Hockey Book Review: King of Russia
Tuesday, 25 September 2007
King of Russia: A Year in the Russian Super League
By Dave King with Eric Duhatschek
Published by McClelland & Stewart
Hardcover, 256 pages
Release Date: October 2, 2007
Has Dave King ever met J.K. Rowling? I doubt it. In fact, I also doubt that his co-author Eric Duhatschek is on a first-name basis with the billionaire creator of the Harry Potter series. Still, when my advance review copy of King of Russia arrived, I grabbed it and read it from cover to cover as if I’d been waiting all night in a lineup of kids dressed as wizards and elves.
This exploration of King’s 2005-06 campaign behind the bench of Metallurg Magnitogorsk is packed with genuinely compelling reading. King was a fixture behind Team Canada’s bench in the Olympics and World Championships of the 1980’s and early 90’s, and also served as the head coach of the Calgary Flames (1992-1995) and Columbus Blue Jackets (2000-2003). When he accepted the job with Metallurg, he became the first-ever Canadian to coach in the Russian Super League. This was an extremely gutsy move, given his lack of fluency in Russian, the new “Wild West” atmosphere that often prevails in the post-Communist, free-market Russia, and the inflexible nature of Russian hockey training philosophies, many left over from the heyday of demanding gurus like Anatoli Tarasov and Viktor Tikhonov.
King didn’t bring a championship to Magnitogorsk in his one full season there, although he did guide his squad to 42 wins in 51 regular season games, and for that alone, you’d have to acknowledge he’s one wizard of a coach. But it’s gratifying to see that the North Battleford, Saskatchewan native didn’t only apply his smarts to the on-ice stuff: his semi-daily, ultra-readable diary entries (based on his regular communication with Duhatschek) bring to life the challenges and rewards of residing in an Russian mining city in the Ural Mountains, from the smoke-laden air to the surprise discovery of an excellent pizza parlor. At the rink one day in late August, he’s stunned to find a Russian Orthodox priest in his dressing room, sprinkling players with holy water as they pray for good fortune in the upcoming season. It’s like a scene out of Tolstoy.
King’s roster includes plenty of names familiar to NHL fans. He enjoys a close-up view of Evgeni Malkin’s skill level prior to the tall center’s winning the 2007 Calder Trophy with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He lyrically describes the essence of Malkin’s game: “His body awareness is something to behold. He can be graceful, but just at the right moment he can be explosive as well. In one-on-one drills he simply evaporates as he goes past a defender. And as with all great players, his eyes are always up and he sees the game one or two plays ahead at all times.” Although King seems to have a better handle on Malkin the athlete than Malkin the person (a dilemma that Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien can probably relate to), he effuses over the leadership ability and committed work ethic of former Toronto Maple Leaf stalwarts Igor Korolev and Dmitri Yushkevich.
What’s most fascinating, though, isn’t the breakdown of playoff series versus Lada Togliatti and Avangard Omsk, but the insights King gets into Russian hockey culture. Why would supposedly meticulously conditioned Russian players find themselves huffing and puffing at the start of a July training camp? What is the thinking behind the baza, the dormitory-hotel where Russian teams keep their players the night before home games? And why on earth would a team liaison in Moscow insist on picking up McDonald’s hamburgers for a post-game meal six hours before that game ends? These are just a few of the questions King answers–or discovers can’t be answered.
He also gets a better understanding of why Super League clubs become so upset about losing their hottest young talents to the NHL after years of development: “They need these players to stay in the league…for a little while anyway. There has to be some payoff for the teams that develop players over here.”
In the end, King wasn’t enough of a magician to retain his Metallurg job beyond eight games into 2006-07. But he’d already gained innumerable enduring memories. If you’re passionate about international hockey and want to understand why Russia keeps producing highly skilled players without winning the Olympics or Worlds, King of Russia is unquestionably the book to read this year.