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Russia's Bykov rises to gold-medal challenge

by Bill Meltzer

Team Russia head coach Vyacheslav Bykov holds up his gold medal following their 5-4 OT win over Team Canada at the 2008 World Championships.
Team Russia's dramatic come-from-behind, overtime win against Team Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2008 IIHF World Championships marked the Russians' most important victory since the end of the Soviet Union. Not only did Russia accomplish the feat on Canada's home ice, it ended a 15-year gold-medal drought in the process.

It wasn't just a matter of talent. Russia had a stacked roster at this year's tournament, but the Russians have sent impressive lineups to past Olympics, World Championships and World Cups only to underachieve.

In many cases, the problems on the ice were a direct reflection of the lack of unity on the roster. Russian NHL players often balked at the coaching methods of "Soviet school" bench bosses. A revolving door of 13 coaches from 1992 to 2006 had trouble getting their "Westernized" players and those who had played their entire careers in Russia to jell as teammates on the ice.

The roots of Russia's gold medal at this year's World Championships were planted in August 2006 when CSKA Moscow's Vyacheslav Bykov took over for the controversial Vladimir Krikunov as national team coach. That, along with the ascension of legendary goaltender Vladislav Tretiak to the presidency of the Russian Hockey Federation, helped build bridges within the Russian player community.

The 47-year-old Bykov commands deep respect among all Russian players. During his own playing career, the two-time Olympic gold medalist was among the last generation of Soviet-era stars, a veteran leader in the early years of Team Russia and a trailblazer for Russian players succeeding in foreign leagues. As a coach, he's praised for having has the know-how to come up with successful strategies on the ice, and the perfect temperament to motivate his squad to come together as a team. 

"Bykov deserves lots of credit. He was able to create an atmosphere within the team with no 'separations' on domestic and NHL players," said Igor Kuperman, a former Team Russia assistant GM and director of hockey information for the Winnipeg Jets and Phoenix Coyotes. "He lived 15 years in Switzerland and absorbed the Western culture, which is important when you deal with Russian NHLers."

On the ice, Bykov's players say he puts their talents to the best possible use. He demands that setbacks be met with resolve and resiliency, rather than finger-pointing and pouting. That was the way Bykov himself played the game, and he's carried the same beliefs over to his coaching career.

Foothold in two different worlds

Even in the post-Soviet era, the culture of Russian hockey – both on and off the ice – is very different than that found in North American hockey or elsewhere in Europe. Bykov is equally comfortable in both hockey cultures because of his experiences as a player.

In the early 1980s, the Soviet hockey machine was still running at full steam. 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 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.  The modern CSKA squads don't measure up to the clubs of yore – when the very best talent throughout the Soviet republics was channeled to the Red Army.

Typically, the clubs with the deepest sponsorship coffers (often steeped in Russian oil and gas money) dominate the modern Russian Super League. Bykov acquitted himself well as a first-year coach in 2005-06, leading a young CSKA to the second round of the playoffs before it lost to a much deeper Avangard Omsk team.

Rebuilding burned bridges

The Torino Olympics of 2006 were a disaster for Team Russia. Despite the presence of a host of top NHL players, the Russians finished a disappointing fourth under Krikunov. While Krikunov was considered an astute tactical coach, he was also considered rigid and inflexible. Almost en masse, Russian NHLers balked at his old-style behind the bench and at practice.

The 2006 IIHF World Championships were played in Riga, Latvia. With the exception of young superstar Alex Ovechkin, Russia's top players rejected invitations to play for the national team because Krikunov was still behind the bench. Russia finished fifth, leaving the tournament without a medal for the 11th time in 13 years.

One of the first actions newly elected Russian Hockey Federation president Tretiak took upon assuming office was to relieve Krikunov of his duties as coach. Tretiak considered a variety of well-known coaching candidates – including Boris Mikhailov, Vladimir Yurzinov and Peter Vorobiev (a Yurzinov disciple).

Finally, he chose Bykov, despite the fact Bykov had limited head coaching experience at the time. Russian players in both the RSL and the NHL welcomed the news, and the bump in morale and unity was almost immediate.

With a host of NHL players back on board, Russia hosted last year's World Championships and dominated play until the medal round. Many considered Russia the gold-medal favorite, with the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Ovechkin, Andrei Markov, Sergei Gonchar, Alexander Radulov and former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Alexei Morozov in the lineup.

In the semifinals, however, a scrappy Team Finland derailed Russia's home-ice gold-medal dreams. Canada won gold, and Russia had to settle for the bronze. Even so, it was clear that Bykov's squad was on the right track to end its gold-medal drought – and would be eager to return the favor to Canada by winning gold on Canadian ice this year.

Rolling to gold

"Bykov deserves lots of credit. He was able to create an atmosphere within the team with no 'separations' on domestic and NHL players." -- Igor Kuperman, former Team Russia assistant General Manager
Right from the outset of the 2008 tournament, it was clear that Team Russia was better prepared and more united than the squads of the past decade. Gone were many of the careless turnovers and listless responses when things didn't click right away. In its place was a more committed, opportunistic squad.

Even members of Russia's two biggest archrivals at the World Championships – Team Czech Republic and Team Canada – couldn't help but comment on the difference in the Russians' resolve.

"You can never underestimate their power. They played as a team and they play a tough game," New Jersey Devils left wing Patrik Elias said after his Czech squad dropped a hard-fought 5-4 overtime decision in the preliminary round.

Russia rolled through the preliminary and playoff qualification rounds with an undefeated record. Before meeting Canada for the gold, the Russians blanked Switzerland 6-0 in the quarterfinals and avenged last year's semifinal loss to Finland with a 4-0 triumph.

Even when the club faced adversity, it bounced back. Ilya Kovalchuk went without a goal until the gold-medal game. To make matters worse, he was suspended for the semifinals after collecting two game misconduct penalties. In the gold-medal game, the Russians got in early penalty trouble against Canada, falling behind 3-1 and 4-2.

In years past, circumstances such as these would cause the Russians to abandon their game plan like a collection of frustrated individuals. Not this time.

It was none other than Kovalchuk who redeemed himself and ended his home country's frustration by scoring at 14:46 of the third period to tie the game 4-4 and send it to overtime. The Atlanta Thrashers star sniper then won the game and the gold at 2:42 of the extra period, touching off a wave of jubilation.

In the wake of Russia's historic win, much of the focus has been on the cavalcade of star players who stepped up big for the team when it counted. But Team Canada coach Ken Hitchcock said that equal credit belongs to the man behind the Russian bench.

"The have great continuity and I think they're well-coached," said Hitchcock. "Mr. Bykov has done a great job. He has made them accountable and you can see that on the ice. You can see their team plays with character. They have a great team."

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