“I think from my experience with many different coaches, [Woodcroft] has shown the most of wanting to win,” Graovac described from Belarus after the Euro Hockey Tour break. “We can feel it everyday, and he tries to push the team as much as he can to get there."
Dinamo Minsk has suffered a recent tumble in the standings, a combination of roster departures and team illness that even sidelined Woodcroft for a time. They will need to quickly reestablish the momentum that led to a ten-game winning streak earlier this season, as league powerhouses Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Traktor Chelyabinsk are next on the schedule.
Graovac was selected 191st overall by the Minnesota Wild in the 2011 Entry Draft. He made his NHL debut in December of 2014, subsequently logging 84 NHL starts and a number of seasons primarily in the American League. He opted to move his career overseas in July of this year, inking a one-year deal with Dinamo Minsk and making his KHL debut in September.
I caught up with Graovac to learn more about his adjustment to the league, beginnings in hockey…and a team love affair with Shnarps.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Dinamo Minsk has stumbled at the halfway point of the season. What went wrong, and how are you getting back on track?
Tyler Graovac (TG): I think the biggest thing was that we didn’t really have our full lineup. We went through a team sickness and played against Dynamo Moscow before the break. We only had three lines playing, and our team took a hit. I think we're working toward getting back to where we were when we were on a ten-game point streak. I think once we get Mario Kempe back and our full roster, we'll be back to where we started.
GK: What is the timeframe? You played a hard-fought game against Severstal, who have been on a tear lately
TG: I think we’re about there now. Before the break when we went to Spartak, even our head coach Craig Woodcroft didn't join us—he was sick too. Not to make excuses, but I think it made a really big impact on our team. Now everyone's back together and we've had a week off of playing games. I think it takes a game or two to get back in the mix and get your head into it. Severstal were a good team, and they played a good game last night. We had them game two of our season, and they were a totally different team then—it was noticeable. I think we haven’t even hit our full potential yet. Even when we were winning ten games in a row, I still don’t think we were playing our best. That’s exciting for us. Our imports are important on this team and our Belarusians are really good players. When we all play together, I think it can be really deadly.
GK: What enticed you to move to the KHL?
TG: I played in North America for eight years. I was up and down from the minors to playing in the NHL. I guess I was a little bit frustrated with getting excited for training camp and then getting sent down. You’re on almost two different teams every season. I wanted to be on one team and I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to see where my game could get to, what kind of potential I could reach. I felt like putting myself in a situation that made me feel a little bit uncomfortable—like coming to a different country and a whole different league—was the best decision for me to elevate my game.
GK: Why Minsk?
TG: I felt like Minsk was the best spot for me, and they showed the most interest. I think having an English-speaking coach, Canadian coach definitely helped that decision. I'm happy with my decision so far, and still feel like I have yet to reach that potential for myself.
GK: How would you describe Craig Woodcroft’s approach? He strikes me as no-nonsense.
TG: He’s definitely a straight business type. He's very serious. He wears his heart on his sleeve, no doubt about it. I think that's the best way to describe him. As a player, it's hard not to respect that because we're all really competitive and we all want the same thing. I think from my experience with many different coaches, [Woodcroft] has shown the most of wanting to win. We can feel it everyday, and he tries to push the team as much as he can to get there.
GK: What has been the toughest change for you to make upon arrival?
TG: It has definitely been an adjustment coming here. The language barrier with some of the players on the team and even some of the assistant coaches can be tough. For me, having been more of a leader in North America, it's sometimes tough to talk to certain people here. I've enjoyed the challenge though, and I'm excited to get on the winning side of things.
GK: Dinamo Minsk has a responsibility to cultivate Belarusian players for the National Team. Woodcroft is the coach of both. How do you see that mission playing out?
TG: For me, as an outsider coming in, I didn't really know exactly what to expect. Coming to Belarus, it is very known that hockey is a big deal here and it's great. The fans are awesome. We have some really talented, young Belarusian players. I think that most of them are 19, 20-years-old and it's a really good mix. It's exciting because everyday you witness the skillsets that they have. They're not just young players who are learning, they're young players who are making an impact on our team. Like I said earlier, once we have all of that going together as one unit, I feel like we could be a deadly team.
GK: Have you found particular chemistry with anyone so far?
TG: I’ve played with a little bit of everyone. I have played with [Vladimir] Alistrov, one of our young Belarusians. We've connected pretty well. I’ve played with most of the imports on the powerplay. They're very smart players and easy to play with, but I think with this team, you can put anyone really anywhere as long as we're playing within the proper structure and system. I think we're good enough players who can beat any team in this league.
GK: How did your expectations of the compete level in the KHL compare with reality?
TG: I really didn't know what to expect coming here. All I knew is that I wanted to learn from this side of the game. I think the structure of the league is totally different. A lot of teams play a 1-3-1 in the neutral zone and clog up the middle. I think that's the biggest adjustment for me. The competitiveness is probably roughly the same if not in between the NHL and the AHL. It’s a quick, skilled league. That’s what I was hoping for, because whenever I was in the NHL, I naturally elevated my game to try to be the best I could be. Your game turns into what the environment demands. I think it has been an eye opener, an adjustment.
GK: What’s the off-ice experience like so far?
TG: I went out for dinner my first week with the imports who had been around the league. I was almost like a kid in a candy shop, to be honest. I felt like I was in Europe—the buildings and the people, the food, everything. It really hit home that I was playing overseas. I think to have an opportunity to play hockey in Minsk is something that is really cool. We have so many fans at the rink, and I was so surprised by the passion here.
GK: Those Minsk fans expect a lot out of your team.
TG: Yeah, they do. I don't know if it's good or bad that I don't really understand Russian that much, but they bring the noise and they bring the energy every game. It's great because in the minors, in the AHL, many leagues—you don't see that.
GK: Any “lost in translation” moments yet?
TG: Oh, every day for sure. Try ordering just a glass of red wine, and you get white wine—but I've learned a lot! I’ve watched a few movies or tv shows with Russian characters, and I was like, “Oh, wow. I’ve picked up on it.” This whole experience has been really cool from a human standpoint.
GK: You have won two sportsmanship awards, which is the highest compliment you can receive in any sport—in my opinion. Did you have a coach or mentor who enforced that quality growing up?
TG: I think that just comes from my parents. I was raised to be the nice kid, and to play with respect and integrity. Sometimes it bites you in the butt too. You want to have that edge when you play the game, especially when you get to pro. I won those when I was in junior hockey, but when you get to pro hockey, it becomes more than a game. At the same time, I don't think there was any coach that instilled that in me. From a young age, my parents really instilled kindness and it elevated into my game.
GK: I saw that your Dad played. It sounds like your parents played a big role in your road to the pros.
TG: They both had a lot of passion for the game. I think they just saw that I was really good at it. My Dad made a backyard rink when I was three years old, and he played hockey. He played as a role for the Cornwall Royals and Team Canada. He won two Memorial Cups. I always say that he met my mom and then stopped playing because they fell in love and wanted to start a family. I think they just saw how much fun I had playing, and I haven't stopped since.
GK: Who were some of your idols growing up?
TG: I didn't watch too much hockey. I was raised in Brampton, Ontario, so we went to a lot of Brampton Battalion games. I would watch players like Jason Spezza and Matt Duchene and even Cody Hodgson. I'll never forget going to those junior games and seeing how great they performed every night. It was such a thrill. I'll never forget playing against Jason Spezza and these players when I made it to the NHL. I tried to take parts of their game and add them to mine. I guess those were my idols.
GK: How do you keep busy on the long road trips?
TG: The imports love playing cards, so we'll play Shnarps on the plane. We have so much fun playing cards at times that after the 10–12 hour flight, we're almost like, “Ah, too soon.” That's really nice.
GK: I remember that the Scandinavians on Loko got really competitive with Shnarps. Do you have any clear winners?
TG: We have many Swedish guys and a couple of Czech guys. They all think they've invented the game by the way they play! It balances out though. There are some road trips when some guys go home with a big paycheck, but by the next road trip, they end up owing a lot.