Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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Mike Pelino knows what it takes to lead a powerhouse, whether we consider his two Gagarin Cup championships at Metallurg, or the 100,000 honey bees he has wrangled all summer in the backyard. While the Ontario native was certain that he would not return to Russia at the end of last season—the glimmer of glory, and a reunion with head coach Ilya Vorobyov, caused the KHL mainstay to change his tune. Not literally, of course, as the karaoke clubs in Magnitogorsk will soon discover—both Vorobyov and Pelino are regulars, a tradition begun with “Iron Mike” Keenan seven years ago.

“We try to get to the karaoke club once or twice a month on an off-day and enjoy a few songs,” Pelino shared earlier this week. “Mike Keenan, Ilya and I started doing this in 2013-14, our first year together, and we kept it up through the years.”

The question remains whether or not Vorobyov and Pelino will soon be belting out a rendition of We Are The Champions, a prospect that lured the latter 8,515 kilometers eastward to a familiar home in the Urals. He rejoined Magnitogorsk as they jockey for playoff position—a battleground and a rhythm he knows all too well.

As a perennial member of Team Canada’s coaching staff, Pelino has won a number of accolades from Olympic Gold in Salt Lake City, Utah to a Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland. He has made stops on two NHL benches—the Florida Panthers and the New York Rangers—during the North American leg of his global career. Pelino would join forces with New York icon and 1994 Stanley Cup Champion Mike Keenan to make the KHL jump, keen to observe the cultural differences and Russia’s coaching ethos. The pair moved to Metallurg in 2013, winning a Gagarin Cup in their debut. When Keenan departed in October of the following season, Pelino remained under Riga-native Vorobyov—snagging another Russian title in the process. His latest KHL adventure ended in the storybook setting of Yaroslavl, where Craig MacTavish’s early departure set the stage for Pelino’s first KHL head coaching gig. Lokomotiv course-corrected and made the postseason; a dramatic series versus Jokerit ended Pelino’s run, but the playoffs were soon canceled completely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the eve of Metallurg’s clash with Salavat Yulaev, I caught up with Pelino from Ufa. We discussed everything from Sergei Mozyakin to the karaoke classics, not to mention a new passion for beekeeping.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You mentioned recently that you reviewed footage of Metallurg while making your decision to come back, and you liked what you saw. What exactly attracted you back to Magnitogorsk?

Mike Pelino (MP): Well, number one, I liked the idea of working with Ilya [Vorobyov] again. I liked the make-up of his coaching staff, and I knew that I wasn't coming in to replace anyone, I was just coming in to be an addition. The team seemed to have a lot of upheavals since I was there a few years ago, but they still had Mozyakin. They still had Big Vas [Koshechkin], the goalie, and those were two of my favorites. I thought they made really good moves with acquiring some leadership, some grit, some skill. I really felt they were a team that might be a little bit under the radar now, but heading in the right direction. Maybe with some good fortune and some hard work, they could be a team that will compete for the Gagarin Cup.

GK: Metallurg has a long history of mixing North American and Russian coaches. How do you integrate the two schools of thought? Was there ever any friction?

MP: That's a great question, and I think we hit it off in the first year with Mike [Keenan]. Coming from North America, we wanted to understand what made the new Russian hockey players tick and the Russian culture. We really embedded ourselves into the society, and then having Ilya there really helped us to learn about it. At the same time, Ilya was eager to understand what made the North American hockey players tick, and where the differences were in the coaching tactics and coaching minds. It really meshed together nicely. As we continued, we seemed to get a hybrid of the two cultures. We understood the mentality of both, or we thought we did anyway. Even this year, it was like stepping into an old pair of shoes. Obviously we both had more experiences over the last seven years, but we don't have that friction.

Sometimes Ilya says to me, “We've got to be careful. It's not all about giving them candies and flowers." And I’ll say to him, "Well, we've got to be careful too. It's not all about giving them the iron fist." So we've adjusted. There is a time to be firm—and we've always had that in us as North Americans—but it seemed more predominant in Russian coaching techniques. Ilya's a sponge, I'd like to think I'm a sponge, and we're learning from each other—and hopefully making each other better.

GK: I find it so interesting how much the Russian game has evolved from that 70s-80s era of puck possession and improvisation, to the iron-clad defensive systems that dominate the KHL today. The NHL plays something closer to what the Soviets displayed versus what the KHL employs now. Do you have any sense of why the Russian game evolved in that direction?

MP: Well, that's another great observation. I think that the Russians obviously learned from the North Americans, and they were influenced from the '72 Series all the way through. North Americans loved the style of the Russian game, and so they both borrowed. I think there are many more good players now than there were back then. I think it was an easier puck possession game, because at that time, I don't think the opponents were as good as the top Russians. But now when you look at that so-called fourth lineman, I mean, they're knocking at the door of being a first lineman as well. The game has gotten faster and the ice surface has gotten smaller, but there's not the opportunity to have extra skill level over your opposition.

I think it has become a much more North-South, chip the puck in, get aggressive on the forecheck game. The puck possession is still there, and I know the Russian U20 team seems to be talking about playing the Soviet style. It will be interesting to see how they do against the teams that are on-par skills-wise and tenacity-wise, and I think it's going to be a great World Juniors.

GK: You mentioned that Sergei Mozyakin is one of your favorites. That’s a fair choice, given his domination of the KHL from a scoring perspective.

MP: I've known him now for the last seven years, and for the first five, he was incredible. He was such a quiet leader, such a model of consistency and so subtly-talented. He could protect the puck, he was a lot stronger physically than people would appreciate, especially because he's not a really big guy. He's a much better skater than he gets credit for because of the way he can maneuver and keep his balance. He's got a knack for scoring, he's got a tremendous shot, and he loves to score. I think he's had a marvelous career. He's creeping up in age, and that maybe slowed him down a bit, but I don't think that has stopped him from being a dominant player when he gets the opportunity. It's great being back with him again, and he's going to be a key for us moving forward.

GK: When does he get that 1000th point?

MP: The interesting thing about Russian statistics is that they keep track of both regular season and playoff points. Mozy still has probably—well, I’ll hope—50 games left this year to try to get some points, and at the pace he's going, he can probably put together 30 or 40. And then maybe 30 to 40 or 50 again next year. I can see him possibly doing it next season, if he continues to play, or definitely the season after. It's getting much more difficult to score points in this league. Our leading scorer right now in the league is Shipachyov, and he’s just over, I think, a point per game. If Mozy can chip in with 30, 40 points at this stage in his career, that’s pretty impressive.

GK: We only have about twenty-five games left this season. What does Magnitogorsk need to focus on to ensure a solid post-season run?

MP: We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We're on a bit of a roll right now, but we all know that in hockey, it can change at any moment. Today was the first day that we were able to practice as a team since I arrived. The only way, in my opinion, to get better as a team and as an individual is through practice and through learning off the ice, whether it be video or whether it be on the chalkboard. We're going to have a good National Team break coming up to work with our guys. The players will have a chance to develop more confidence in themselves, individually and collectively.

From a tactical standpoint, we want to get stronger defensively. I think that's always a goal of any team. Our special teams need to get better. We've got a nice powerplay unit, we're pretty good on the PK. I remember that the year we won, we were a top powerplay team. In Avangard, the year we went to the Finals, we scored a powerplay goal in fifteen-straight games. That was the biggest reason why we got to the finals against CSKA, and that's going to have to happen here. We need them to continue to pay attention to details, stay healthy and just get better day by day.

GK: Generally speaking, Magnitka has a more mature roster—but one birthday stands out! Danila Yurov is only 16. How is he integrating into this group of established superstars?

MP: We’ve got a good collection of guys on our team, and you see a nice blend between the youth and the experience. He's been accepted right away, and he's definitely matured beyond his years, but he still is just a sixteen-year-old kid. As his body continues to develop and he continues to work on his strength, he's going to become that much better of a player, but he's very intelligent on the ice. He's able to hold his own, he's got a lot of poise, and a nice, quiet confidence. He’s pushing himself to become better. He's learning from the Mozyakins and the Plotnikovs. We've got a lot of good role models for him to pattern himself after. He's got that knack to develop into a good player.

GK: There is another player in this group who I find is perennially underestimated. I had the chance to watch Taylor Beck during my time at Kunlun, and then he moved to Avangard and was pivotal to your Gagarin Cup run. How have you enjoyed the reunion?

MP: It was a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to coach Taylor in Avangard. You're right on—he was under the radar there, and he didn't stand out. It wasn’t about his skating or his stickhandling or a rocket of a shot, but he could do it all. He started to put it together, especially in the playoffs, and he was probably, in my opinion, the most valuable player in the playoffs for Avangard. He contributed offensively, he ran the powerplay—and it's always a growth period when you go to a new team. Especially this year with COVID issues, it has taken everyone a little while longer to become completely adjusted.

I look for him to really take off in the second half. He does have a nice chemistry with Mozyakin, and I think Taylor, as he gets a little more comfortable and just a little more confident, he can take it to another level. He knows what it takes to peak at the right time, to hit your stride at the right time, and I think all of that will come together for us. The relationship he and I had in Avangard will pay dividends as we work together over the next half of the season.

GK Last season, you ascended to a head coaching role. I'm curious if anything about that transition surprised you?

MP: The only thing that really surprised me is how much more consuming it was of your time. I know I'm a hard worker. I know I love the coaching part of the game, whether it's the preparation, whether it's the practices—but all of a sudden, as a head coach, it was that much more. I really didn't have that much by way of distraction in Yaroslavl. [In Magnitogorsk], there was the coaching fraternity that we had. You could get away from hockey for a little bit, even though you were with hockey guys. Last year, because I was the only import coach on the team and I lived in the Basa, I had that much more time to concentrate on hockey. Instead of putting one hour into a video presentation for three minutes, it would be five hours by the time things were done, but it was a labor of love.

GK: Is it a role that you hope to take on again at some point in your career? 

MP: Not necessarily. If it comes my way, or if an opportunity presents itself, I'd consider it obviously, but it's not that I'm pining for it. It's not that I'm even waiting for it—I‘m just really excited about where I am right now. I love our staff here and we just want to win together, and then take what tomorrow may bring.

GK: What is the first thing that you did when you got back to Magnitogorsk? What have you missed?

MP: I wanted to drive through the city again and see some of the places that were old hangouts. I’m actually staying with Ilya Vorobyov right now in one of my old apartments. I'm going to eventually move into an apartment that I've lived in before as well. I loved seeing the rink, the dressing room and some of the old faces. I had a number of really passionate fans that continued to support me, through Avangard and Loko, and now I can see them face-to-face again. It was like coming home. 

Karaoke is great in Russia, and we love it. We try to get to the karaoke club once or twice a month on an off-day and enjoy a few songs. Mike Keenan, Ilya and I started doing this in 2013-14, our first year together, and we kept it up through the years. We had our favorites, and then were always willing to try a new one or two. My Way and New York, New York by Frank Sinatra, What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong, Stumblin’ In by Chris Norman, Fool If You Think It’s Over by Chris Rea, That’s Amore by Dean Martin, Me and Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson. And some Russian ones too! Ryumkf Vodki by Grigory Leps, Belyye Rozy. I’ll look forward to doing that—maybe one night during the National Team break.

GK: Speaking of, what were Iron Mike Keenan’s parting words upon your return to Magnitogorsk?

MP: ”Oh, I'm so envious! I wish I was there with you guys, I'm really happy for you. You guys have a great connection." He was as excited for me as I was, and as excited for me as a father would be—and that was pretty special. I've stayed in touch with him, obviously, over the years. Ilya and I sent photos of us back at the Baden-Baden Bar and Restaurant that we would frequent, just to rekindle the memories for him.

GK: Baden-Baden. That sounds German.

MP: Its got the best schnitzel in Magnitogorsk.


GK: Now there’s a tagline for you! You had one of the most interesting pandemic endeavors that I think I've encountered in all of hockey—beekeeping! How was it?

MP: Amazing. I've gotten to learn so much more about bees, and they really are a truly amazing insect, animal, whatever way you want to describe them. Their whole life cycle, the way they live together as a hive, as a team. To think that these little creatures create honey, which might be, from what I understand, the most important food in the world. Someone said to me that if the bees went away, civilization would end.

We now have four hives, and I think we've got somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 bees.

My daughter’s named the four queens—Cleopatra, I know there's Beyoncé, Victoria and Catherine. We've got an early-season honey that's a little lighter in color, and we've got an end-of-season honey that's much darker because of the Black-Eyed Susans or the other flowers that they ended up pollenating. We’ve also got ten chickens, and this year we have a rooster. We actually named him Cock Dela [a take on the Russian phrase как дела/kak dela, which means “how are you?”], a little play on words between Russia and North America. He's a beautiful rooster and he keeps the chickens happy. We’re getting anywhere from five to ten eggs every day.

GK: Have the bees taught you anything about hockey?

MP: The bees have taught me that there's no substitute for hard work—whether you’re an individual or a team. I can't believe how hard they work. We learned that in Magnitogorsk, when we won two championships and went to the finals another time. We definitely learned that in Avangard, and even last year with Lokomotiv. I'd like to say that in the seven years that I've been in the league, we've had seven very hard working teams. We’ve got it this year as well, and that’s why I'm optimistic that good things can happen.


Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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