Last week, SKA lost to CSKA in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals and were eliminated from the fight for the Gagarin Cup. Petersburgers took fourth place at the end of the season. They came to this result under the leadership of Roman Rotenberg. In January, the longtime SKA manager retrained as a coach, despite the fact that he had never played hockey at a professional level. This fact, among others, made Rotenberg an exceptional figure in the KHL. All the other 15 Russian coaches in the league became mentors, ending their player careers.

Roman Rotenberg

Roman Rotenberg

Photo: Dmitry Golubovich, Championship

Zakharkin got on the coaching bridge through the university desk

Russian specialists, who themselves did not take to the ice in status matches, have never been particularly in demand on the domestic market. Igor Zakharkin, our last coach who entered the profession without playing experience, left the KHL in the spring of 2017. Prior to that, he managed Salavat Yulaev for two seasons. In the first year, the team led by him reached the finals of the East, beating Ak Bars and Avangard along the way. But the following year, the Ufa team surrendered to Metallurg without a fight (1-4 in the 1/8 finals), and Zakharkin was abandoned.

The post of head coach went to Zakharkin as a result of special training and long work in lower positions. His playing career stopped at a junior age – the hockey player could not climb into the CSKA youth team and hung up his skates.

Zakharkin replaced the club in his hands with a notebook and a pen. At 21, he graduated with honors from the Moscow State Central Institute of Physical Education, and subsequently defended his Ph.D. thesis. Zakharkin managed to quickly find a job in his specialty, but he was attracted to the management of a professional team only after seven years. Most of this time, the excellent student was busy at the Leningrad SKA – he led an integrated scientific group. Then Zakharkin moved to CSKA for the position of coach-methodologist.

For the first time, a Russian took power over the players in Sweden. For two years, he got a job at Hudiksvall from the second division. After – he spent another seven years in two other Scandinavian clubs.

Igor Zakharkin and Vyacheslav Bykov

Igor Zakharkin and Vyacheslav Bykov

Photo: RIA Novosti

In 2004, Zakharkin returned home to assist Olympic champion Vyacheslav Bykov at CSKA. The coaching duo formed a strong alliance and migrated to the Russian national team. With the national team, the tandem won the gold of the world championships twice, but failed miserably at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. The coaches’ club career reached its peak outside of Moscow: in 2011 they took the Gagarin Cup with Salavat Yulaev, and four seasons later they repeated this achievement in SKA.

“No one in management wants to take risks”

Veterans of Russian hockey perceived Zakharkin with caution even on the days of victories. A critical attitude towards the specialist has survived to this day.

“He simply does not know the work,” Vladimir Krikunov told the “Championship”. In 2007, it was he who was replaced by Bykov and Zakharkin in the national team. “That’s what I’ve always said. A man is walking along the road, he was told: “Here is Formula 1, do you want to ride just like that?”. Why not – well, that’s all. Nobody perceives him as a specialist in the hockey world, you understand. How did the tandem between Zakharkin and Bykov develop? Slavka is an outstanding player, I will say, and the coach from him is the same. Well, how? They were friends – well, he took it.

Zakharkin, 64, continues to work abroad. The past season was unsuccessful for his team: Krefeld from the city of the same name took 15th place in the German championship and left the first division.

The Russian coach has made history in Europe.  Did Zakharkin fail or was he just set up?
The Russian coach has made history in Europe. Did Zakharkin fail or was he just set up?

Despite harsh criticism of Zakharkin, Krikunov believes that one can become a hockey coach without playing hockey at a high level: understand the nuances. For those who have not played, of course, it is more difficult to start, probably. But over time, they gain experience, work. Can a non-playing person bring something new to hockey? Why not, I think that just he can, because he looks at this matter in a non-trivial way, in his own way.

Sergey Konkov, a two-time Gagarin Cup winner, also does not consider the lack of playing experience an obstacle to entering the coaching profession. The ex-hockey player calls Zakharkin’s work “a good example.” “If a person studied, received education in this area, then why can’t he put his knowledge into practice. Quite,” said Konkov.

Then why are there no such coaches in the KHL clubs? “Probably no one in the management wants to take risks and entrust the team to a person who has not played,” Krikunov replies.

The Stanley Cup was won by a former lawyer and glazier from Canada

For the NHL, the active participation in hockey of coaches who do not have solid playing experience behind them has long become a common phenomenon. Scotty Bowman retired from the ice with a skull injury in a youth team game.

Subsequently, he built an outstanding coaching career: he became the league leader in the number of wins and the only specialist who led three different teams to the Stanley Cup.

The coach, who led the champion “Washington” Alexander Ovechkin, his hockey career was crossed out by a neck injury. But Barry Trotz managed Nashville for 15 years, and after the Capitals, he was entrusted with reconfiguring the New York Islanders. Mike Babcock destroyed the Russian team in the quarterfinals of Vancouver 2010 and won Olympic gold with the Canadians, although the player could not break out of the student leagues.

Mike Babcock

Mike Babcock

Photo: Martin Rose/Getty Images

The winner of the last two Stanley Cups – “Tampa” – climbed to the top under the leadership of John Cooper. The builder’s son stopped playing hockey as a teenager, trained as a financier in his youth, and then got a job on Wall Street.

Cooper was not enthusiastic about routine work and went for a second higher education – law. New knowledge was not particularly useful to the future sports star, which cannot be said about dating. During his training, Cooper played on an amateur team of lawyers and judges. One of them, Thomas Brennan, offered John a job in exchange for a favor. The referee asked Cooper to coach his young son’s hockey team.

The Canadian quickly organized the kids and led them to success. Wards of the newly minted coach twice in five seasons won the city championship among their peers. Achievements did not go unnoticed, and Cooper had to quit his job as a lawyer. John was invited to the Texas team NAHL (North American Hockey League).

John Cooper

John Cooper

Photo: Xavier Laine/Getty Images

The chance to assert myself at a higher level turned into a test of willpower. The Texans performed in the rodeo barn, where there were mice and rats. Cooper was not embarrassed by unexpected spectators. If the conditions of the game did not suit the Canadian, he changed them himself: he drew the logo, sold tickets and painted the ice after pouring. As a result, twice in five years, his team took the title.

Then Cooper stepped up another step – he began to work with professionals in the minor leagues of North America. This stage in his career took another 15 years. In 2013, the coach was appointed to Tampa and is now methodically turning it into a dynasty team.

In Russian conditions, coaches without playing experience also achieved success. Avangard came to the Gagarin Cup under the leadership of Bob Hartley. The Canadian failed to grow into a goalkeeper and worked on the assembly line of the glass company PPG Industries. In his free time from shop work, Hartley coached a junior team in the city of Hawkesbury. 10 years after his coaching debut, Bob won the Stanley Cup with Colorado.

He worked at a glass factory, and then became a champion coach.  What is the phenomenon of Bob Hartley?
He worked at a glass factory, and then became a champion coach. What is the phenomenon of Bob Hartley?

Razin is the most North American coach in the KHL

In North American hockey, the path to coaching is through years of practice. As a rule, future NHL club coaches start with junior or youth teams. Moreover, former hockey players, who have a long and bright playing career, are also inside this trend. For example, the legendary Colorado goaltender Patrick Roy spent almost ten years in the Quebec junior league before taking charge of the Avalanche.

In Russia, to enter the profession, it is often enough to have a hockey biography. Most become coaches immediately after they have finished their sports career. So Igor Nikitin, Andrei Nazarov, Alexander Gulyavtsev, Alexei Kudashov, Dmitry Kvartalnov, Yuri Babenko, Dmitry Yushkevich appeared as coaches. You can continue this list with dozens more names.

In this sense, Andrey Razin is closest to his North American colleagues. In 2007, he ended his professional career, and after a two-year break he returned to the ice to coach the CSKA children’s team, made up of hockey players born in 2002.

After that, Razin went to conquer the Major Hockey League – he started with the Saratov “Crystal”, and in the third year of work he won the silver medals of the tournament with Izhstal. Then he moved to Avtomobilist. The path from the start of a coaching career to the KHL took Razin six years – less than usual for North Americans, but much more than for any Russian. Now Razin works at Severstal.

Andrey Razin

Andrey Razin

Photo: Alexander Safonov, “Championship”

The Cherepovets club is one of the poorest in the league – the salary fund of the “steelworkers” corresponds to the minimum established by the regulations. This season, Razin’s team took fifth place in the Western Conference and brought the playoff series to the seventh match with a much more secure Dynamo.

In Omsk, young coaches start with yard hockey

However, there are still certain opportunities for getting into a very closed caste of coaches in Russia. Working without a license in professional clubs is prohibited. You can get the appropriate permission only after graduating from a specialized university or coaching school. There are eight such institutions in Russia: two in Moscow and one each in the Moscow region, St. Petersburg, Ufa, Omsk, Chelyabinsk and Naberezhnye Chelny.

In the Omsk school, training is carried out in full-time and part-time form for one year. The cost of educational services is 125,000 rubles. The doors of the school are open, including for people who are not directly related to hockey, but there are few among them who want to enter these doors.

“As a rule, those who are connected with hockey come. Literally 1-2% are people who received a different first education – for example, legal or economic, – Dmitry Bernatavichyus, head of the Omsk Higher School of Coaches, told the Championship. “The rest are from hockey: someone played a professional career, someone graduated at the youth level and is now trying to get into the hockey elite.”

Those who finish their careers at the youth level and aspire to become coaches first study at a sports university. During training, Bernatavičius notes, they are assigned to places of practice, including hockey clubs and schools.

“We go either to the Avangard school or to [школу имени Александра] Kozhevnikov, says Bernatavičius. – And there they are considered as specialists who have practice. If a guy is worthy, understands and knows how to properly build the training process, he is offered a job. For example, Avangard has a Yard Hockey project. At first [молодые тренеры] are engaged with children in some yard where there is a box. He shows his work, and if he does it well, he is invited further – to the Avangard system, to the academy.


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