Life in the Russian Super League

The story King of Russia details one year in the life of Canadian Dave King as he makes the transition to life as a hockey coach with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian Super League. Both King and longtime Globe and Mail sports writer Eric Duhatschek contribute in co-authoring this epic adventure through the former Soviet Union. One important aspect of King’s journey in the Russian Super League is that the story goes well beyond the game of hockey. While a hockey fan will appreciate the many references to players and coaches in the Russian Super League, you will also come to embrace how King emphasizes the Russian society that he has come into contact with and the ways that the society influences many of the players.

Born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Dave King is what many would refer to as a hockey lifer. After a lengthy career with the Canadian National Program, King has also had various coaching tenures with the Calgary Flames, Columbus Blue Jackets and an extensive resume throughout various leagues in Europe. In the 2005-2006 season, King would embark on a journey to Magnitogorsk where he would become the first ever Canadian coach in the Russian Super League. Despite having previous coaching experiences in places like Germany and Sweden, Russia was clearly going to be a vastly greater test for King. The society, the politics and the economic climate of the country all play a vital role in depicting some of the challenges involved for a hockey coach who is entering an unfamiliar territory.

Throughout the story, King goes into detail in making comparisons between his experiences in North American society to that of his new home in Russia. Entering a country where you do no know how to speak the official language sounds like a very difficult task to overcome for anybody. Entering a society where you do not know the language and now have to communicate with a group of hockey players who do not speak the language you are accustomed to sounds like an ever greater task. On a hockey team with very few English speakers, it would sound like King was in well over his head. Over the course of the book, he describes how he overcomes some of the difficulties that are associated with Russian society in order to adapt to his new home of Magnitogorsk. King outlines many aspects of his journey from the simple tasks of everyday life towards the process of coaching a hockey team in one of the most prominent hockey leagues in the world. Whether you are someone who traveled extensively or a person who has not seen much beyond your hometown, the journey of King is an effective introduction to a country that has a very long and storied history behind it. The social climate of the country can often play an important in how far these players are able develop in their hockey careers.

King goes into great lengths about the process that Russian players go through in their path towards becoming professionals. From both a historical and a present day context, King often cites the differences between the general coaching principles in Russia compared to that of North America. On many occasions, these coaching practices will provide input towards the skill set that is taught to Russian hockey players and the ways that many Russian coaches will convey their messages across to their teams. Many people in North America are often familiar with the process of kids in Canada playing hockey and pursuing careers in the Canadian Hockey League in the hopes of getting to the NHL. Other kids in North America may choose to take an alternate route in the NCAA while perhaps getting a scholarship in the process. We have an idea of the process because you or your brother or someone you know may have gone through the experience. Many of us also have an idea of the difficulties associated with getting ice time and the realities of expensive registration fees and equipment costs to play hockey. Just like a Canadian or American has an idea of the process in North America, King gives you a brief look at how the hockey process in Russia differs from the one that many of us are accustomed to. His effective use of societal differences helps exemplify how different this process truly is. As a hockey coach for many years, King’s experiences in Russia are not limited to the 2005-2006 season. His extensive coaching background has allowed him to see more beyond the hockey world than that of his home province of Saskatchewan.

With his lengthy tenure as head coach of the Canadian National team, King has some brief memories of visiting Russia under the old communist regime. He often describes his experiences of the past to his experiences of the present. The recently retired and legendary Ottawa 67’s coach Brian Kilrea used to describe the joy he had in seeing the sights of Ontario as his team would travel throughout the province for hockey games. King also discusses the experiences of his own while his team goes from one game to the next in detailing the various landscapes and political climates among various cities in Russia. He often compares the small city experience of a place like he is coaching in Magnitogorsk to the big city experience of a place like Moscow.

On his journey to Russia, King is also joined by his wife Linda. Both of them are interested in history and at times King briefly describes some of the tourist attractions he visits during his time in the country. The positive and negative experiences of other players from North America are also described by King in order to give the reader a better sense of the societal transition that occurs for a player coming into Russia. A lot of times it simply takes the right mentality to adapt to the completely different world that Russia presents for many people who are not native to the country. With many of the Magnitogorsk players being Russian, King reflects upon the experiences he has with other North Americans like Freddie Brathwaite and Ray Giroux who are all playing in the Russian Super League and going through a similar transition process.

Along with the number of Canadians playing in Europe, there are also a few Russians for Magnitogorsk who have experience at the NHL level. The names Dmitri Yushkevich and Igor Korolev should be very familiar to Leaf fans as both players spent much of their careers with the Toronto organization. In 2005-2006, the path for both Yushkevich and Korolev would lead back to Russia with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. With both players being Russians and both players being former NHLers, it was players like these to whom King often relied upon. The coach would receive help from people like Yushkevich and Korolev in conveying messages to members of his team where they may have otherwise been some communication barriers. Having former Russian players with NHL experience proved to be a benefit to King as the coach also had lengthy NHL coaching tenures with the Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets. Yushkevich was a tough as nails player and King wanted him for the organization so he could teach many of the young players a little bit about the necessary sacrifices that it takes to win a hockey game

Perhaps the most discussed player in the book has to be current NHL superstar Evgeni Malkin. King describes a lot about Malkin as a player and as a person as the story details the last year Malkin played in the Russian Super League prior to joining the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Although Malkin is continually getting better at the English language, many fans are still trying to know a little more about Malkin’s personality. While King does not shy away from criticisms about “Geno,” as he is commonly referred to by his teammates, King is for the most part complimentary to the player who is currently the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner in the NHL.

From a hockey standpoint, King discusses the dominance of Malkin in the Russian Super League along with his strong passion for the game of hockey, especially in a year where he competed in numerous league games and International tournaments. He also discusses the areas where Malkin needs to improve his game although he is often quick to defend the star with the drive and determination Malkin continually shows to get better. Other players of note that are discussed by King include Leafs rookie Nikolai Kulemin and former Anaheim draft pick Stanislav Chistov. As a reader, you quickly find out the stories of many players and how they ended up playing in Russia. Some of the reasons players have for being in the Russian Super League include that it may be a stepping stone to the NHL or it is simply a lifestyle choice or the possibility of making an NHL team is unlikely for them. As a reader, you become witness not only to the story of Dave King but also to the stories of many other players as well.

King of Russia is a great read for any hockey fan. You become much more engaged with the Russia of the twenty first century and the ways that the game has both evolved and at times remained similar to the past. The references to the societal differences when compared to a North American context do justice in identifying both the difficulties and benefits that Dave King faced while being a coach in Magnitogorsk. After being the first Canadian head coach in Russia, King is like a pioneer of sorts as other North Americans are also being given coaching opportunities in Russia’s newly formed Kontinental Hockey League. North American coaches who have recently been hired in the KHL have included former Flames assistant Wayne Fleming, former Red Wings assistant Barry Smith and former player Mike Krushelnyski. We will see in the years to come whether the concept of hiring North American coaches becomes more of a trend in Russia as compared to something that is just temporary.

Simply put, the journey of Dave King is definitely worth picking up at your local bookstore. You hear the story of a coach who has many experiences and embarks on an entirely new society with a completely different economic and political climate than the one who he is so often accustomed to. As fans of the NHL, we often see Russian players come the league after they have left home. After reading King of Russia, we now have a better idea of the home that these Russian players left and the new home that Dave King has entered during his stay as head coach with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian Super League.