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Russian repeat gold tied to Bykov's leadership

by Bill Meltzer /
Team Russia's Vycheslav Bykov coaches hockey the same way he used to play it. He expects his players to put the needs of the team above any personal goals, to adapt willingly to the on-ice system and to show resiliency in the face of adversity.

While every bench boss preaches these ideals, Bykov has shown a special knack for conveying it to his players. When his players work hard and show the type of commitment he demands, they get an opportunity. As a result, ice time was spread fairly evenly among the defensemen and most of the forwards during this year's IIHF World Championships.

It's no coincidence that, after a 15-year drought at the Worlds, the Russian national team has won two straight gold medals under Bykov. The 48-year-old coach has rapidly changed the culture around the team from one of individual play, finger pointing, pouting and locker room politicking to one of unity and dedication.

Nowhere was that more evident in Russia's run to the 2009 gold medal than in the team's goal differential and third-period performances. The Russians allowed just 17 goals in nine games (all victories), while scoring 41. In all but two games Team Russia held its opponents to two or fewer goals. With the exception of a seesaw 6-5 overtime win against Sweden, the team played disciplined hockey.

Throughout the tournament, when the Russians played with the lead in the third period, they slammed the door. When the game was tied in the final stanza, the Russians were opportunistic offensively.

"We try to play good defense and be patient," Bykov said in describing his team's system. "Good defense leads to offensive chances, and we have players who can finish off the plays."

The Russians certainly capitalized on their chances in their 2-1 gold-medal victory against Canada. The Canadians outshot them, 38-17, but the Russians made Canada pay for their mistakes. A delay of game penalty by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn led to an Oleg Saprykin power-play goal. Another mistake by Coburn -- an ill-advised pinch in the offensive zone -- led to a 2-on-1 counterattack that turned into Alexander Radulov's gold-medal winning goal.

In order to succeed at any level of hockey, strong goaltending is a must. Bykov got excellent performances out of both Ilya Bryzgalov (2.08 GAA, .923 save percentage, 37 saves in the 2-1 gold-medal win against Canada) and Alexander Eremenko (1.29 GAA, .947 save percentage in three starts). But good goaltending is also a product of a team-wide commitment to defense, and Bykov had his players thinking first and foremost about giving their goalies a chance to make the saves.

Likewise, for a team to go on the type of dominant run the Russians did at the Worlds, the squad needs its best players to rise to the occasion. While Atlanta Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk has had plenty of individual success in the NHL, he has sometimes clashed with his coaches. Bykov has a knack for getting Kovalchuk to elevate his game when it counts the most.

In winning tournament MVP honors, Kovalchuk did more than just score 14 points (5 goals, 9 assists) in nine games. He also pulled down massive ice time, being the only skater on the roster -- forward or defenseman -- to average more than 20 minutes (20:35) per game during the tournament, including a staggering 30 minutes, 33 seconds of ice time in the gold-medal finale. Kovalchuk's plus-8 rating also led all players on the team.

When it comes to coaching Team Russia, there are certain challenges that coaches of other national teams rarely face. A big part of the underachievement produced by Russian teams of the recent past can be tied to a schism between "westernized" Russian players who are used to the NHL lifestyle and those who have spent most or all of their careers at home. Bykov is a unifying force because he walks in both worlds.

In the early 1980s, the Soviet hockey machine was still running at full steam. In those years, the Chelyabinsk-born Bykov emerged as a young star for Traktor Chelyabinsk and the Red Army (CSKA Moscow) clubs and soon became a fixture for the Soviets at the Olympics, World Championships and Canada Cup. Despite the center's lack of size (5-foot-8, 160 pounds), Bykov's wizardry with the puck and tremendous ice vision enabled him to succeed.

As Soviet players became available to play in the NHL at the end of the 1980s, Bykov drew interest from several NHL clubs. When he was 29, the Quebec Nordiques (now Colorado Avalanche) selected Bykov in the ninth round of the 1989 Entry Draft. 

Bykov never played in the NHL, winding up instead with HC Fribourg-Gottéron of Switzerland's Nationalliga. Bykov starred in Switzerland for the next decade, winning three scoring titles. Meanwhile, he continued to play for Team Soviet Union and Team Russia until the mid 1990s. At age 40, he called it a career after the 1999-2000 season and served as an assistant coach for Fribourg.

Bykov remained in Switzerland until 2005, when he received an offer he couldn't refuse: CSKA wanted him to return to Moscow to become coach of the legendary team. He's been coaching in Russia ever since. Nevertheless, he's able to balance the two lifestyles off the ice while retaining a deep knowledge of the various hockey systems he's seen in his travels.

Team Canada head coach Lindy Ruff spoke admiringly of the job Bykov did in leading the Russians to their second straight gold medal.

"You have to give them credit," Ruff said. "He had his team well prepared for every game, and it showed up on the ice. I'm proud of the way our team played, but I also have to tip my hat to them."

During Russia's lengthy absence from the gold-medal podium, there was a growing sense of unease around the Russian team. It reached a point where players were almost waiting for the inevitable collapse in big games. In just two seasons as national-team coach, Bykov has restored a misplaced work ethic and replaced doubt with confidence.

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