There is a new King in Russia.
Except this one rules a hockey team instead of an entire country.
Dave King, in his fourth decade coaching hockey, had pretty much seen it all throughout his career. He spent nine seasons coaching the Canadian national teams, eight years in the NHL, two in Germany and even coached Japan at the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Still, King remained intrigued with Russian hockey and what made it so unique and successful. He had glimpses of the Soviet/Russian hockey culture throughout his travels, but never really got a chance to immerse himself in it – until now. King lives and breathes Russian hockey 24/7 as the head coach of Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Russian Super League.
“It’s an interesting experience. I always wondered what Russian hockey is all about. We are on the outside looking in over in North America,” said King, who coached Team Canada at the 1984, ’88 and ’92 Winter Olympics. “Well, I have the chance to see it from the inside looking out. I was always interested to see how they work with their young players and see what they do to train them and how they wind up with such talented players.”
King said, initially, Magnitogorsk wanted Barry Smith as its head coach, but the former Penguins assistant elected to take an associate coaching job with Wayne Gretzky in Phoenix.
“He decided he wasn’t interested and they saw my record and that I was available,” said King, who was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1995 and the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 2001. “I was quite well-known in Russia from my time with Team Canada. I coached over here a lot. They contacted me and we talked.”
King, who is 58, jumped at the opportunity to coach in Russia, especially with Penguins prospect Evgeni Malkin on Magnitogorsk’s roster. King and his wife, Linda, moved into an apartment across from the team’s home rink.
“When I made the decision to come, I was not sure what I was getting into to. It’s been an adjustment – everything is different here,” King said. “Grocery shopping and things like that are far different from North America.
“The main thing for us is that when you first come over, you always want to compare it to North America. After a month, you come to your senses and realize you can’t do that because of the culture and history of the country, it’s going to be different,” he continued. “If you compare the two, you get frustrated. Let’s just accept that it is different and make the best of some the situations.”
King noted the Russian society isn’t quite the same as in North America, but is a lot better than what he envisioned.
“I think a lot of people contemplate coming to Russia, but think there are too many roadblocks. I have had none of those difficulties,” he said. “The supermarkets are very good; you can get almost all the food you can in North America or Europe. The streets are much safer here, too. During the transformation [from communism to a democracy] in the middle 1990s, it was more of a Wild West show. But, my wife and I never fear for our safety here.
“There aren’t many foreigners here, but I am lucky because I keep busy with my coaching and my wife stays busy with crafts. All we are trying to do is enjoy it and not compare [Magnitogorsk with North America]. You find out a lot of times there is a good reason why they do things the way they do,” he continued. “The people have been relieved of 74 years of communism, but there is a legacy left over that is still in place. They have democratized, but not all levels. There are still a lot of the old Soviet systems still in place.”
Magnitogorsk is located near the Ural River in the Chelyabinsk Oblast [state] in western Russia near the Kazakhstan border. The city was founded in 1929 to exploit the rich magnetite iron ore of Mt. Magnitnaya on the eastern side of the southern part of the Ural Mountains. Due to the huge iron reserves in the area, Magnitogorsk grew into one of the world’s largest iron and steel works by the mid-1970s. The MMK steel works sponsor Metallurg, which means “Steelers.”
King said the city reminds him of another famous home of Steelers.
“We’re in a situation where I have had people describe Magnitogorsk to me like Pittsburgh was 30-35 years ago,” he said. “There are similar steel bridges here to what Pittsburgh has. It’s a nice, small city. It’s not a fancy city, but it’s getting there. Russia is changing rapidly, but those changes occur in Moscow and St. Petersburg, then they come to places like here. It takes longer for change to get to the outlying areas.”
While King has had to overcome obstacles that come with adjusting to Russian society, he is faced with a major language barrier as well. King is not fluent in Russian, but he speaks one common language with his team – hockey.
“That’s the adjustment. I have about eight or nine players who have played in North America, so I have a core of guys that speak English very well,” he said. “Igor Korolev and Dmitry Yushkevich are both ex-NHL players and they speak English. They are my translators.
“I use extensive video footage, too,” he continued. “It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Over here, a picture is worth 10,000 words. If you use it properly, it really helps bridge the language gap.”
While Magnitogorsk has a group of solid veterans, the team boasts many young players, including Malkin, the second-overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
“This is a young team; the majority of the team is young,” King said. “To me, I thought for a foreign coach coming over that would be the best situation because younger players are more wide-open to new ideas. Having so many young players made it easy and I like working with younger players.”
In addition, King’s two years as head coach of the Hamburg Freezers in the German Elite league (2003-05) as well as his stint directing the Japanese Olympic team helped him adapt to an unfamiliar environment.
“I have been kind of an international guy for quite a few years – I have been around the block,” he said. “If you’re an experienced coach, I think you’re also an experienced person and you know you have the ability to adjust. You know the most important things to work on and change and the things you can’t worry about. What I have done, I have selected areas to emphasize and then realized there are some things I have to accept.”
King hasn’t tried to change Magnitogorsk’s style in every aspect. He has mixed the philosophies/tactics he used in the NHL as the head coach in Calgary (1992-95) and Columbus (2000-03) with the ones already in place.
“It’s been good. It’s allowed me to come in and enjoy it. Sometimes when you change, change, change, there’s frustration. I let them play a certain way,” King said. “The offense is more high risk over here than what I am used to. I want them to play the game they want to play and enjoy it and let them do the things they are used to. We’ve tried to find the middle ground and be fair.”
Many consider the Russian Super League the second-best hockey league in the world. King agrees.
“It’s good that this is the second-best league in world and the Russians quite proud of that,” he continued. “It’s getting better, too. The league is requiring every team to upgrade their arenas by 2007 and 2008. I think there are going to be three or four new arenas next year. We’re getting a new arena next year. They are all being built by company in Finland. Most are 10,000-11,000 seats.”
King estimates his team’s payroll around $18-21 million based on 25-26 players.
“I would say our youngest players probably make around $75,000-80,000. We have guys making between $500,000 and $700,000, but that’s just a guess,” King said. “It has become a very professional league and they pay very good salaries.”
King noted the team takes charter flights to its away games, but due to Russia’s sparse population and difficult terrain, sometimes ground travel can be tricky from the closest airport to the rink. In addition, the massive country has 11 time zones, which complicates travel.
“Sometimes when your flight arrives, you might have to bus 100 kilometers, which sounds like it’d take an hour,” he said. “The roads here aren’t always the best and that 100 kilometers can take three or four hours. That’s just the way it is.”
King has guided Magnitogorsk to a successful season so far. The team sits atop the Russian Super League standings and is outscoring foes 140-56 through 39 games. In late December, the team captured the Spengler Cup in Switzerland with an 8-2 win over a Team Canada squad that featured goaltender Andy Chiodo of the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“We’re having a good season,” King said. “The guys have worked very had. The biggest thing we can say is that we are balanced and we’ve had solid goalkeeping so far.”
So, once his run with Magnitogorsk is done this season, will King return next year?
“For my wife and me, it’s been a good situation, but I am not sure what I will do,” he said. “I have just enjoyed it. I enjoy working with the young players and I found it to be a fascinating experience. All I look for in coaching is satisfaction of going to the rink every day and I have that here.”