Peters, 55, brings a wealth of experience of coaching in the NHL and on the international stage to a club determined to move up to the next level and establish itself as a serious contender for the Gagarin Cup. The coach has won in Russia before: in 2016 he led Team Canada to World Championship gold in Moscow, a year after he was part of the coaching staff as the Canadians thrashed Russia 6-1 in the gold medal game in Prague. He was also behind the bench as Canada won the 2016 World Cup.
Now, though, he faces a new challenge. The Yekaterinburg job will be his first appointment outside of North America — and a shot at redemption after he quit Calgary under a cloud last fall. In a video conference with Russian journalists to announce his imminent arrival in the Urals, ‘excited’ was the word Peters uttered most often.
Excited about the opportunity, excited about getting over to Russia and starting work, excited about a long summer camp and a schedule of up to 12 exhibition games to get his team on track. And excited about the quality of hockey on offer in the KHL.
“Everyone is well aware of the KHL,” Peters said. “The caliber of player is very high, the technical skill is very high. You have national team players from Russia, skilled players, and international players from all over the world going to play in the KHL.
“It’s widely considered the second best in the world and it’s trying to close the gap on the National Hockey League. It’s a very highly respected league and it continues to get better and better every year. I was talking talking to some players I’ve coached in the past that went over there to play, and they had nothing but positive things to say about the KHL and their experience.”
Among his previous charges is one Pavel Datsyuk, currently weighing up the prospect of extending his contract at Avtomobilist. Peters explained that the Magic Man played no role in the job offer from club director Maxim Ryabkov, but he would welcome the Triple Gold Club member’s continued involvement with the team.
“Pavel Datsyuk is obviously an elite player, he’s got an unbelievable creative mind,” Peters said. “Now it’s up to Pavel but any time you have someone at that level it’s great for the game. We’d love to see him be a part of it but that’s a decision that he’ll have to make. If his health is good and his mind is right, then he’ll play.”
The KHL is a new environment for Peters, but in the three weeks or so since Avtomobilist made contact, he’s been doing his homework — and enjoying what he’s seen.
“I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been able to watch a lot of KHL games,” he said. “Not only our team but also the playoffs from around the league.
“I was impressed, there’s a good caliber of play across the board, the teams are well-coached, they are very even. I’m impressed with the individuals on our team. I don’t want to get into names at this time, while I’m just making sure that I know who’s back. Max has been busy bringing me up to speed on who’s potentially available moving forward, watching individual players as much as watching the system play. Once we get closer to the end of the month and into May, then we can start dialling in on new players a little bit as they become available.”
Traditionally, Yekaterinburg has been a cradle for talented players — Datsyuk being perhaps the best-known example. In the past, foreign coaches have been accused of neglecting the underlying system and aiming purely on short-term success. Peters sees it a bit differently.
“It’s an exciting time with the way it’s structured in Yekaterinburg,” he said. “We have our junior team right there with us. I anticipate that my staff and I will be able to watch them at practice and help out a bit, make sure we’re teaching the same types of things and understanding the system so that when guys are ready to come up to the KHL it’s a seamless transition.
“Russia is always well known for producing exciting young players and it’s no different going into this years’ NHL draft. Look at the players in the league that have a Russian background and are having success. There’s some elite players and there’s more to come.”
But what of the scandal that abruptly ended the coach’s NHL career? Peters was left with little choice but to step down after allegations of historic racist abuse surfaced last November. The controversy prompted the NHL to introduce new anti-discrimination measures. The man himself spoke of a learning experience. “I think as time goes on, we all grow and improve and become better versions of ourselves, and I’m no different than that. You learn from all the experiences that you’re in, and you become better,” Peters said.
The next experience for the Alberta native will be adapting to the challenge of implementing his ideas in an environment far from his comfort zone. Newly-appointed assistant German Titov — himself a former Calgary Flames player — will play a key role in translating Peters’ vision to his new team.
“In my short time knowing him, German is an outstanding individual,” Peters said. “He has great experience as a player and as a coach. The fact that he’s been head coach in the KHL as recently as two years ago is going to be great for our staff. He’s definitely a guy we’re going to lean on, he’s able to communicate in both Russian and English.
“It’s a unique situation because he lives in Calgary so I’ve been able to get together with him a couple of times and discuss the job opportunity and the KHL.” Peters and Titov will also be joined by Perry Pearn, another coach with extensive NHL experience who was head coach of Canada’s women’s team until early this year.