|Dave King led Metallurg Magnitogorsk to a regular season championship in 2005-06.|
The former head coach of the Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets already had a resume loaded with international experience. That's why the Russian team was so interested in obtaining his services that it helped settle the contract he had already signed to coach Helsinki IFK in the Finnish League.
King did a great job, leading a team starring Evgeni Malkin, Dmitri Yushkevich, Igor Korolev, Alexei Kaigorodov and Stanislav Chistov to the regular-season championship and third place in the playoffs.
After a period of soul-searching, King agreed to return for a second season last year, but was fired after eight games. Not because he had a losing record, but for some political reasons and in reaction to him warning the club that it would not be able to replicate its success as a result of adhering to a salary cap that other teams were ignoring.
King kept a diary during his 15 months in Russia and worked with Canadian hockey writer Eric Duhatschek to pen King of Russia, A Year in the Russian Super League, (McLelland and Stewart, $34.99),an outstanding read for any hockey fan who wants to know more about contemporary Russian hockey.
King lived in an eighth-floor apartment, where the elevator worked sporadically, about 500 yards from the hockey arena which had a backdrop of the massive MMK steel works for which Magnitogorsk, a city of 500,000, is famed.
The book is equal parts hockey, life in central Russia and stories that read like something out of a spy novel.
"It was a great experience," King said. "A true adventure."
King possesses one of the great analytical minds in hockey and has had the Russians' respect since he defeated the great Soviet team of Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov, Alexander Mogilny, Vladimir Konstantinov, and Alexei Kasatonov in the 1987 Izvestia Cup. That squad, which famed Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov called his best, was beaten by a team led by Marc Habscheid, Serbe Boisvert, Wally Schreiber, Claude Vilgrain, Brian Bradley, Zarley Zalapski, Bobby Joyce and goalies Andy Moog and Sean Burke, fine players not thought capable of such an upset.
King, the longtime coach at the University of Saskatchewan and the Canadian National Team, was chosen by Hockey Canada to make a series of instructional-hockey videos still in use around the world. While most of them dealt with offensive-attack strategies, the Russians hired him to strengthen their defensive play. He said his players were eager learners.
"I really found the Russian players to be hard workers and had no problems with their work ethic," King said. "They were practically all business. What you don't get is emotion. We're so used to it that we equate a little emotion with productivity. Sometimes, you think the Russian players aren't working hard enough but it's because they are stoic. They're robotic because they train so much, on the ice and in the gym, starting at age five. I always wondered why they act like robots so often, it's the sheer volume of training."
King said they also maintain blank faces in the face of strong, public criticism from coaches. King's been called a hard coach to play for in North American and Europe, but the Metallurgians thought he was the most supportive coach they ever had. He said Russian coaches often stand at the front of the bench so that they can turn and berate players over mistakes.
"They don't blink at that at all," King said. "They are used to being (mis)treated in a very verbal manner. You see one-on-one confrontations all the time, whereas we'll take a player into a private room. They just air their differences in front of everyone."
King spends quite a bit of time describing life in Magnitogorsk, a city he calls, "a spartan city, a city that lacks color but a nice city, black, brown and gray, a steel town."
"From the outside, our apartment didn't look like much but it was nice, remodeled for the previous coach," King said. "The Cyrillic alphabet made it harder for Linda and me. Shopping is different. You can't always get all the ingredients for a recipe so you adjust. Chili just isn't the same over there."
King also ran into a number of situations that made no sense, but when he asked why, would be told; "It's Russia," kind of a local version of the New Jersey expression, "keep your mouth shut if you know what's good for you."
The assistant general manager carried a bag filled with $100 bills everywhere they went, especially outside Russia.
"We traveled to Germany and Finland for tournaments," King said. "The Russians are great people and the country has gained quite a bit of stability, but other Europeans still view Russian credit cards as suspect. So, we used cash everywhere we went."
King is a dedicated jogger. He's run every day for the past 20 years or so but the Russians thought he was crazy to run in minus-20 weather and crazy to reject the car he was offered. They thought he was crazier still to walk home from the arena when the team would invariably get back from a road trip at 5 a.m.
He had a simple answer: "Who's gonna mug me at this hour in this weather?
"And, I didn't want a car after I saw them drive," King said. "They drive like New York City cab drivers. It's a weave drill, they don't stay in lanes. So, we took busses and trolleys and met regular Russian people. Taxis were cheap and we got around just fine. Besides, you have to park a car in an expensive, fenced-in guarded lot or they get stolen."
|"I really enjoyed Malkin. He was a very outgoing, demonstrative young man" - Dave King|
King relied on Canadian ex-pat goalie Travis Scott, Malkin, Yushkevich, Korolev and Anders Eriksson for leadership. The team had an incredible record but injuries, a month-long gap between the next-to-last week of the season and the Russians overuse of Malkin in the World Juniors, the Olympics and other tournaments, left Magnitogorsk a bit weaker than they had been at midseason. King came away with a very high opinion of Malkin and several other players.
"I really respected the players," King said. "We had two terrific veterans with NHL experience, Yushkevich and Korolev, and they were just warriors. They helped me translate and they were salesmen for our style of play. We got Eriksson at Christmas and he provided leadership and humor. My three ex-NHLers helped a great deal.
"I really enjoyed Malkin. He was a very outgoing, demonstrative young man," King said. "He always had a smile on his face, unlike most Russians. He's a very skilled player, very dedicated but he played too much that year. I was afraid of that, warned against it but that's what happened. When we got to our playoffs, he tried as hard as he could but he was not as good a player as he had been earlier. He played all our games, the WJC, the Olympics and he was the interview everyone wanted everywhere he went. Every other team matched up against him and shadowed him all year long. He's a horse, but he played too much."
Malkin surprised the world when he signed a contract to play last year with the Russians when everyone thought he would join the Pittsburgh Penguins. Malkin told King he did it under duress, confronted by six team officials in a session that lasted until he signed at 3 a.m. King told him to "follow his heart" if he wanted to play in the NHL. Malkin jumped the team during a tournament in Finland and arrived in North America a few days later, ready to start a season that saw him win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year.
King was fired a few weeks later. While North Americans thought the two incidents were related, King said it was more likely his pessimistic forecasts for a team that tried to abide by a salary cap while rivals signed the expensive players that Metallurg released. Or, it might have been his refusal to promote to the Super League team the son of a team official. Even then, the Russians apologized, paid him the amount he proposed and helped him wrap up his affairs in Russia.
"Some of those other things probably came into play," King said. "I told Malkin to follow his heart and discuss it again with the general manager. I didn't tell him to dart out in the middle of the night, rather state your reasons. He was clearly ready for the NHL and he won the Calder. I don't want to be too hard on the GM about his son. He treated me very well and I had to admire his loyalty to the team. He works hard and was always trying to improve us."
King jumped at a chance to complete the season by coaching Malmo in the Swedish Elite League. He's taking a break this winter in Phoenix, with Linda, but he's getting restless.
"I'm looking at these other guys on the golf course and thinking I'm too young for this. I feel like a kid," King said. "We took the time we needed to complete the book with Eric Duhatschek, a real professional, and get it published and promoted. Now, I'm getting itchy feet. I love coaching and I love hockey. This was a nice break. Now, I'm actively pursuing some opportunities."