Dan Pollard goes one-on-One with Mike Pelino, Assistant Coach with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL to discuss the differences in the game abroad.
DP: Have things changed for you over your 3 years? In coaching, being a Canadian coach and going over to coach in Russia?
MP: We came over with our eyes wide open and the idea that we were going to show with our players the Canadian way and how things are done in North America, the way we want to run our team. It was great and is still great but yet over the last couple of years we have continued to learn and continued to identify with what is important with these Russian players.
DP: Now would you say that you adapted more to them or have they adapted more to you?
MP: I’d have to say that one of the things that Mike and I have discussed is that it is more important to understand than to be understood. With that being the case, we have really tried to adapt ourselves to what the culture and mentality is of our Russian players. At the same time we try to impart upon them what we feel is important to put together a winning combination.
DP: What kind of differences did you notice when you first met the Russian players?
MP: Well, the best way to answer that is they are so respectful. I don’t know if it’s something that we can relate to being a throwback to the old Canadian times. They really believe that the coach is important. They really believe that they need to listen to him and allow themselves to be coached so they can become better. That’s been pretty special for us. These guys are top level athletes, they are immensely talented. Yet, they are so open to what we have to say and what they want to buy into as far as getting themselves better.
DP: How big of a difference has it made the fact that you and Mike Keenan are the first North American coaches to lead a team to a KHL championship?
MP: It was pretty special for us. I think that part of it was the allure of the fact that Mike was a Stanley Cup winner and such a renowned Canadian coach. The Russian players know that, they understand that they are being coached by someone special. When you add in the fact that Ilya and I are a great supporting cast for Mike we had a pretty dynamic coaching staff. We allowed our players to develop and get better and to ultimately win the Gagarin Cup.
DP: Have your philosophies, yourself and Mike changed at all since being in Russia as far as the direction you want your team to play in?
MP: No, we want our players to play hard. We want our players to be aggressive. Whether we are coaching in North America or whether we are coaching in Russia our philosophy remains the same. We expect the most from our guys and we expect them to be all in. We have been fortunate that our players have responded that way.
DP: Any differences that you see in training or players being ready once you do hit that ice for the first time? We should mention that you have an early start in Russia. You’re there by August and you’re on the ice and doing dryland training.
MP: We do have an early start. This goes back to the original days of the NHL. When for example, the Toronto Maple Leafs would come into Peterborough and for six weeks they’d have a training camp in order to get themselves ready. That’s what it is like here. Players come in here early and they allow themselves the whole summer to get themselves ready. To start the season we actually start in August and have been training for the six weeks prior to that. It’s a far cry from the NHL who basically have a three week training camp. In saying that, we know that our players really exert themselves and they are very responding to what we have to direct their way in terms of their off-ice development and their on-ice development.
DP: I’d like to keep talking about the league a bit and some of the differences. Specifically travel, do you notice more of an owner schedule on yourselves and traveling then you would say in North America?
MP: It’s definitely much more demanding here in Russia. We do not play any back to back games and that’s a reflection of how difficult the travel is. For the most part we will travel quite extensively. We’ll play the game and the league allows our team or whichever is the visiting team to have another substantial travel portion and rest day in order for them to be ready for to participate in another game two days later.
DP: You have a long history here in Canada with Hockey Canada winning a gold medal with the Canadian men’s team in 2002. You have been right up through the ranks. What changes do you see before you left for Russia what kind of changes did you see for not only Hockey Canada but for young hockey players in Canada.
MP: The biggest thing that I saw was that how important it was for each player to push himself to the upmost in order to be successful. That’s been interesting because that’s been the defining line in each country I’ve ever had an opportunity to be a part of. Players everywhere are just striving to become the best they can be. If you’re a Canadian just because you are from Canada doesn’t give you the right to understand that you are going to be treated any differently. There is people here in Russia and other countries obviously here in Europe that are really throwing themselves into becoming the best they can be. That makes it competitive for every hockey player out there.
DP: You have a great perspective. Is there a feeling out there obviously Canada is kind of put up there as a standard bearer but that countries are getting closer and closer to closing the gap. Not necessarily at the major international level but with some the grass roots levels as well?
MP: Definitely and that’s great for the sport. I think that what’s happening and even when we watch minor hockey or youth hockey here in Russia. The way these players are developing skill wise the way they’re buying into what has to be done from a physical fitness standpoint. On top of that the coach is really making it challenging for any country to show the supremacy that Canada has shown over the last few years.
DP: What kind of things do you see that are different? In watching some youth play or practice in Russia.
MP: The youth play here really has a much greater focus on their off-ice development. Even though I don’t think it bodes necessarily well for the kids at that level it does set the table for what they have to do when they continue to develop as young hockey players. In saying that, it’s interesting to see where an 11 year old who is not quite physically ready to do the weights or some of the off-ice fitness he is at least getting the mental capacity ready to allow himself to develop when his body can accept that. These guys I feel are much more ahead of where our young player are in Canada.
DP: That aspect of the physical game or is that both on and off the ice?
MP: No, it’s more the physical development opposed to the physical game. They still don’t really feel the same physical component that we do in North America and Canada specifically. I see the young players here jumping into the fitness room and whether it be doing stretching or quick feet drills or agility or even strength. They are so much further ahead of where our Canadian boys are.
DP: Do you ever see kids playing on the pond or is everything fairly structure?
MP: A little bit of both we have got a situation here in Magnitogorsk. Our owner from our team is tremendously supportive of everything that goes on here. There is not a minor hockey player who has to pay for anything. If you got a son or daughter who want to play minor hockey than they are going to play minor hockey. You don’t have to buy their equipment you don’t have to pay for registration, you don’t have to pay for referees. They just show up at the rink and because of the economics here and the generosity of our owner he’s able to provide that for the people. So, to try to get back to what you asked is there pond hockey? There is but there is also enough opportunity for them to play in the arenas that they don’t necessarily need the ponds to become better.
DP: I know every few years Hockey Canada or Canadian hockey officials will take a look at the system here looking to improve it. Is it a similar situation in Russia for the grass roots levels and the kids and development right through to the national team?
MP: It is, in fact this year there direction has taken them to try to put together a full-time under 18 team. I think something similar to what the Americans are doing and something we don’t do in Canada strictly because of the CHL and all the players there. But they are trying to develop their players so they can compete at an elite level at every age group.
DP: Do you think you will see that here in Canada? I mean it’s a system that has worked but as we have talked about everyone is looking to improve and you do wonder whether or not that’s going to continue to work down the road.
MP: Well, I think Canada does a good job but I have to admit. If Canada ever decided to put together a full time under 18 team and allow their players to develop who are the elite players like Dylan Wells and the Stevens kid who are right there knocking on the door of elite 1998 born or whatever they are. I think Canada would be far and away the best country in the world and yet in saying that Canada is doing a pretty good job for the masses the way they are doing it but if they want to identify the elite there would be no stopping what they could put together as opposed to what he Americans or the Russians or any other country could put together.
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