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As Olympics near, Belarus seeks new coach

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com
It was one of the hockey world's most unlikely success stories: A national team from a politically unfriendly former Soviet republic bonded strongly with its North American coach and overachieved through a belief in one another and its on-ice system.

That relationship has come to an end with the announcement last week that former Washington Capitals head coach and NHL goaltender Glen Hanlon would be stepping down as the head coach of Belarus.

The announcement comes with less than 100 days to go before the start of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Belarus Ice Hockey Association President Vladimir Naumov said that a full-time replacement would be named by early December. Andrei Gusov was tabbed as interim head coach during the preparatory Polesie Cup tournament. For the fourth time, Belarus won the tourney comprised of second-tier hockey nations, defeating Norway, 3-2, in the climactic game. Andrei Stas scored the decisive goal in the final minute of regulation.

Apart from Gusev, two potential coaching replacements for the Olympics are former NHL left winger Vladimir Tsyplakov and former NHL defenseman and Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins coach Dave Lewis. Both Tsyplakov and Lewis were slated to be assistant coaches to Hanlon at the Olympics.

The departure of the 52-year-old Hanlon stems from his experiences in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) this season. Tabbed to be the head coach of Dynamo Minsk -- Belarus' most famous club team and lone entry in the KHL -- Hanlon moved his family to Minsk for the season. He acquired an overhauled roster for which club management doled out a hefty payroll, but which has played listless and uninspired hockey all season.

With the club mired in ninth place in the 12-team Western Conference, Dynamo Minsk dropped the ax on Hanlon and all of his assistants. Gusov was named his replacement. Naumov placed much of the blame directly on the coaching staff. He told the national press, "With such a roster, the team should not play like this. The team lacks character and the current coaching staff will not be able to install it."

At the time of his firing from Dynamo Minsk, it was announced that Hanlon would stay on to coach the national team at the Olympics. On Nov. 2, however, Hanlon chose to resign the post. At a farewell press conference, Hanlon said that although he and his family had been treated well, he felt it was better to return to North America. Hanlon added that he was extremely proud of his time with the national team and held its players in the highest esteem. The culture and work ethic around the national team had been transformed in recent years from dispirited and disorganized to one in which players took accountability to each other and the coach.

While acknowledging the on-ice improvements since 2006, Naumov gives the credit to the players rather than the now-former coach. The official also adds that he was already prepared for the possibility of Hanlon's resignation.

"To be honest, Hanlon's decision was not a huge surprise for me. I don't think that this will influence the national team, we have very skilled players," he told IIHF.com.

No matter who takes over for the Olympics -- or even if Hanlon had stayed -- Belarus faces a tall challenge in a tournament packed with NHL stars. The Belarusians will have only a smattering of players with NHL-caliber talent, although there will likely be a host of KHL players culled from the Dynamo Minsk roster.

Under Hanlon's guidance, Belarus made a habit out of playing the spoiler at the IIHF World Championships. On two occasions in the last four years (three years with Hanlon as its head coach, one as an assistant), Team Belarus earned a spot in the medal round of International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships. This past spring, at the 2009 IIHF World Championships in Switzerland, the Belarusians scored upsets over both Finland and Slovakia and Finland and reached the quarterfinals. In so doing, Belarus moved up to eighth in the IIHF's world rankings.

But the veteran-laden Belarusians believed in themselves, believed in the system they play and believed in their coach. It does not seem like a coincidence that the only times the team ever reached the World Championship medal round it did so with Hanlon manning the bench.

Prior to accepting the Dynamo Minsk post, Hanlon spent the 2008-09 season coaching in Finland for Jokerit Helsinki. In 2006, the Canadian coach led the national team to a sixth-place finish at the World Championships and was named Sportsman of the Year by the biggest sporting newspaper in Belarus.

After giving way to Curt Fraser in the head coaching role the following year and serving as his assistant, Hanlon reassumed the lead role in early 2009. He tightened up the same system that brought the team success at the 2006 tournament. Belarus clogs up the neutral zone, often stacking all five skaters near their own blue line. Whenever the team could scratch an opportunistic goal or two and stay out of the penalty box, it had a fighting chance of winning. Belarus will no doubt employ a similar system in Vancouver.
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