Alexander Semak’s comments about Team Russia’s performance at the world junior championship were not taken lightly by the targets. Russia’s coaching staff and players had a mixed reaction to Semak’s words, which Mikhail Grigorenko probably found the harshest.
Along with alleging coaches failed to make sure players kept a curfew, Semak also accused Grigorenko, the 18-year-old Quebec Remparts star and Buffalo Sabres, of falsifying his birthdate. Russian players seemed to paint Semak's scathing as possible payback for the Russian legend and Tolpar junior coach being passed over for the team's coaching staff.
'Beat out of the coaching job'
All of the following quotes are translated from Gazeta.Ru interviews.
“Who told you we were going to bed at 5 a.m.?" Grigorenko said. "Semak? Who’s that? Who’s he coaching? I’ve never heard of him. I don’t know a hockey player named Semak. I only know a soccer player named Semak.
"It seems like the guy was beat out of the coaching job and now it’s like he’s happy we lost [the semifinal to Sweden]. We were playing our hearts out, didn’t all these so-called pundits see that? Everyone did their best, I don’t blame anybody. It’s sad I have to read this s--- now. I think he should get his head checked.
"Our coaching staff did a great job. We played two great periods against Team Sweden [after going down 2-0 on Thursday in the eventual 3-2 shootout loss]. Why didn’t we play like that in the first period? We didn’t get of the right foot, we didn’t expect a start like that,” said Grigorenko.
In Grigorenko’s defence, soccer is by far the most popular sport in Russia, so the "soccer player" comment is not a huge diss. Sergei Semak is an iconic player for those who grew up in the 1990s. He’s a well-respected player who played a number of games for national Team Russia.
It would be hard to find any Russian teenager who doesn’t know Sergei Semak. It would be quite a challenge to find a non-Ufa teenager who knows Alexander Semak. Besides, Sergei Semak’s glorious days were with FC CSKA, while Grigorenko is a product of HC CSKA, so the connection is very palpable.
That being said, Grigorenko is a hockey player and as such he will be judged by the hockey community, which has a profound respect for Alexander Semak.
“Semak had no right to say these things about our coaching staff and Grigorenko,” said teammate Nikita Nesterov. “We shouldn’t talk back to him, though. We shouldn’t be rude to him. We don’t think too much of ourselves. Everybody plays as hard as they can. Semak just envies our coaches because he’s not on the team. This is why he’s saying stuff in his interviews now.
"Media writes that we showed nothing at the tournaments. It’s not true. The life goes on. We’re looking forward to the next game. It’s our last chance to get any medals.”
Defenceman Kirill Dyakov tried to find a balance between both sides of the argument.
“When I read that interview, I had no words. I don’t even know what to say. I mean, we still have an important game ahead of us — we’re playing Team Canada in a bronze medal game — and this happens. Look, if we would have beat the Swedes and made it to the final, nobody would even think about writing that we allegedly partying all night. However, we gave them a reason and now people are saying things and trying to find an explanation for our loss.
"The easiest thing you could do now is criticize us, you know? Everybody saw how our national team played at the last world championship. We’re trying to use the same tactic. We’re trying to do what our coach tells us to do. We’re unable to do some things and people criticize us for it.
"Imagine for a second that we beat the Swedes. What would happen then? Less criticism. Or rather people would praise the player and the coach and the tactic they used. The line between criticism and praise is one penalty shot. I mean, it would make more sense if we lost by a large margin… This is just the way we are as a nation. We always need to find somebody to blame. Why?”
Edmonton Oilers prospect and Belleville Bulls forward Daniil Zharkov approached the issue with a smile.
“Oh, yeah, I read the papers and laughed. I mean, none of that happened. And, hey, this happens all the time, doesn’t it? The second you lose, they start talk nonsense about you. I’m going to be honest — I met my agent at the training camp in Novogorsk. He told me he deliberately won’t come to Ufa so I wouldn’t get distracted. My dad’s here, however. And you know what? If he would find out that I’m going to night clubs here, he would rip my head off! No partying!
"Coaches did bring this up at a team meeting. They told us not to ignore it and get ready for the game. I understand them. Nobody wants to read stuff like that about himself."
Meantime, almost forgot in the media firestorm is the fact two hockey superpowers have a bronze medal game on Saturday afternoon (4 a.m. ET/1 a.m. PT, TSN/RDS in Canada; BTN replay chat at 12 noon ET/9 a.m. PT).
"We have to outbest Team Canada in the physical game," said Zharkov. "They like to control the way their opponents play. We must stay out of the penalty box. We understood they’re really good on the power play.”
Among Russia’s coaching staff, only assistant coach Igor Nikitin reacted to Semak’s comments.
“Who didn’t go to bed till 5 a.m.? Tell me their names!" he said. "If you can’t, why are we even talking about this? No, we didn’t get offended by his words, it wouldn’t make sense. We have to concentrate on our job. What is the best night club in Ufa? I don’t know, I don’t go to any, I’m not the type."
Russian fans are going after Team Russia for losing a key game in a shootout, much in a way some Canadian fans gave Zharkov's Belleville teammate, goalie Malcolm Subban, a hard time for Canada’s loss to Team USA. Isn’t it amazing that people who love sports find it extremely hard to understand that one player never costs his team a game, even if he misses on a must-score shootout attempt?