Friday, November 09, 2007

The Top Shelf--King of Russia (Books)

The Top Shelf:

King of Russia: A Year in the Russian Super League

By Dave King and Eric Duhatschek

McLelland and Stewart

If this is Monday, this must be Magnitogorsk!

Dave King’s memories of his time as a coach in the Russian Super league begin much like the way he must have approached the prospect of traveling to a different culture and a very different hockey project.

He sets the mood with a look at a stark list of names of his soon to be co-workers and a few desolate looking photos of his soon to be hometown, bordering on the edge of Siberia. Not quite at the end of the Hockey world, but within a slap shot of it we suspect.

King of Russia: A Year in the Russian Super League”, is a collaborative effort between Dave Kings and Eric Duhatschek, it's one part Fodor’s guide to Russia after Communism and one part hockey encyclopedia. A rather fascinating look behind the scenes of a hockey factory that has always left Canadians curious and at times suspicious with the way that our game was played on distant shores.

Dave King had been a regular visitor to the old Soviet Union prior to taking his first job with the NHL’s Calgary Flames, as Canada’s long time national coach he had built up a genuine relationship with the Russian hockey federation, which is perhaps why King’s name came to the top of the list when the Russians decided to bring in a North American style coach, the first ever, for their super league.

The book dispatches a number of myths about Russian hockey, from the on ice happenings, to the behind scenes activities which could at times have come out of a le Carre novel.

We are introduced to his coaching staff, with something that seems like a segment from the old Newhart television series. There’s “Viktor, Viktor and his other coach Viktor”, leaving us to ponder the possibility that Victor is the official name of Russian hockey coaches everywhere, dating back to the original Vic, Tikhonov.

Our vision of the Russian hockey player as a forever fine tuned machine takes a bit of a hit as King recounts the shape of his new charges at Day one of training camp. They are almost throwbacks to the fifties and sixties of North America hockey, which featured a less than studious approach to off ice conditioning over the years.

The trail to Metallurg Magnitogorsk almost didn’t get travelled, King was originally hired on by a Finnish team but the opportunity to become the first North American hockey coach to take on the reins of a Russian Super league team proved too tempting to let pass by.
Fortunately for hockey fans (and book buyers) King was able to negotiate his way out of the Finnish commitment, with the Russians dipping into a mysterious black bag to pay his exit fee.

That black bag would come to symbolize the state of Russian hockey these days, which after suffering the darkest of days as the entire social and economic order in the old Soviet Union ended, rebounded in very much a North American model with rich billionaire owners taking on teams and lavishing them with money, supplies and more.

The former Canadian national coach and two time NHL coach proved to be a keen observer of the changes and sudden twists and turns of not only Russian hockey, but society as well.

In European hockey we learn, it’s the Russians that are perceived as having the Big Money league now. But it has been an interesting journey from Communist rule, both in Russian society and in hockey, as things changed economically for Russia scrambling for transition money to keep Russian hockey afloat sometimes called for strange methods sometimes which resulted in unfortunate incidents.

King recounts how in the days of Gorbachov things became so crazy in Russia that the former President of the Russian hockey federation in order to keep his program operating, became a cigarette bootlegger of sorts. A sideline that came with tragic results, as the Russian mob concerned about anyone venturing onto their turf took care of the former director of hockey by having him killed to send a message to other would be entrepreneurs.

It was with that kind of past background of a Wild West scenario that King would wade into his adventure in Russia, one where business tycoons ran hockey teams like steel mills or oil companies, bidding for players like takeover targets. One Russian team Ak Bars Kaza spent over 60 million dollars is salaries for their Super league team and as King points out, like the New York Rangers of the NHL, they didn’t win anything either.

Perhaps proving that hockey as a business is the same wherever it is played, money doesn’t solve all problems. Instead it’s team chemistry and will to win that push a team on to success.

During the course of the book the coach explains how he tried to build that always elusive thing of team chemistry, while dealing with language barriers and a few unusual cultural shifts, coming to rely on a pair of returning Russian NHL veterans to help get a work ethic across, while using video in a way never seen before in a Russian league team to outline the finer points of the game. Somewhere up in the book library in heaven, Roger Neilson is chuckling at that visual image.

King has long been considered one of the Canadian professors of hockey, his year and a bit long sabbatical in Russian hockey studies, reads like a populist version of a Masters thesis on Russian hockey and society.

He outlines a trip to a Russian monument in a distant city where the 200 year old tale of Czarina Yekatharina provides him with an image of what losing means in Russia, the Czarina had a rebel leader executed after a failed attempt to overthrow her. Drawn and quartered in the town square, as King puts it a reminder that losing comes with a heavy price in Russia.

Easy to read, King and Duhatschek bring a great flow to its 250 pages; it is full of tidbits, recognizable names and brings North Americans inside the dressing rooms and board rooms of Russian hockey and takes us down the streets of a nation still struggling with change.

The hockey background is quite descriptive and takes you inside the machinations of the Russian club system; we get some snapshots of King’s co workers for the year.

--A Team doctor who specializes in gynecology, and a team trainer who can’t travel to Germany for unspecified and mysterious reasons.

--His goaltender coach was best known for being perhaps the most wandering goaltender in Russian hockey; a trait King is hoping isn’t one that he teaches to the impressionable players on the roster.

--There’s a parade of players, many with names that North American fans would know and some of whom we will most likely get to know very soon.

--An interesting approach to the on the road post game meal, where cold five hour old McDonald's take out is devoured without complaint on a team bus to the airport.

--And King recounts the always present internal politics of hockey, where a GM is frequently suggesting that his son perhaps be promoted to the main club.

Those are just a few of the gems that King reveals for us through the full year of his Russian adventure.

As the book comes to a close King must prepare himself for the day all coaches know eventually will come. In a most unstable profession the awareness that you are only hired to be fired, is always at hand for the Canadian observer.

Whether you’re a coach, an executive, a player or a fan, there’s something fascinating for you in this book. It provides a seldom seen glimpse inside one of hockey’s greatest mystery regimes, one which opened its doors and its secrets to a Canadian who was always prepared for the unexpected, and was never disappointed or surprised by it.

King and Duhatschek have done a remarkable job of taking us along for the wild ride into an unexplored world, still coming to grips with change, big money and societal turmoil. Despite the shift to a more money based program, in the end the Russian Super League still carries over some of the old ways, whether it be the training regimen on the ice or the politics in the back rooms. It makes for a reminder of a former foe, who has long since provided some of the most exciting hockey players to come across the ocean to North America.

The book is a welcome change for hockey fans that are looking for something a little different for their bookshelf; there are some great tales that will leave you glad that Mr. King is a very dedicated note taker and that Mr. Duhatschek understood his handwriting.

You can check out the official McClelland and Stewart web page listing for the book here.

King of Russia is available at Chapters-Coles-Indigo, Amazon Books , Barnes and Noble or you can ask for it at your local bookseller across Canada and the USA.

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