Power matched in elegance, inch-perfect execution with Russian style—Zubov was the quintessential Soviet-made supernova, and while hockey may have changed since those Red Army days, the newly-minted head coach of Dinamo Riga intends to prove that tenacity is timeless.
“Riga is a big hockey town and people love hockey here. When you’re in the building in Riga, you feel it—people know how to root for the team,” Zubov shared from the Latvian capital last week, where medicals are underway. “We have to get those people back and we have to play aggressively. We have to play that way especially at home. We owe it to them. We're going to play aggressive hockey. We're not going to sit back and wait—that’s for sure.”
An Olympic and NHL champion before the age of 25, Zubov was never one to waste time. The decorated defenseman was among the first Russians to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994, and was instrumental in the first Stanley Cup victory for the Dallas Stars in 1999. A decade later, Zubov returned to Russia to finish his career with SKA, and became their assistant coach in 2011. He served in the supporting role for several seasons in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg (including for the latter’s 2015 Gagarin Cup victory), taking his first full-season head coaching gig with Sochi in 2017. The team made the postseason twice before Zubov’s departure in October 2019. He returned to Dallas as a senior advisor and was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in the 2019 class of inductees.
Seven seasons shy of a playoff appearance, Dinamo craves the expedience and success that have defined Zubov’s career. He arrives to a similar challenge that once faced his former bench boss Viktor Tikhonov, who ballasted an ailing Riga en route to the pinnacle of Soviet hockey. We caught up to discuss this new page in Zubov’s career, the forces that shaped him and so much more from Latvia.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You were most recently consulting for the Dallas Stars ahead of your return to the KHL. How did the Dinamo Riga opportunity unfold for you?
Sergei Zubov (SZ): At the time I got involved with Dallas, everything was smooth for the first couple of months. It was a regular season, regular schedule, and I was going back and forth between New York and Dallas. But then, as we all know, everything was canceled, and by the time the playoffs had started, it was a tough situation. There was no [air] travel, and there was no opportunity for me to be with the team. My job came down to watching hockey, watching the playoffs, being on the phone with all of the guys back in the bubble. It was okay, but that's not what I wanted.
I wanted to get back to a normal routine. I like to come to the rink everyday, to feel the atmosphere and talk to the guys. Teaching—that’s what I enjoy doing. The Riga opportunity came along and we started talking sometime in February. I really like where I am right now, and I want to say thank you to the Latvian Hockey Federation, particularly to Juris Savickis, Edgars Buncis, Guntars Paste and others who were involved in this decision. We spent some time talking, and they gave me an opportunity.
It's a challenge, obviously, for me. Yes it’s going to be a KHL team, but there is a different mentality, different language. But then again, hockey is one language. Everywhere it is the same. It will be a great opportunity for me to get back to where I'd like to be. I mean, hockey is everything.
GK: Challenge is an understatement—Dinamo has missed seven postseasons in a row. How do you process that trend as a new coach walking into the organization?
SZ: Dinamo Riga got into trouble last season because they weren't in the same situation as the rest of the KHL. Latvia is part of the European Union. They had different COVID regulations, different standards. And it wasn’t just them—Jokerit Helsinki suffered, a few other teams suffered. But I think they suffered the most. They never had the chance to have a good training camp and get prepared. It was a snowball effect, and it was a tough time. I’m talking specifically about last year.
What happened before that, honestly, I don't want to look back. I’d like to stay here in the present because I like what I see. I like where we are right now. It was a great few months with team selection—our guys here did a great job—so now we just want to get ready. We have an opportunity to run a normal camp, and I hope nothing changes.
GK: Riga has a tendency to sign players late, but I noticed that you made some of the first moves this summer.
SZ: We jumped on [the signings] right away. We didn't want to wait like the team used to before, and I am so glad that they were able to convince the board members to do it that way. We were able to get pretty good players, even before anyone else had a chance to think about it. It's a good sign for us, and I appreciate that those guys have done it this way.
GK: How will your training camp be structured?
SZ: We’re going to start with the physical exams and some medicals for a few days this week, and then we're going to jump on the bus and travel to Liepāja. It's a couple of hours away from Riga. It's a smaller town, but it's quiet—and they have all the necessary facilities to get deep into it. It's going to be a little tougher, a little rougher, but we need it. Most of the guys know that they need it, and that's the most important part.
GK: Speaking of tough training camps, you’ve played for some of the fiercest coaches the sport has to offer—Viktor Tikhonov, Mike Keenan, Ken Hitchcock. Have you taken any of their influence?
SZ: I think I've tried to take whatever I could remember from back in the day with Viktor Tikhonov. It's not necessarily about the way we practice, or the way we do certain things. It's just, I would say, the psychological approach. I’ve picked up a lot of stuff from Ken Hitchcock, honestly. For the past couple of years, I've had a chance to talk to him and I enjoyed every moment.
GK: What are some of the things that you picked up from him?
SZ: I liked the way he would get guys to the highest level they could offer, whatever they had. Everybody is important [to Hitchcock]—there is no such thing as a fourth-line grinder or a role player or whatever. Everybody is equal, and every part of the team is important. That's what I think is crucial, especially in hockey. You win together, you lose together and you need to get guys motivated every day. I mean, I went through it. I was able to recapture those memories back then talking to him on a regular basis. It was a great experience. I appreciate it and hope we can stay good friends. He's one of the best in the NHL or at the international level.
GK: I interviewed Viktor Tikhonov's grandson recently, and he shared with me a story about the first—and last time—his grandfather took him to the gym. I cannot believe what you withstood at the outset of your career. How would you describe the impact those Red Army years made on you?
SZ: Honestly there was many memories and, I mean, if you would describe it with one word—it was hell. [Laughs] It was a hell of a ride that I had for those four years, and it was tough. But looking back, if I wasn’t able to make it through those times, I would probably never have made it to the NHL. When I got there, I felt comfortable—I was physically and mentally prepared. That's the bottom line.
GK: In the words of Michael Jordan—“Starts with hard work, ends with champagne.” You experienced that.
SZ: If you deserve it, yeah. I mean, you can work hard but never get the champagne. It has to be hard and smart.
GK: Rewinding to your seasons as head coach of Sochi, what are some lessons from that experience you will take to Riga?
SZ: Well, in specifics—every nationality, every guy is different. Russians are different. There were Finns, Swedes, Czechs, Canadians. We’re all different, we all look at the world around us differently and we judge it differently. It was probably a very good experience in the beginning. Now we have 13 imports and the rest of the guys are local Latvian players. It's all about relationships, communicating with the players and finding those ways to fine tune them. It’s my job and I love it.
GK: You have played and coached in the KHL for over a decade. What changes have you noticed in the league?
SZ: The league is obviously getting better in terms of entertainment. More and more teams have started doing things the right way, and it's great to see. Look at the teams like SKA and Avangard, Dynamo, Kazan—they all have a reputation as leaders of the KHL, and it's tough to maintain year after year. The level of play is higher, and a lot of players from Finland and Sweden are looking forward to playing in KHL. It tells you that this league is moving forward. When I got here back in 2009, and if you look at it right now—it’s like day and night. Everything just went through the roof. I'm talking about the organizations, logistics, everything.
GK: What forces have shaped the KHL’s heavy emphasis on defense, in your opinion?
SZ: A lot of team owners or team managers here, they need results now. There is no timeframe that you can depend on in terms of building the team, putting the pieces together. You know how it goes. The players have to spend some time together, get to know each other. It takes time. Here, there is no such a thing as two, three, or four year deals. You're basically like a freelancer trying to accomplish things. That's the biggest difference. That's why a lot of coaches want to play this protective style—“If we score one, perfect. If we're not letting in one goal, we're going to win. We still have a chance to win.” That's the mentality. Back in the NHL, it's more significant to maintain a level of excitement and scoring. It's tougher here, and that’s the biggest difference.
GK: In light of that assessment, stylistically speaking—what can we expect from you?
SZ: Riga is a big hockey town and people love hockey here. When you’re in the building in Riga, you feel it—people know how to root for the team. We have to get those people back and we have to play aggressively. We have to play that way especially at home. We owe it to them. We're going to play aggressive hockey. We're not going to sit back and wait—that’s for sure.
GK: One thing that really classified your generation of Russian players was the level of creativity. I was talking to Slava Fetisov about a year ago and he said to me, "I think that creativity in hockey is dead because kids don't grow up playing in their backyards anymore." What are your thoughts?
SZ: Well, he's right. There are no more pond rinks in the neighborhoods. There are no rivers filled with ice and kids on it, for sure. But it does not necessarily kill creativity. I think it comes from those first steps, first years of when you start playing. You start skating, you start learning how to keep the stick and then play against the opponent. That comes down to kids’ coaches. That's where we lost it, I feel. That's where the love of hockey actually starts.
As a kid, I remember stepping onto the ice. I remember my first stick. Then all of a sudden, there was a puck, there was a net, there were opponents, and there was a battle. There were no coaches. Some parents stood by watching, but it was an outside rink. That's where you start learning hockey. The next step would be getting onto a local team, where a young coach would allow you to do pretty much anything. There were no rules—there was no, “You stay here, you go there.” Maybe at 12, 13 or 14, that's where you start learning how to play the team game. But those first few years are very important, where kids learn to enjoy it. That's my opinion.
GK: Who brought you to the game in the first place?
SZ: My dad. [Laughs] He put me on skates and gave me the old kick in the butt—and that was it!
GK: In terms of role models, you were spoiled for choice. Red Army was in its glory at that time.
SZ: When I attended the Red Army club, my first goal was to sneak in and try to watch the main team practice. Growing up, Slava Fetisov was my hero, my idol. I watched every step that he made and every stride. It's very important to have that kind of inspiration. You can dream of being better than him or better than anybody. The way he passed, the way he shot the puck or the way he turned—there were many things I could take for myself.
GK: Slava Fetisov won his last Olympic gold medal in 1988. Four years later, you won in 1992 against the backdrop of the Soviet Union collapsing. I am still in awe that such a youthful roster could hold itself together in the midst of chaos.
SZ: It was tough, but we were fortunate that we went through it. It was a big challenge for us—not just as hockey players, but for everybody. When you're going through tough times, it just makes you stronger, especially mentally. When my generation looks back, they are proud that they went through it.
GK: In 1992, that young “Unified Team” represented hope. Did the responsibility weigh heavily on your shoulders?
SZ: We played for the national team, and it was an honor. There are many things you can say. But most importantly, it was a bunch of great players who stuck together and enjoyed every moment of it. I would say 99% of that team ended up in the NHL, even within a few years.
GK: Between your playing career and present day, how has the role of a defenseman changed?
SZ: There are five guys on the ice in any given moment, and all five are involved. That's the bottom line. It's a game where once in a while, everybody is doing somebody else's job. They're backing up, they're pinching, or there is a second forward coming back and trying to get the puck off the boards in the defensive zone. There is a defenseman trying to forecheck and join the rush, slashing through the middle.
In my opinion, it's an advantage when you have those kinds of players on your team and I would be more than happy if we have it! I'm sure we have it. Maybe it's just hidden and we have to unleash it.
GK: It's interesting you call that a change, because you're describing the five man unit style of hockey that Anatoly Tarasov envisioned.
SZ: Yes, Tarasov brought it up back in the day. With Tikhonov, it was a different story. As a young prospect, I was always told to “stay home,” and that was his way. Slava [Fetisov] and Alex [Kasatonov], they tried to bring something of their own. Look at the NHL right now, look at Tampa, look at all those teams that make it further in the playoffs—the defensemen try to make a play two-on-one in front of the net. That’s the reality. Communication between all five guys is very important.
GK: How will you personally define success at the end of this season? Is it as simple as a postseason visit, or are you focusing more narrowly than that?
SZ: Honestly, I don't know how to answer. This team won nine games last year out of 60. We'd love to, obviously, make it to the playoffs and aim as high as possible—but it’s a long goal, long season, and we just need to get better on a daily basis. Like I say, you've got to get better than yourself yesterday. That's all.