Category Archives: Hockey in Europe

Russians still don’t get it: their unsportsmanlike behaviour deserves punishment, not alibis

Russian sports minister Vitalyi Mutjko agrees Team Russia shouldn’t have left the ice after losing to Canada in last month’s world championship finals before O Canada was played. Still, he maintains, if the organizers didn’t open the gate, his country’s players would have never done that.

This seems to be a bit at odds with the latest news coming from Moscow: Russian hockey federation plans to punish a few people for the incident. General manager Andrei Safronov and head coach Oleg Znarok seem to be the targets. That, at least, is what Arkadi Rotenberg is saying. His word carries some weight: he sits on the board of the Russian hockey federation, and he also serves as Dinamo Moscow president.

“Yes, people will face consequences,” Rotenberg says, “and the general manager and head coach were right there to make sure our players stayed to hear Canada’s anthem.”

Of course, considering that International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President René Fasel is on the record as saying the Russian federation will face a punishment meted out by his organization, Rotenberg’s next words were not surprising: “It wasn’t planned for our players to insult Team Canada, and it wasn’t planned ahead, either.”

Nobody’s talking about planning. Everybody’s talking about lacking sportsmanship and behaviour worthy of a butcher’s dog, to use the local lingo in translation. Besides, Fasel stood there, in shock, watching Team Russia captain Ilya Kovalchuk order his teammates to leave as soon as they collected their medals and shook the Canadian players by the hand. Only very few Russian players, led by superstars Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, stayed, and Kovalchuk skated toward them and very forcefully insisted that they leave the ice before a live orchestra gathered to render the Canadian anthem.

There was no sign of either Safronov or Znarok, and it makes no difference, either: this was not Kovalchuk’s first international tournament, and he would be expected to know the rules.

Besides, ignorance is no excuse.

“Safronov and Znarok are aware of what they did wrong,” thus Rotenberg, “and I believe that this will never happen again.”

A nice change from sports minister Mytjko’s qualifier that, while wrong, Team Russia players were not to blame. If it weren’t for a gate opened by the organizers, they would have stayed. He simply echoed Russian hockey federation president Vladislav Tretiak’s assurances that it was the Czechs who were the guilty party. They could have kept his team on the ice if only they didn’t open the gate.

The only English-written newspaper published in Moscow, The Moscow Times, has come up with an interesting take. The paper described, tongue in cheek, what would happen if Canadian players left the ice before they heard Rossia Sviaschennaia Nasha Derzhava, formerly known as Soyuz Nerushimyi.

“The investigators find,” thus The Moscow Times spoof, “that Team Canada, by leaving the ice before hearing the Russian anthem, have committed a criminal act comparable to abuse of the national flag of Russia. If found guilty, they will have to install toilet seats in all of the KHL arenas all over Russia, as punishment.”

Fine and dandy as it goes.

But let’s cut to the chase: what punishment will Safronov and Znarok face? Any consequences for team captain Kovalchuk?

“First, we’ve got to see what the IIHF is going to do,” said Rotenberg. “We’ll make our decision based on that.”

In his land, they have an expression for this kind of behaviour. They call it alibism.

Team Russia shows no sense of decency

This is called sportsmanship at its best.

After Team Canada won the world championship 2015 title in the O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday, it took the vanquished team quite some time to skate over and accept their silver medals from International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President René Fasel.

In fact, Fasel had to keep waving at the Russians for almost a minute to convince them to come over and collect what was deservedly theirs.

But that wouldn’t be the end of it.

What happened then was even more shocking. Not surprising: something like that had happened in other, similar situations, too. And it always involved Russian teams in one shape or another. But one would have expected that the Russians would have learnt their lesson by now and not stoop to this kind of scandalous behaviour yet again. When Team Russia captain Ilya Kovalchuk saw the IIHF dignitaries began distributing gold medals to the winners from Canada, he ordered his teammates to leave the ice. He waited by the door to the bench to see that the entire squad leaves.

To their credit, a small group that included Team Russia’s brightest stars, Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeni Malkin, remained at the blue line. Kovalchuk kept ordering them to leave forthwith, while Ovechkin was gesticulating back that good manners dictate they should stay there till the end of the ceremony. Or, at least, until Team Canada captain Sidney Crosby receives the championship cup and O Canada had been played.

It took about a minute of embarrassing exchanges. But when the fireworks started and the confetti were fired, Kovalchuk skated over and personally forced the remaining Russian players to leave immediately.

That no Russian player stayed to see Crosby and his teammates skating around with the cup is one thing; that they didn’t wait until an orchestra gathered to play O Canada, is another.

Fasel said he was very disappointed with Team Russia’s behaviour. He said he found it perfectly unacceptable and added that the IIHF is going to debate potential punishment. Team Russia’s behaviour showed profound lack of respect for the other team, and Russian Hockey Federation will be asked for an explanation, Fasel told the Russian TASS news agency, adding Team Russia’s behaviour showed not only lack of sportsmanship, it also broke the IIHF’s rules, and for that, the Russian Hockey Federation can expect proper punishment.

Fasel said some Russian players wanted to be sportsmanlike: “We saw Ovechkin and Malkin who tried to stay. It’s the team management and coaching staff who should have made sure nothing like this happened; they were right there, on the ice, at the time.”

Vladislav Tretyak, the former all-world goalie who now serves as Russian Hockey Federation’s president, said it was all a misunderstanding rather than lack of respect: his players even shook Canadian players’ hands, he said.

But former Czech goalie Petr Bříza, who served on the organizing committee, said wherever Team Russia showed up, difficulties would follow.

When they came to Ostrava, instead of staying in a hotel reserved for all teams that played there, the Russians demanded that they be accommodated in Kravaře, an Ostrava suburb. Then, when they saw it took them longer than it took others to get to the ČEZ Arena, they demanded that the organizers provide them with police escort, so their team bus can get to and from the arena breaking all traffic rules.

In fact, Team Russia was scandalized its team bus had to wait at a railway crossing for a train to pass. Organizers in Ostrava started asking publicly whether they should have made the railway change its schedule, and Team Russia dropped the subject.

And, Bříza added, “They brought a few problems with them to Prague, too, issues that hadn’t been here before their arrival. The eight teams that had been here were living side by side quite famously, but then the Russians came and the first thing they did was they blocked off a hallway in the arena and demanded to stay in a different hotel. That created serious security issues for us, and if anything had happened, it would have been linked to the championship, no question. And then, they topped it off with such lack of sportsmanship and respect for others, including the entire event,” Bříza concluded.

It seems it may be useful for the organizers of the forthcoming World Cup (NHL and NHLPA) to remind Team Russia management in advance that there are basic rules of decency and sportsmanship that one should keep in mind even following bitter defeat.

And if they can’t live with it, disinvite them, no matter the star power that the event would lose.

Ex-employee hates Jágr’s management style

Jaromír Jágr may be a fantastic hockey player but he’s not much so far as owning a hockey club is concerned.

Thus the former sports manager of the Rytíři Kladno club Martin Vejvoda.

The club that has given hockey a number of stars, including Jágr himself, was in dire straits after the 2010-11 season. When it looked as if Czech top league in Kladno would be gone, Jaromír Jágr rode in on a white stallion and bought the club.

It helped so far as the books were concerned. It didn’t help much on the ice, ex-manager Vejvoda claimed in a story published by the isport.cz website the other day. Last season, Kladno, once the proud Czech Extraleague champion, was relegated. This year, the club managed to make the so-called first league’s tournament that decides which team would be elevated, but that was as far as it got.

Once the club’s competitive season was over, Jágr signalled from North America that it would not be over so far as the players’ work was concerned. They would still be paid for the next two months, Jágr said, so, he expected them to start serious practices that would prepare them for the next season.

That didn’t sit well with the players. And since Jágr expressed doubts about the quality of his club’s management, former sports manager (equals something close to general manager in North America, but not completely) Martin Vejvoda felt he was slighted.

So, he went on Facebook and suggested Jágr ought to keep his mouth shut.

“It’s one thing to employ people, and another matter to solve things,” Vejvoda said. “You can’t do that without having the authority. Coaches should have it, too. What system to play, who’s going to play. They weren’t free to do their job.”

Besides, nobody dares run the day-to-day operations, either. Jágr, claims Vejvoda, announced through the media that his preference for the club’s new coach would be Jindřich Lidický, but the hiring process is at a standstill until Jágr returns from North America by the end of April.

Lidický is a name that resonates with many Kladno fans. He was a star forward with the club in one of its famous incarnations decades ago. His younger version has been coaching Kladno’s junior teams. Apparently he was quite successful, too. Jágr, who knows his club will require a bit of rejuvenation, is on record as saying that Lidický has not only brought the kids up, but he also knows them. That’s why Lidický would be perfect for the job.

Ex-manager Vejvoda summed this situation thusly:

“After the relegation season (last game took place April 20), the owner would show up in the arena at the end of July. The club brings in new assistant coaches but not the head coach after it had been relegated. The club enters the new season with seven defencemen, aged 22.5 years on average. There’s nobody to run the day-to-day operations, with subsequent deduction of points (for this transgression).”

Strong sentiments. Made stronger by the fact that Kladno alumni such as Jiří Tlustý, Ondřej Pavelec and Radek Smoleňák express their agreement by signalling they like what Vejvoda said on Facebook.

Vancouver Canucks’ forward Radim Vrbata owns one third of the Mlada Boleslav club in the first league, the isport.cz journalists mention pointedly. Yet, their story continues, Vrbata has delegated a lot of decision-making powers onto others. They have the right to make decisions during the season without consulting their boss. Only the most important issues depend on Vrbata’s participation. Unlike in Kladno, where Jaromír Jágr has to have the last word on everything.

“And it’s difficult to get hold of him,” added ex-manager Vejvoda. “I was told I’d be responsible for hockey operations. It didn’t happen. I recall a game at Prostějov where some players’ attitudes were unacceptable. Even though nobody cared about defence before the season, I was of the view that there should be not only fines, but that some of those guys deserved to be fired or transferred into a lower league. But I couldn’t do a thing without the owner’s permission,” Vejvoda added.

Whatever Jágr says, people take it seriously.

“He (Jágr) was active in the club’s work over the summer,” said Vejvoda, “and that was very good. Except, as soon as he left for overseas, our hands were tied. It can’t work that way,” said Vejvoda. He decided to fix the defence situation by himself, was told he was overstepping his mandate and, by mid-November, he had enough and resigned.

“Two of the young defencemen got injured,” explained Vejvoda. “I brought in (23-year-old) Lukáš Kužel, a passionate player and a fighter. It wasn’t an expensive acquisition, either. Except, I was told I have broken policy rules.”

The isport.cz story doesn’t quote any reaction by Jágr. Either the isport.cz journalists thought accusing Jágr is going to bring in enough eyeballs to justify this lack of tradecraft, or they are trying to confirm what the ex-manager Vejvoda had said: Jágr is difficult to get hold of.

Still, it is interesting: Jágr single-handedly saved the top league team for Kladno. He came in just as it looked that relocation would be imminent.

And these are the thanks he’s getting. There’s an old Czech saying: Pro dobrotu na žebrotu. Meaning, roughly and in verbatim translation, be good to others, and you’ll go begging. Or, better still, no good deed goes unpunished.

Indeed.

Hockey Unlimited offers impressive season finale

There are 30 NHL teams. They have 690 players on their active rosters.

A few thousand players in minor professional leagues are working their behinds off to join the anointed 690. And then there are tens of thousands players in all kinds of sundry competitions, from university level to any other kind of a league. Some of them are in North America, others play overseas. Many of them dream of making the NHL and, ultimately, lifting the Stanley Cup over their heads.

But the 30 NHL teams can only accommodate 690 players all told.

Selecting those few who might have what it takes to make the show is what NHL teams’ scouts’ jobs are all about.

With this being this season’s last installment of Hockey Unlimited, and this year’s NHL draft coming in just a couple of months, the Aquila Productions’ documentary took a behind-the-scenes look at the way NHL clubs search for new talent. With professional insiders leading the way, we get to see the many things that have to happen before a general manager, surrounded by his coaches and scouts, mounts the podium to announce his team’s selection.

Sportsnet aired this season’s Hockey Unlimited finale Thursday, and there are several repeat broadcasts scheduled (see below for additional information).

Finding the future NHL stars makes looking for a needle in a haystack an easy job. Remember, it’s not only the first-rounders who are expected to make an impact within a season or two. It’s the late bloomers who make this exercise so exciting. In fact, as Hockey Unlimited shows, not all first-rounders develop into bona fide NHL players, while quite a few players selected in later rounds of the draft end up becoming stars (Pavel Datsyuk comes to mind).

So what does it take? Analytics, of course, say the insiders, but gut feelings, too, and those are usually based on wealth of experience. Scouts gather this kind of experience through trial and error. They spend many years going from one arena to another in some God-forsaken places, looking for gems no other scouts have noticed. And, of course, talking to the coaches and to the players themselves helps reveal significant angles, also.

To sum up, it’s a tough job, but if a professional sports league such as the NHL wants to survive, somebody’s got to do it.

A visionary’s vision

A visionary Roman Catholic priest, Père (Father) James Athol Murray, loved God, Canada and hockey. Not necessarily (or not always) in that order. The founder of a high school now known as the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame of Wilcox, Saskatchewan, this learning institution has given the hockey world a number of stars, some of whom reminisce in the second segment of this episode of Hockey Unlimited about the time they spent in the community of fewer than 400, studying in the boarding school that earned international fame since its founding in 1927.

That the Notre Dame Hounds form a team most other hockey clubs respect, and very rightfully so, is one thing. The other is that the school educates its students academically and, perhaps most importantly, as human beings, too.

As students and alumni tell us, on top of it all, they form friendships that they expect to last them till death do them part.

It’s one part of what Hockey Unlimited does so well: it puts the game into perspective.

Fighting a frightful battle

Nowhere does Hockey Unlimited show it better (and with more understanding) than in telling the final story of this episode.

Here’s what it’s all about: Noah Fayad, a 14-year-old player on the St. Albert Sabres AAA Bantam team in the Edmonton Major Bantam Hockey League, was becoming more and more tired. His coaches noticed, and his dad asked his son. Alarmed and shocked by the answers, rounds of visits to medical people followed. The diagnosis that came back was overwhelmingly scary: leukemia.

It is quite possible that without young Noah’s active involvement in sports, nobody would have noticed. Or, they would consider the signs a part of the many changes people go through during puberty.

Except, Noah Fayad was physically very fit, indeed, one of the stars on his team. So, the decline in fitness and stamina was more noticeable than if he was a couch potato.

A physician interviewed for Hockey Unlimited said Noah’s prognosis seems encouraging. Not only because of his physical fitness, and not only because medical people detected (and started treating) the disease early enough. The friendship and support shown by his teammates and opposing players alike, must have been a boost, too.

Sabres’ young assistant coach Brady Reid lost his father John to the same disease when he was about Noah’s age. He understands what Noah’s family is going through. And he is proud of his players who wear a sticker with Noah’s initials and number (NF 12) on their helmets to show they are in the battle with their teammate.

And when players from other teams show up wearing similar stickers, or just plain stickers announcing they are trying to help find a cure for leukemia, no words can express how grateful Noah and his family must be.

And Hockey Unlimited, not a show known for too many words, is even quieter here. It lets the pictures do the talking.

As always, hockey coach Steve Serdachny offers a few tips: this time, on passing the puck. Fitness guru Simon Bennett makes sure we learn the seemingly easy exercise that would make our hips capable of withstanding the toughest tasks we confront them with.

Serving with distinction

Hockey Unlimited is a fine documentary. Yes, it helps that it covers Canadians’ national passion. What makes it so distinctive is the fact that it not only keeps looking for contexts, it also finds them. Its creators respect both their subjects and their audiences, and that shows, too.

Its tradecraft is impeccable, something we’ve got used to with Aquila Productions’ programming. But its ability in looking for and finding stories that would interest even those few Canadians who prefer anything to hockey, now, this is an ability that makes it extraordinary.

It seems that the timing is right, too. Television audiences are slowly but distinctly becoming bored with fast-paced shows that consist of furious factoid hits without giving the viewers any time to at least consider thinking about what they are seeing.

Hockey Unlimited gives their audiences as many facts as it can give them to let them think and form their opinions. It doesn’t force its own opinions on its viewers, either.

This is what great documentary making is all about, and here’s hoping Hockey Unlimited still has a few seasons ahead of it.

 

BROADCAST SCHEDULE:

 

Thurs. Apr. 9

3 PM ET SN One

Fri. Apr. 10

1 PM ET SN Pacific, West, Ontario, East
11:30 PM ET SN One

Tues. Apr. 14

5:30 PM ET SN Pacific, West, Ontario, East

 

 

Who says summer’s got to be boring?

The number of single female kindergarten teachers getting swallowed whole by sharks off the coast of the Adriatic grows exponentially every passing summer. They’ve become the usual front-page material for European newspapers, especially those whose countries have no sea coast.

After all, readers, listeners and viewers prefer lighter fare in their newscasts and news pages during summers. Don’t bore us with political situations and economic upheavals when the mercury is climbing north of 30 Celsius in the shade. Journalists are trying their darndest to oblige. This is true all over the world, North America happily included.

When there’s really nothing happening that the journalists could sink their teeth into, they use their imagination. And now that we have new media, rumours make their way around the globe with the speed of a summer thunderstorm lightning. Thanks to social media, journalists don’t even have to be the original authors any longer, even though membership in the profession helps.

Aliens, UFOs, new infections and whatnot still make the cut, but general population seems to be fed up with this kind of drivel. You can say that Hollywood’s fascination with stories based on the extravagant, combined with the sad decline in their ability to tell these tales coherently, if not convincingly, killed the genre.

Just as reality television, a scam to end all scams, pretends it exposes real stories of real people, the summer season in journalism is trying to pretend it’s based on reality, too.

Such as: have you heard yet Ilya Kovalchuk is on his way back to the NHL?

No?

Here’s the deal: the Russian-born forward who had retired from a huge NHL contract (and the New Jersey Devils) so he could return to Russia and play in the KHL has been talking to Devils’ chief poohbah Lou Lamoriello. Kovalchuk’s return is imminent.

Are you saying you do NOT believe Dino Costa, the slightly shocking radio host? Sure, Costa’s independent treatment of facts became too much even for the Sirius XM’s Mad Dog Radio. But are you saying he’s not worthy of your trust?

Mad Dogs fired Costa almost a year ago. You would think they were depriving his faithful audiences of an original voice that they all clamoured to hear. But not to worry. Enter social media. In this case, Twitter.

How do you get followers? You come up with something out of the ordinary. How do you keep followers? You repeat the routine with regularity not even daily use of strong doses of Metamucil can help you match.

So, anyhow, Kovalchuk’s on his way back. Thus spake Dino Costa. OOOPS: thus tweeted Dino Costa.

That would, of course, mean that Ilya Kovalchuk is a perfect moron.

He is not.

Kovalchuk retired from the NHL, walking away from a 12-year deal worth $77 million in greenbacks. That was the only way how he could leave and join the KHL legally.

As pointed out by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, to be able to return, Kovalchuk would have two basic options.

First, he would not be allowed to engage in professional hockey for one full year. Considering Kovalchuk came to Russia with a lucrative four-year deal awaiting him, it’s hard to imagine he’d do anything of the kind.

The other option would see all 30 NHL clubs grant him (and the Devils) a unanimous agreement to return. Can you see that happening?

Here are a few more details. If Kovalchuk missed the NHL that much that he would forego professional hockey for a year (and furnish a proof), he would be eligible to return only to the Devils, and he would have to stay there till the end of the 2018-19 season. Then, and only then, would the league remove him from the list of players who voluntarily retired, and – aged 36 – he would be able to sign with some other team.

And what are the chances that, say, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers or the Pittsburgh Penguins agree that the hated Devils bring back a reinforcement as potent as Ilya Kovalchuk?

Besides, sundry media (mostly Russian, to be sure) have quoted Kovalchuk as saying he’s frightfully happy in the KHL, the game is different but he’s getting used to it and everybody treats him like a king.

But: Dino Costa has got new followers on his Twitter account. That matters. At least, to him it does.

And he became famous all over the hockey-loving world. Or is it infamous?

Still, his “boring summer story” pales in comparison with the tragedy of the many single female kindergarten teachers swallowed whole by sharks off the coast of the Adriatic.

KHL loses three teams, finds three replacements elsewhere

One day you’re up, fighting for cup victory in game seven, and the next day you’re gone.

Well, to be less dramatic: it took a few weeks for Lev Praha of the Russian KHL to start gasping for life. First, they lost to Mike Keenan-led Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Gagarin Cup finals. Now comes the news its shareholder owners Yevgeni Myshkovskii and Petr Speychal haven’t got enough in the kitty to continue. The club’s budget last season said the club needed $40 million (Canadian) to operate.

According to news out of Prague, no such money is forthcoming, and the club will have to fold.

The owners issued a statement forthwith, denying they are quitting. They are dealing with the situation, they said, and next Monday would be the deadline for a definitive answer. Until then, the owners added in an official statement, all news about the club’s demise are pure speculation.

As (wrongly) attributed to Mark Twain, and paraphrased, news of their death was greatly exaggerated. Except, the reports come from a region known for yet another pearl of wisdom: don’t believe any rumours until they’ve been officially denied.

Just to make matters more involved for the KHL, the venerable Spartak Moscow is headed to the poorhouse, too. In addition, Donbass Donetsk won’t be able to play because of the tense political (and military) situation in Ukraine. Donetsk, after all, is one of the neuralgic points in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

Here’s the main issue: for whatever reason, Russian oil and natural gas giant Gazprom has decided to cut its epenses on professional hockey in half. Gazprom just happens to be KHL’s main sponsor. To what degree sponsoring the KHL made any economic sense to Gazprom in the first place is hard to fathom. After all, Team Russia’s main sponsor at international events is another Russian company. One that exports weapons. So says its logo on Team Russia’s official jerseys.

Of course, says the KHL, no need to worry: we have Finland’s Jokerit Helsinki joining as of next season, and a team from Sochi, and another one from Togliatti. The former club, HC Sochi, a.k.a. Sochi Leopards, has former NHL player Vyacheslav (Slava) Butsayev as its coach. The latter, known as Lada, used to be Torpedo. It was kicked out of the KHL in 2011 because it didn’t have a good enough arena. It was renamed Lada because the Soviets used to build their version of the Italian car, Fiat, under the nickname of Lada, in a local car factory.

So far as Lev Praha is concerned, the first signs of trouble emerged earlier this spring. According to early June quotes from Rashid Khabibulin, the team’s sports manager, there were issues when the club tried to negotiate a new lease deal with Prague’s O2 Arena. He didn’t specify what issues then, but now, say some Czech insiders, it is becoming obvious what they were. Lev wanted to pay less than what the arena owners had been asking for.

Several Lev players, approached by the media, tried to put brave faces on: it’s not official yet, they would all say, and they hope the owners will find a way.

Only the owners’ bankers know whether this optimism is justified or not.

And they’re not telling.

Dave King revives Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

This is how legends are born.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, the Russian KHL team that rose from the ashes of the aircraft crash that had wiped out the entire club, has made it all the way into conference finals of the KHL Gagarin Cup. The club rode over Dynamo Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg with a vengeance. It now faces Lev Praha.

Thanks to Canada’s Dave King.

Yaroslavl coach Pyotr Vorobyov resigned for health reasons in February, during the Olympic break. A day later, King got his leave from the Phoenix Coyotes and was on his way to Russia.

This isn’t King’s first coaching job in Russia. In fact, during the 2006-07 season, he became the fist Canadian coach in the KHL, guiding Metallurg Magnitogorsk. He opened the door for Barry Smith, Paul Maurice and Mike Keenan.

King’s arrival in Yaroslavl had some pretty emotional connotations. Brad McCrimmon, one of that fatal air crash victims, a former NHL defenceman and a Yaroslavl coach, used to be King’s personal friend. Both hailing from Saskatchewan, they’ve always been on the same wavelength.

King is very much aware that not even time will heal the terrible loss Lokomotiv has suffered. But he is also aware what a major victory can do to help the healing process.

One of Dave King’s advantages: he knows hockey inside-out on both sides of the Big Pond. He has coached in the NHL, he has coached for Canada internationally, even at Olympic level (Calgary, 1988, Albertville, 1992), he has coached in the KHL (Magnitogorsk), he has coached in other European countries in their elite leagues (Sweden, Germany). He has been a keen student of the game as such and of different approaches to it, recording things that he had learned in Russia in a book. Co-authored by veteran journalist Eric Duhatschek, King of Russia: A Year in the Russian Super League was published in 2007, becoming quite a success among hockey fans all over the world.

When King took over at Yaroslavl in February, Lokomotiv was out of the playoffs.

Now, it’s in conference finals, having beaten two clubs whose motto was “Cup or bust.”

Nobody expected that.

Should Lokomotiv win it all, Dave King can count on having a statue of him unveiled right at Yaroslavl’s central square.

And if he doesn’t? Well, he still got the team to a level that nobody had expected it to be just a few months ago.

And, irony of ironies: if Yaroslavl succeeds, and Metallurg Magnitogorsk wins the other conference, two Canadian coaches will be facing each other in the Gagarin Cup finals: King would be coaching against Mike Keenan.

Go Canada go!

Olympic omissions stir fans in faraway Europe, too

It’s a strange tradition: hockey fans debate who didn’t make their country’s team for the Olympics, rather than discussing the gold medal parade route for those who did.

Need examples?

Just watch the hand-wringing about Martin St. Louis or Claude Giroux in Canada. In fact, this case has revealed how many amateur psychologists there are in Canada. They keep analyzing Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman’s feelings. How perfectly tough it must have been for him when he had to reveal to his Tampa Bay Lightning star player that he got the short straw.

Or think of the the gnashing of teeth over Team USA executive Brian Burke’s comments regarding Ottawa Senators’ forward Bobby Ryan, as dutifully reported by ESPN.com’s Scott Burnside.

But don’t think for one moment these excesses are limited to North America.

They have a wonderful scandal going on in the Czech Republic, too.

Team Czech head coach Alois Hadamczik named his roster for Sochi the other day.

Czech fans (and journalists) zoomed in on three omissions. How come Calgary Flames forward Jiří Hudler didn’t make it? How about Radim Vrbata of the Phoenix Coyotes? And how could Hadamczik forget about Colorado Avalanche defenceman Jan Hejda?

Zdeněk Janda, writing for Czech daily Sport, telephoned Hejda to ask him what he thought of the omission. Hejda said he was disappointed, but added he somehow expected it. He hadn’t seen eye-to-eye with coach Hadamczik when the twain met during the last world championship. By way of explanation, Hejda was critical of Hadamczik’s coaching methods, too. He was used to coaches who would give their players systems to play within, and if there was one thing sorely lacking the last time out, it was precisely that. Hejda went on to say he was much more surprised that he didn’t see Hudler’s name on the roster. Still, Hejda concluded, he wished Team Czech success, and he would be cheering them on.

Now, that’s called sporting.

So far as Hejda’s sentiment regarding Hudler was concerned, Calgary coach Bob Hartley echoed it. Hartley said, tongue firmly in cheek, that the Czechs must have a frightfully talented squad if they could afford leaving Hudler off. They must be prime candidates for gold, Hartley added.

Of course, there’s a minor catch of major proportions involved here: if Hartley knows anything about the Czech players who ply their trade in Europe, be it within the Czech Extraliga or the Russian KHL, or any other top European leagues, Hartley would have second-hand knowledge of their talents at best, if any at all.

Still, leaving Hudler off the Czech Olympic roster has raised more than one eyebrow.

But Hejda was the first of the top players to come out and say openly what many other Czech players would grumble about in private. They just do not like Hadamczik as coach, period.

In fairness, having talked to a few Czech players who had won bronze in Torino Olympics of 2006, their views of their coach were split right down the middle. To some, Hadamczik was anathema and, they claimed, they got as far in the tournament despite his coaching (or lack thereof). Several others said, on the other hand, that they were just fine with Hadamczik’s methods.

One of the major issues amongst the Czech hockey fandom is they hate Alois Hadamczik. Whether those fans know whereof they speak or not is perfectly irrelevant. They are aghast about some of his alleged business dealings, but neither the fans nor the Czech media have ever come up with a single proof of any wrongdoing.

What is it then? It seems Hadamczik just isn’t their cup of tea.

To top it off, Hadamczik named Michal Barinka of HC Vítkovice to the Olympic squad, giving him the spot many Czech fans believed was to belong to Hejda. Now, Hejda himself didn’t even mention Barinka’s name in his interview with Sport’s Zdeněk Janda. In fact, Hejda didn’t mention a single player named to the roster. He didn’t mention anybody but Hudler.

But Czech fans are aware of the minor fact that coach Hadamczik is Michal Barinka’s father-in-law. So, they cry nepotism. Whether they are right or not does not really matter. One would expect that they should reserve their judgement till after the Sochi Olympics. But they haven’t.

Hejda’s NHL coach, Patrick Roy, the one who can’t hear Jeremy Roenick’s criticisms because he’s got his Stanley Cup rings firmly stuck in his ears, joined the chorus. Hejda, Roy was quoted as saying the other day, married the wrong person. He should have married Hadamczik’s daughter, instead of his lovely wife Tereza. His position on the Czech national team would be unassailable.

Judging by reader reactions in the Czech media, some praise Hejda for coming out and saying what he thinks, while others say it’s all sour grapes on his part. How so, they wouldn’t elaborate. The fact remains it was a Czech reporter who called Hejda, not Hejda calling the Czech reporter. And that Hejda didn’t resort to cliches? More power to him.

Hejda himself is now more or less shocked to the point of amusement. He spoke to one reporter. Once. And that single interview has been appearing all over the place since then, in various shapes and forms, soliciting heated reader exchanges wherever and whenever it ran.

William Shakespeare had a fine description for events like this: much ado about nothing.

Lockout in Russia? Let’s hope not, says Kovy

There are a few issues Russian Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and its player union will have to solve, but not one of them seems to be a catalyst for a lockout.

Thus union president Andrei Kovalenko.

According to the 43-year-old NHL veteran (Quebec Nordiques, Colorado Avalanche, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and the Boston Bruins), there are no insurmountable issues between the KHL and its player trade union (that’s how it prefers to call itself). And Kovalenko has been his union’s president since its inception in 2009.

“Our collective agreement expires after this season,” Kovalenko told Russian newspaper Sport-Express, “but we hope to have a new deal done by the end of next April.”

There will be changes in the KHL’s structure, what with the addition of several new clubs, including Finland’s Jokerit Helsinki and, possibly, Lada Togliatti. That, the KHL has been saying, would mean an increase in the number of regular season games.

As it is, the KHL has three clubs from outside of the former Soviet Union: Czech Republic’s Lev Praha, Slovakia’s Slovan Bratislava, and Medvescak Zagreb from Croatia. There are also several clubs situated in the former Soviet republics, such as Dinamo Riga in Latvia, Ukraine’s HC Donbass, and so on. That puts a strange emphasis on one of the trade union demands: cut the number of foreigners permitted on each roster.

There’s one more issue here that can have an impact. It would be a political impact of major proportions: the European Union looks askance at limitations put upon its member states’ citizens seeking employment in other countries that belong to EU. A few years ago, it told European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, to clean its act or else. Nobody spelt the “else,” as nobody needed to: the UEFA fell in line forthwith.

Granted, Russia is NOT an EU member. But the Czechs are. And the Slovaks are. And so are the Finns and the Croats. As it is, the KHL is skating on thin ice. It has European Union-based clubs as its members. These clubs now will have to decide by whose rules they are going to play. The KHL’s? They wouldn’t be able to run their business in their home countries. The EU’s? What’s the KHL going to say?

There is, of course, a bit of a way out: they can always claim they’re foreign entities, only playing under a Russian league’s banner. To them, if anyone is a foreigner, it’s the Russians.

If this goes through, lawyers on all sides will have a field day.

Everybody concerned says the relationship between the league and its union is not as antagonistic as seems to be the case between the NHL and its players association (NHLPA). After all, Kovalenko makes no secret of his close cooperation with league president Alexander Medvedev and sundry top league officials. In fact, some contemporaries view this relationship askance. It resembles the bosom friendship between then-NHLPA Executive Director Alan Eagleson and then NHL President John Ziegler too closely for comfort, they say.

But still, disagreements do pop up from time to time.

“I don’t think we’re facing a lockout like the NHL did,” Kovalenko says. “But we do see certain important issues that our players view as the principle of how to proceed in the future.”

Such as?

“Such as the number of games,” says Kovalenko. “We conceded a few points to the league during the Olympic season, but we’d rather not see these things repeated ever again.”

More specifically?

“Training camps opened July 15 for this season,” Kovalenko explains. “We had to move the date by about two weeks (because of the Olympics). We’d like to see it included in the new CBA that training camps will not open before July 20, just as it used to be. Our members don’t like trips that last too long, either. This season, clubs play four away games in a row. That’s because the schedule was compressed due to the Olympics. We would prefer three-game road trips as a maximum.”

But if there is one issue the league and its trade union haven’t been able to see eye to eye, it’s the issue of foreigners on team rosters.

League president Medvedev has hinted some time ago that the limit imposed on clubs would be raised for next season from five to seven. Russian hockey federation didn’t like the idea, and Kovalenko isn’t a particular fan, either: “To include more foreigners would be counterproductive. The foreigners would form cliques and clans within teams, endangering clubs’ team spirit,” Kovalenko argues.

Well, speaking of spirits, Kovalenko knows whereof he speaks: whenever he used to be on an NHL team with another Russian (or, Heaven forbid, more Russians), these guys would stick together even if they hated each other’s guts. And never mind such infamous affairs as Kovalenko’s overnight disappearance on an Edmonton Oilers’ California swing, with his countryman Boris Mironov appearing for the club’s bus departure even later, claiming he had been trying to find Kovalenko. In vain, of course.

But that’s water under the bridge now, and Kovalenko is strictly against players forming cliques and clans within their teams.

His other point seems more valid: “We have to think about bringing up our own young players. Personally, I would prefer a limit of two to three foreigners per team, and those selected based on their top levels of play,” Kovalenko insists.

That kind of thinking limps behind the NHL by a couple of decades. The North American league has adopted, however grudgingly, Glen Sather’s old dictum: “I don’t care where the guy’s coming from. He may be coming from Timbuktu, but if he knows how to play hockey, he’s my kind of guy.”

Kovalenko warns, recognizing he’s talking about the NHL two decades ago: “Only those foreigners who were tops could play. If they were on the same level as the locals, clubs preferred to have Canadians or Americans playing for them.”

This is a sore point for the Russian psyche: they are (and have been for the longest time) of the view that they are the world power. While they might be getting used to sad fact their importance in the world economy (and consequently politics) has shrunk somewhat, they wouldn’t accept even a hint of similar developments so far as their hockey goes.

So, where the debates over limits on foreigners will end is anybody’s guess.

And then there are a few minor issues. Such as how to dress properly for the game. Wearing your sweater tucked into your pants is frowned upon in the NHL, and Russian fans read in their media again and again how their beloved Alexander Ovechkin has suffered. The KHL uses a similar rule, except here, we’re talking about fines. SKA St. Petersburg is a prime example of how it works in the KHL. “The club had to pay four fines for four breaks in one single game,” says Kovalenko, with righteous indignation.

Except, the fines get steeper with each infraction. Where the first fine would come at 10,000 rubles (about $330 Canadian), the infractions that follow double the fines: 40,000 rubles follow 20,000 rubles, and so on, you get the picture. “Our players don’t like it,” says Kovalenko. “It may happen that the player is innocent, he just hadn’t noticed. We would like to convince the league, and the referees, that this isn’t an issue to lose sleep over.”

He’s right there.

But what’s going to happen if Russian players decide they want to get bigger pieces of the pie than they are getting now? That they want to change their league throughout, an astute business proposition as it is and has been, into something resembling a co-operative rather than a corporation?

Nobody would answer this question for the record, but – anonymously – all those asked agreed: this is Russia, not America, we’re talking about. We pamper our players better than Hollywood pampers its celebrities. What are the players supposed to do in return? Why, nothing spectacular. Just play hockey and keep their mouths shut.

Slovak hockey legends’ mutual hatred reaches boiling point

Hockey fans in Slovakia are watching this with baited breath: two legends of Slovakian hockey can’t stand one another. Nothing unusual about that, except, this time, it’s not about their personalities, it’s about politics.

And it all may end up in court.

North American hockey fans know, of course, the name of Peter Stastny (Šťastný is the correct spelling, by the way). Slovakian fans know Stastny, certainly, but Jozef Golonka seems to be closer to their hearts.

What happened was simple. Stastny was running for the office of Slovak hockey federation president. It used to be occupied by Juraj Siroky (Široký). That happened to be the guy who had had Stastny removed from the post of Team Slovakia general manager in 2006. When Siroky departed, accused of willingly collaborating with Czechoslovakia’s secret political police (StB) under the communist regime, Stastny wanted to replace him. Golonka opposed his election. So popular was he, Stastny didn’t have a chance.

Golonka’s stated reasons sound somewhat provincial and parochial: “Stastny doesn’t even live here, he’s busy working for the European Parliament (Stastny won an election to that August body as one of Slovakia’s representatives), he doesn’t know much about what’s going on in the country, and he wants to be the boss here.”

Golonka’s reasons carried the day.

Earlier this spring, both players were invited to take part in the taping of a TV show commemorating the split of Czechoslovakia into two independent states: Czech and Slovak Republics. As Golonka was facing the camera, recalling his fierce battles, especially those against the hated Team USSR, he noticed Stastny was approaching. Golonka stopped his reminiscing mid-sentence, saying he couldn’t be talking in the presence of THAT person (shrug in Stastny’s direction) and walked to the bench. That’s where Stastny caught up with him and used a communist greeting to address him. Golonka turned and asked: “Are you talking to me?” whereupon Stastny spilled all kinds of invective against the veteran.

Golonka, a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Hall of Fame, has become a symbol of his country’s resistance to the Soviet occupation.

Stastny, on the other hand, defected together with his brothers, Marian and Anton. Slovak hockey fans, especially those living in the south-western region of the country, could watch the brothers’ achievements with the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques on Austrian TV sportscasts, but still, the view lingered: Golonka stayed home and resisted, the Stastnys took an easier path and defected.

It doesn’t matter whether this perception is fair. What does matter is that it exists.

The exchange at the bench, as reported by Slovak media, was brief and to the point.

Golonka stood with his back to Stastny, who started: “Long live the commies and secret police helpers.”

Golonka turned and said: “Whom are you talking about?”

Stastny: “Comrade!” (that was the way the communists would address one another).

Golonka: “Are you talking about me?”

Stastny: “Comrade!”

Golonka: “You’re a bit off, boy. Really off. The StB (secret police) people were different. And you wouldn’t find Golonka among them.”

Stastny: “We all know what we know. How’s your buddy Julko (meaning Siroky)?”

Golonka was livid. The 75-year-old veteran would later tell Slovak journalists that “I’ve never been with the StB or with the communist party. They were following me,” he added. Documentation from the Institute to Preserve National Memory confirms it: yes, there was an entry in the StB files under Golonka’s name. It said: “Put and keep under surveillance.”

According to Slovak sources, Golonka has already filed a lawsuit against Stastny but there’s a catch: Stastny hasn’t been seen at his official permanent address. The file couldn’t be delivered to him. That annoys Golonka no end: “They can find him in Brussels (European Union capital), for crying out loud! Delays, delays, delays! This is very frustrating. I really wouldn’t want to have the trial started after I’d been laid to rest in a cemetery.”

In addition to considering Stastny’s attacks a personal insult, Golonka says some people stopped talking to him and he had unexpected problems in some of his business activities, as a result of the row he’s had with Stastny.

Stastny hasn’t reacted yet, Slovak media say.