“You have to learn from everybody, and I think the puck possession game was very important in the Soviet system,” Nemirovsky described from the Puchkov Memorial Tournament last month. “But with anything, you can't lean so far left or so far right—it is about combination. A lot of times we want the players to hold the puck and make plays, and then sometimes during the game, we try to teach them where they’re better off playing it simple.”
After a professional playing career that spanned nearly two decades, Nemirovsky opted to remain in Russia as sporting director for Admiral Vladivostok. He served in this capacity from 2015 until 2018, when it was announced that he would become head coach of Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. It is a role he ascended to with admirable ease, qualifying for the postseason every year since his coaching debut. From the inspiration he has drawn from the Soviet hockey heritage to last season’s breakout star Damir Zhafyarov, Nemirovsky and I spanned a number of topics—and decades—from Saint Petersburg.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): One thing I have always admired about Torpedo is the clear emphasis on puck possession. Was Soviet hockey a major inspiration for you?
Dave Nemirovsky (DN): As a hockey player, I was influenced greatly by the old Soviet teams. I had learned a lot from them. I had over 200 international games on VCR and beta at home—all the way from 1980 until I became pro. You have to learn from everybody, and I think the puck possession game was very important in the Soviet system. Right now, if you watch NHL, they always talk about puck possession. But with anything, you can't lean so far left or so far right—it is about combination. A lot of times we want the players to hold the puck and make plays, and then sometimes during the game, we try to teach them where they’re better off playing it simple. But the majority is puck possession, and that's what the NHL has gone to, with analytics showing that puck possession is very key.
GK: Anatoly Tarasov once said, “In attack, there is always the right to take a risk.” Interestingly though, many Russian teams play in a risk-averse and systematically defensive fashion. Why do you think hockey developed in this direction?
DN: I really can't give a concrete answer as to why. One of the main things that we have tried to teach the players is the risk-reward factor. If there is a very good scoring chance, then it's worth the risk. It’s about playing smart. Without any kind of risk, you're not going to produce, you're not going to score. There have also been rule changes that help the system. In the NHL, if you're defending so much and sitting back, the game speed is so high that you're going to take penalties. That's why the NHL has those rules on obstruction. [In Russia], they’re trying to change it—but I think they have to start with kids’ hockey and in the junior levels because those kids are all going to come up to play in the KHL someday.
GK: How do you encourage creativity in your hockey players?
DN: I stress in practice and in games to always think the game—both on the ice, and even on the bench. There are individual preparations the guys could do, but I'm always harping on them to be thinking, always trying to be a play ahead. Honestly, it's also about not being afraid. There will always be mistakes. Hockey's a game of mistakes. When you're trying to develop the player’s confidence and creativity, you need to try to facilitate and open up. There are different ways of reacting when mistakes happen, right? If you're just going to come to him and yell at him, it's human nature to shut off. You're not listening, you're not understanding.
Hockey has changed so much over the years. Maybe one of the things I would say, the negative part of the old Soviet Union, was that how you dealt with the players was exactly the same. The training for every single player was exactly the same, and that's not true these days. I watched an interview the other day about one of the Russian players that's over in North America now, and he talks about how he loves the training he does by himself rather than with the team because he has a specific program. It doesn't take away anything from the team atmosphere, but it makes that individual better. And psychologically speaking, how to get things across to certain players—every player is different.
GK: There were a lot of comparisons made between yourself and your predecessor in terms of demeanor on the bench. You seem to have a very calm approach toward the players.
DN: On the bench, you want to keep calm and explain things during the game. If you're just going to be yelling and going crazy, you're going to panic, and then the rest of the team panics. When you're panicking, you're not focused—so the first thing is to start to focus, and then get back at it. In terms of emotional dealings with players, it will not be on the bench. It will be in the dressing room or behind closed doors.
GK: Torpedo recently announced that Damir Zhafyarov will remain in Nizhny Novgorod for another season. How would you define his breakout success last year, in light of your long experience working together?
DN: I’m a true believer that all success comes from within. There are people on the way to help you, but everything that's going to happen, it all comes from you. You are your own creator. There are a lot of people, not only me, that helped him on the way—but everything comes from him. Maybe I just helped him to get back to a level he achieved in juniors and his first year. I knew Damir when he was younger, and I thought very highly of him. When I was working at Admiral, we had a chance to bring him there. When he first came to the team, I was like, "This is not the Damir I know."
It took almost a full year to start seeing glimpses of the Damir of the past, and then it was a tough year in the second year. The team wasn't doing well, and he got injured and stuff like that. When I got the job here in Torpedo and he was available, it was one of the first things I did. I knew that he was growing and getting better. He made the decision to work harder, put more effort into development, and he wanted to be better. Complacency is a big problem in Russia, and it's not all about just going out there and working, working, working. There are so many different parts of the game that you have to focus on, and a big part of it is mental. You need to really push yourself and want to be better every single day.
GK: I received a touching message on Twitter right after you announced goaltender Alexei Murygin’s return following his battle with cancer. The gentleman admitted that he was suffering from colon cancer and took inspiration from Alexei’s story, despite being thousands of miles away. Did you expect this signing to have such wide-ranging impact?
DN: We didn't sign him just for the story, we signed him for the player. I only started learning the story afterwards, but it's a good one, because I don't think there is anybody out there that never had a friend or a family member deal with cancer. It's a story that brings a lot of people together. Every single person on our team has had a family member or a friend that has passed away or struggled with it, so it's obviously also something that brings the team together. But again, it's not just because he went through it. We signed him because everybody knows how he was before cancer, and how he's showing himself now. I think it will be very interesting to see how it plays out.
Goalie Alexei Murygin beat cancer, recovered after losing 20 kg (44 lbs) in 1.5 months, signed a contract with Torpedo.— KHL (@khl_eng) August 23, 2021
And he shared his comeback story: https://t.co/3hQP0M64C8 pic.twitter.com/0eSCRnX63w
GK: What do you like from this team so far?
DN: What I'm really happy about is that we’ve had quite a few changes on the team, but it seems like the guys have been together for three years or four years. The team chemistry is really key, and I see that in the dressing room when I walk in when the guys are talking. I see that on the bench when we're playing exhibition games. It just seems like everybody grew up together, so that's very important and great to see in this short period of time.
GK: What was the road that brought you to the KHL as a coach?
DN: Growing up, hockey was everything to me. I slept hockey and dreamt hockey, so I knew that hockey was always going to be with me. Even when I was still probably seven years away from retiring or even earlier, I was always interested in being a coach. I questioned things—not in a negative way—but questioned things in order to learn, because without debate, we don't learn. I would come to practice and wonder, “Why are we doing this drill? What are we actually trying to accomplish?" I think that was part of my training even when I was playing.
My mom, dad and brother were all born in the Soviet Union, and I was born in Canada. I was always interested. I had never been to Russia until I came for the first time to play. It had always been a part of me, so it was a no-brainer to come here and try.
GK: How difficult is the transition from player to coach in terms of managing emotions and reframing your vision of the game?
DN: I've had this discussion with other friends of mine that have made the change. I think the most important thing is to forget that you were a player as quickly as possible. Don't go back and forth. I think the faster you can cut that off is the best thing for your development as a coach. I'm still young and still starting, so I don't know everything—nobody does—but I think from my standpoint, that was the biggest change. There is a barrier between player and coach, and it's obviously a lot smaller now than it was a long time ago, but there is still a little barrier that has to be maintained.
GK: What were some of the most stirring locker room talks you received as a player, and what did you learn from them as a coach?
DN: Going back to my junior coach Brian Kilrea—he was a very good coach, a very good hockey mind. Between periods he would give it to players, but he knew how to give it. At the end of the speech, he would almost make a joke or he would give you a wink like, "God, you messed up—but I believe in you. Let's go back out there." That was very key. He would get his point across and sometimes he would really yell at you, but in the end, he would let you know that he's with you. That was one of the greatest psychological lessons that I've learned from a coach.
GK: Just because you mentioned all of those VHS tapes, what was the best game or series that the Soviets ever played—in your opinion?
DN: I would say that the best hockey ever played, no doubt about it, was the 1987 Canada Cup. I know everybody talks about the '72 series because it was a historic thing, but nothing compares to that 1987. It was star-studded, and then you talk about the scores. Six-five, six-five, six-five. You can't compare it. That's the greatest series ever played.