back on your mistakes, assess your progress. I’m immensely proud of these guys. They’re all great people and they’ve gelled into a great team. I’ve always told my managers: “give me good people with a good attitude, and I will make them into good players.” I don’t believe that you can win with talent alone. All my experience has taught me that you need full commitment and self-sacrifice, because the playoffs are brutal. A lot of our guys played through injuries. Many need surgery. The only rating I can give these guys is A+.”
The players all talked about the great atmosphere in the locker. They were disappointed, but they never lost hope.
“I am grateful to the team, despite their disappointment with the loss… My guys deserved more, everyone wanted to go further in the final. I remember my first meeting with Maxim Sushinsky and Alexander Krylov in Copenhagen. They talked about building an organization with a sense of pride, creating a family, avoiding any drama or scandals. I think we succeeded at that, for which I need to thank our veterans, guys like Evgeny Medvedev, Cody Franson, Alexei Yemelin. For the young guys, this team has become a real development school, a place which they would not be able to find anywhere else. We worked to create this culture, and it resulted in a great season. Pride has its place in professional sports – body language is very important. You should never show weakness, only that you’re prepared to keep battling through any difficulties.
You admitted that CSKA was a real machine. Was it ever possible to have beaten them?
“The series was incredibly difficult. I have never made so many adjustments from game to game in my entire career. Never. I was desperate to find a way to win. I was constantly looking for some adjustment we could make that would improve our chances. I looked for some way we could slow their offense, and we actually managed to do this, at least after the first game. But it was not enough – we didn’t score as much as we needed to.
“We knew how to beat them, just as our opponents in the previous rounds knew how to beat us. There’s no formula – this is hockey, not rocket science. It’s ultimately a simple game, but there are always intangibles, things you can’t control. It all depends on the players on the ice. Sure, the score made it look like an easy sweep for CSKA, but if someone tells me these weren’t close-fought games, I would disagree. Behind the bench, I enjoyed every game. I felt like a kid again.”
CSKA’s team is unlikely to change much in the offseason, but your team is likely to look a lot different.
“I have some long nights ahead of me this summer, trying to think of new ways to beat CSKA. But first, we need to reach the finals again. We played a very strong Barys team in the first round, they finished first in our division. Would we have beaten them if not for Chudinov’s production? His goals were the most important of the series. So many things have to go your way in order to reach the finals, and we had a lot of lucky bounces in the first three rounds – but we earned them with our play.
“Our plan for next year is already clear – to reach the finals and win the Gagarin Cup. But at the same time Ak Bars will be stronger, Barys will be looking for revenge, and Salavat has high expectations as well. Everyone wants to make the finals, we’re all professionals. The Gagarin Cup is everyone’s goal, without exception. As a professional, you can never aim for second place.”
Before the start of the season, did you ever imagine that your team would play in the finals?
“When the day comes that I don’t think my team can win the championship, I will end my career. The coach must be the voice of the locker room, the head of the team. If you tell your players that you are satisfied with defeat or you let them get away with mediocrity, you will never win.”
Have you ever had a more difficult season than this one?
“I think that this year was typical for me. I spent all my time at the rink, and those are all the same, whether in Russia, Canada, Latvia, or the US. Of course it took me some time to adapt, but the people around me made my job easier. We all worked together for the same goal – to win the Gagarin Cup. We only failed at the last stage. It was my first season in the KHL, and I enjoyed every minute.
What did you personally get out of this year?
“I have been working for more than 30 years. People change, the community changes, and so does the game itself. You are always trying to think of something new. In the coaching staff we all shared our ideas, took decisions together. A lot of it worked out, and we made it all the way to the finals. I will never forget this year and these guys.
Did any of your players particularly surprise you?
“I can say that everyone surprised me, because I was not personally acquainted with any of them before this year. Everyone did their job, and so for me it’s better to discuss the team as a unit. The KHL is a great league, there are so many talented players, which means that every night you’re playing a tough opponent. There’s lots of time before next season to move past our disappointment. Three of the four games in the finals were decided by one goal. It’s hard to ask anything more than that of your players. I am upset, but I’m not disappointed.”
Bob Hartley: born September 9, 1960 (Hawksbury, Canada)
Coaching career: 1993-1996 – Cornwall (AHL), 1996-1998 – Hershey (AHL), 1998-2002 – Colorado (NHL), 2002-2008 – Atlanta (NHL), 2011-2012 – Zurich (Switzerland), 2012-2016 – Calgary (NHL), 2016-present – Latvian national team, 2018-present – Avangard Omsk
Achievements: Calder Cup (1997), Stanley Cup (2001), Swiss league championship (2012)