Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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“If someone today would have told me, ‘We are going to get to season two and you will lose Zernov, Manukyan, Chudinov, Emelin for most of the season, Franson…’” Bob Hartley’s voice trailed off. The Stanley Cup-winning head coach of Avangard Omsk lost an unprecedented chunk of his roster to injuries this season, and yet finished the regular season with the same number of points as his inaugural one—a KHL debut that ultimately led to the finals.

Hartley, 59, has won the highest honors that the NHL, AHL and Swiss League have to offer, and remains committed to the KHL’s ultimate prize, another shot at the Gagarin Cup. Despite a number of changes to his roster and coaching staff, including the addition of assistant coach Slava Kozlov—a decorated winger Hartley once coached in the NHL—Avangard finished the regular season third in the Eastern Conference, only a point shy of Barys Nur-Sultan. The first-round playoff battle between Omsk and Ufa boasted some of the most dramatic box scores in the league, with Salavat Yulaev ultimately edging out Avangard in six.

From grappling with colossal injuries to utilizing the KHL’s new smart puck technology between periods, Hartley summarized his takeaways from the 2019-2020 season.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): There were many changes to the Avangard roster between last season and your inaugural one. Did you view this year as a rebuild at the outset?

Bob Hartley (BH): No, I don’t think so. I was learning about the league as we went, because obviously, in the KHL, it's mostly one or two-year contracts. There are very few four, five, six, seven-year contracts like we see in the NHL. I think it’s pretty normal that there is going to be changes on every team basically every year. It’s just the structure of the KHL.

To summarize our season, there’s only one word—injuries. From the start of training camp to the end of the year, we had five major surgeries during the season. Throughout my coaching career, at the end of playoffs, teams performed surgeries on some of their players. They miss a few weeks of training camp and are ready to go.

We lost some very key elements of our lineup, and at the same time, we maintained the same amount of points that we got in the previous year—despite losing also Ilya Mikheyev [to the NHL]. I didn’t expect anyone to come in and replace Ilya Mikheyev. He was the best player in the KHL—for me, I should say, the most complete player about offense, speed, understanding of the game. Combining the loss of Mikheyev to all of the injuries that we had, we still maintained a very successful season. In the playoffs, we got beat by the team that we beat last season. Just to show you how close playoff hockey is—we beat [Ufa] in two overtime games the previous year, and this year, they beat us in the lone overtime game that we played. Eventually that became the difference in the series.

Obviously we were disappointed to lose in the first round, but I can compliment our players because I know how hard they worked. But again, in pro sports, every team challenges for the ultimate goal—in the KHL, it’s the Gagarin Cup.

GK: Your first-round playoff series gave me whiplash. Between five and nine goals were traded every night, no exceptions. 

BH: My gosh, we talked about it so many times. That was the daily conversation in the coaches’ office. We never asked too many questions when we were the team scoring five or six goals [laughs], but when Ufa were scoring those goals, we were saying, “What can we change? What do we need to adjust?” It was a team that we knew quite a bit because we had played them in the playoffs the year before.

Scotty Bowman once told me that you can analyze games as much as you want, but you will have five or six key moments in a game and the other team will have five or six key moments. The way that those moments go will dictate the outcome of the game. Its been years since he told me this, but I always remembered it. He’s right. You can have all the analytics in the world that you want, but it comes down to scoring on your chances and hopefully a little luck on your side. I can’t take anything away from Ufa though. Ufa played very well in the end. Hartikainen, Manninen, Omark and Larsen—they were just dominant.

GK: You coached Slava Kozlov on the Atlanta Thrashers, and he became your assistant coach this season. How did you enjoy working together again? 

BH: It was a pretty easy decision to go and get Kozlov because I had coached him in Atlanta, and coached against him in that big rivalry between Colorado and Detroit. I knew how competitive he was, and how professional he was. Mike [Pelino] decided to leave and, for me, there was only one name on our list—it was Slava. He did an unbelievable job for us. What a great person. I knew him as a player, and now I know him as a coach. He has great potential to become a great head coach in the KHL—the way that he reads the game, the way that he teaches, and the way that he works. He works as hard as a coach as he did as a player. It’s always fun to be around Kozy.

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GK: Did you miss Pelino’s presence in the locker room this year? 

BH: Oh yeah, and his decision to leave had nothing to do with the coaching staff. It was a personal decision on his part to leave. In the coaches’ room, Mike Pelino has always been a great pro, a great friend. I’ve always stayed in touch with Mike. It’s part of hockey, you know? It’s revolving doors, and I knew details that led to his decision. I was sad to let him go, but I understood why he wanted to go.

GK: Let’s discuss a few specific players on your squad. Taylor Beck was a force in your 2018-19 playoff run, but did not replicate his success this spring. How would you assess his season? 

BH: It didn’t go as well for Taylor this year. I thought he had great chemistry with Viktor Stalberg and David Desharnais [last season]. We tried to match him with several players, and combined with all of the injuries that we got, it was tough. Apart from the Shumakov-Semyonov-Koshelev line that basically stayed all together, and Dedunov-Stas-Potapov, the top two lines—it was almost like musical chairs. One player was coming back, one player was going on the injury list. I think that as a line for Taylor, we were never able to get the right players all together at the right time. Despite all of this, I think that he had a pretty decent season. 

But it’s one of those things, and I understand it. I coached in Zurich in the Swiss league and here in the KHL now; when you’re an import, you need to be a difference-maker.

GK: There were similarly high expectations for Sven Andrighetto and Nikita Shcherbak at the season’s outset. 

BH: For Shcherbak, as I said when he left the team, I thought he had a tough start because he was not in as-good of shape as we would have liked. What are the reasons for that? I don’t know. I appreciated working with him and he’s a very good young man. I was looking forward to working with him, but from the get-go, we gave him a lot of responsibility at training camp.

Maybe all of the injuries never allowed us to get some set lines from the start. In the previous year, we basically never changed the lineup. We never made changes on our lines because everyone was healthy and playing well. This year, we were playing well, but we were looking for production from certain people and injuries created such a mix up of players. Maybe it prevented players like Shcherbak and Andrighetto. It was a new world for them—for Sven Andrighetto, coming to Russia for the first time, he had to make adjustments. I felt that he had a rough start but got better. He played pretty well in the playoffs, and I was happy with that. But as I said before, when you are an import, you are asked to produce. Unfortunately for Sven, there was little production in the playoffs.

Свен Андригетто. Фото: Владимир Беззубов

GK: Slava Voynov joined Avangard after a one-year sit out; he still posted one of the top performances among defensemen in the league. 

BH: He’s a world-class player. He’s a solid skater, reads the game well, competes everyday—practices and games. If you look in the dictionary for the definition of a professional, that’s where Slava Voynov comes in.

GK: Who would you consider to be the top producer on your squad this year? 

BH: I never look at producers. I am a coach who looks at the way players play the game. There are two sides: the offensive side and the defensive side. There are three zones in a game. 

For me, I’ve coached some great producers that I knew I would never win a championship with because they did not care about the team game. For me, I don’t really look at top producers. I look at players that allow us to win hockey games. There are differences in players—what’s the sense of finishing top-scorer of your team at minus five or minus ten? For me, I don’t see any value to those players.

There are some for whom the understanding of the game is better. And it’s normal, we are all different. We all come with different qualities, different weaknesses, but that makes our world and our game so much fun.  

If someone today would have told me, “We are going to get to season two and you will lose Zernov, Manukyan, Chudinov, Emelin for most of the season, Franson…” Gosh, I don’t know how many guys we lost with major injuries. The doctor was walking in and out of our office the morning after games. We, as a joke, were telling him that we were going to lock him out! It was not like, “He’s going to miss a week or 2-3 games.” It was, “We will fly him somewhere to see a doctor and he will probably get surgery and he’s out from four to six months.” That’s the kind of news we got basically all year. Our players stuck through it and we had so many lineup changes. We managed to battle for the top of our conference all season. I am pretty happy with this.

GK: Next season, a hard salary cap will be instituted. Do you think this will increase competitive parity in the KHL? 

BH: If you look at the NHL since the installation of the salary cap, you don’t know who is going to win. The Anaheim Ducks, the L.A. Kings and the San Jose Sharks were at the bottom of their divisions this year. Seven, eight, nine, ten years ago, these teams were at the tops of their divisions. There are so many other teams—look at the Detroit Red Wings and how dominant and competitive they’ve been, and right now the curve has caught them. They are in rebuilding mode.

I still haven’t figured out how the salary cap will work, but obviously I think the hope of the KHL is that it brings parity. 

I think it’s for the benefit of the league and the benefit of our fans. There are so many great cities that have unbelievable fans, and for years, their team has been at the bottom of the standings. It brings value to a league when you see the change of command. I don’t think it’s healthy for a league to always see the same teams at the top.

GK: On that note, have you seen any changes in the competitiveness of the league over time? Players such as Brian O’Neill told me earlier this season that they felt every game had gotten harder. 

BH: I felt that this year, games were so tough. Maybe combined with our injuries too, it brought the level of our team down. But I felt that this year, every team was a battle. Whether we were on the road or at home, it was good. You’re going to get the odd 7-0 game or 8-1 game, but as a league, you don’t want those games. I don’t think you sell the quality of the league with them.

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GK: One league-wide change was the introduction of the smart puck system. Were there any specific tools or metrics that your coaching staff found helpful? 

BH: I really liked it because we were using it between periods. It is not going to change the game, but it is another valuable tool that we can use. Some teams would even put the [smart puck stats] on their jumbotrons at center ice in between TV timeouts. For the fans, it’s entertainment; for the coaches, it’s information. It’s two different ways to look at it.

GK: Can you give an example of which metrics you would look at between periods? 

BH: The ice-time. Whether for us, but mainly for our opponents, to see which players are being used and stuff like that. We track those two. We basically looked at everything—it was just extra information, and I think it was pretty valuable.

GK: We are obviously in unprecedented circumstances right now with COVID-19, and many teams would have been practicing through contract expiration. What have been your marching orders to your players in terms of keeping fit, particularly when most have no access to ice time? 

BH: Right now, it has been very simple. We are not going to reinvent the wheel, just stay healthy. 

For me right now, it’s not about hockey. It’s about taking care of your family. I was telling this to my assistants a while ago—you prepare for a playoff round and you watch video and you analyze your opponents. But with this virus, you have no information on him. You are fighting him, playing him in the playoffs—but you can’t see him, you can’t smell him. It is spreading around the world, but where and how…yes, we know part of it. But we are fighting an unknown monster. For me, right now, let’s win this fight. After this, we can come back to normal life and to play hockey.

GK: From TikTok videos to Instagram filters to original content, Avangard has set a new standard in the KHL for social engagement. How do you feel that this marketing push plays in to your overall success? 

BH: It’s about reaching out to hockey fans, developing hockey fans. When we get on the ice for practice or for games, it’s about winning the Gagarin Cup. But many times, I look at myself—my first autograph was Toe Blake. I kept that postcard for years on my desk in my bedroom. When I met with Maxim Sushinsky and Alexander Krylov when they hired me, they told me about what they did. We talked about communication. I remember we were in Copenhagen past midnight and were talking—we all agreed that maybe it was time to open up the dressing room. When you open up your dressing room to reporters in front of your players, or you make them available, you aren’t making them available to the reporters—you are making them available to your fans. The reporters are the link between the coach, players, organization and the fans. If you don’t open up to the reporters, you are closing yourself and there are so many great stories about our game and our players. We thought we would start this, and I think hockey fans in Russia and around the world appreciate it.

GK: Lastly, you just wrapped year two in the KHL. What would you say you have learned over the past season? 

BH: I am going to be 60 years old in September, and I started coaching when I was 27. I think a a major part of what you have to do as a coach is adapt. To adapt and to learn—is it the same? I think so. You adapt because you try new methods and new ideas—they work or they don’t work—and you change, a little bit, your mindset. Just going through what we are going through right now, the coronavirus, how will it affect our lives? Kids at school? Sports teams? There are going to be some major changes. I am far from a medical expert, but it is going to change a lot of things in our lives, just like September 11th did. Coaching is the same. We have a great group, and obviously there are high expectations of going for the ultimate goal. And that’s all I’m asking for—I want to work with people who share the same goals as I have.

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
exclusive for khl.ru

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