Longtime NHL coach Paul Maurice becomes Russian student-teacher behind KHL bench
MOSCOW – The adventure began on a North Carolina lake. Paul Maurice was on his boat with his dad, fishing for bass, when he received a call on his cell. Would he like to coach in Russia?
"Well," his dad said, "that might be interesting."
That's where it stayed until a few days later, when Maurice received another call. Russia? Really? Maurice had coached in the OHL, AHL and NHL. He had coached in the Stanley Cup final with the Carolina Hurricanes, and he had coached in the crucible with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He had more than 1,000 games of NHL experience.
But he was still only 45 – too young to retire, not too old to learn new tricks, still looking to improve and return to The Show. He needed to work. He wanted to work. And since he had started coaching so young, after suffering an eye injury in junior, he had never really done anything else. He had never had a chance to see the world. Maybe it was time to try the KHL – the Kontinental Hockey League.
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Maurice flew thousands of miles to Magnitogorsk, Russia, a steel town of 440,000 at the southern end of the Ural Mountains, near Kazakhstan. He spent four or five days looking around and talking to people. He came home.
It was just so far away, and he had a wife and three school-aged children, and everyone knows what happened last year: Brad McCrimmon left his family behind, left the NHL to coach in the KHL and died in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash.
"It's too bad I can't take this job," Maurice thought to himself. "Professionally, it would be the challenge of a lifetime."
That's where it stayed until a couple days later, when Maurice had Tom Barrasso and his family over for dinner. They had coached together with the Hurricanes.
"You want to go to Russia?" Maurice joked.
"Sure," Barrasso said.
"Are you serious?"
"Yeah, I'll do it."
They joined Metallurg Magnitogorsk two days later. Maurice had no idea how interesting it would be.
* * * * *
About a week ago, Maurice flipped on "Russia Today," an English-language TV news show. He caught a report about the soccer version of Dynamo Moscow, and he couldn't believe what he was seeing. He quick-dialed the phone, so Barrasso could tune in, too.
Dynamo had gotten off to a rough start, so the club did something no North American team would ever even consider: It invited some fans to address the players at practice – and threaten them.
"Now listen up, you guys," a fan barks in Russian, with the players lined up in front of him. "I am warning you. If you keep screwing up like this, we'll show you some different treatment."
The fan warned them not to be caught enjoying themselves in a nightclub.
"We'll beat the [bleep] out of you right there on the spot," he barked. "I [bleeping] mean it."
This might have set the stage for two recent incidents: Three masked men pelted players with paintballs, and leaflets were left warning the team to get rid of four foreign players.
"We do not want to cheer a team of losers anymore," the leaflet read. "There will be no more warnings."
"That idea of, 'Don't get too high, don't get too low'? That's not here yet," Maurice said. "It's still extreme."
Maurice has been struck by the extremes – in Russia, in the league. The KHL knows none of the parity of the NHL, where most teams are the same, most hotels are the same, most rinks are the same.
There is a chasm between the rich and poor in Russia. There are beautiful cities and industrial burgs, fancy hotels and fleabags. People can be generous with their affection and food; they can be hard and demanding.
There are sky-high payrolls and bare budgets in the KHL. There are talented teams and no-so-talented teams, especially with locked-out NHL stars at the top end. There are structured teams and free-wheeling teams, modern arenas and spartan arenas, full houses and empty seats.
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In the NHL, a hard road trip is a five-hour flight, a three-hour time change. In the KHL, a league that stretches from central Europe to the sea of Japan, that doesn't seem so bad.
Metallurg stayed in one city after a game and practiced the next day. The guys caught a 1 a.m. flight. They flew for 5-1/2 hours and lost five hours. They had an 11:30 a.m. lunch, a two-hour nap and a 7 p.m. game.
"Honest to god, I woke up from that pregame nap, and I felt so bad physically, just so tired," Maurice said. "We came out and played great. We walked to the rink, and the guys were in a good mood. It was like, 'Yeah, this is the way we do it. This is the way we roll.' "
After the game, they rolled right back to the plane. They flew for 7-1/2 hours, gained five hours and got home at 3 a.m. Nobody complained. It's not that the players don't mind. It's that they couldn't change it if they tried. It's just the way it is.
Maurice has been absorbing all of it. The first month, he noticed everything different. After a certain point, he noticed how much wasn't different, like how little kids act the same and play the same games, bouncing a basketball at the park across the street. He noticed the landscape itself – the mountains, the trees.
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"You're shocked by the extreme beauty of the country," Maurice said. "I've had more of those small moments here than I thought I would."
But he doesn't get caught up in it. He can't afford to. When he has rare downtime, he retreats to the team-owned apartments where he and Barrasso live. Barrasso cooks – he makes excellent pasta – and they eat and enjoy. "It's a bit of home," Maurice said.
He is not a tourist, and he does not want his team on "Russia Today."
"They've invited you here, and it's different, and it's awesome," Maurice said. "But then you have this job over here, and you never lose sight of the fact of the Moscow Dynamo experience. That's there, too. They want to win. They're passionate about winning. You lose a game, and everything is wrong. You win a game, and everything is right."
* * * * *
So how do you do this job? How do you win here? Maurice's greatest strength as a coach is communication. He can run a meeting, hold a room, be direct with a player one-on-one if necessary. He can get his message across. But that strength relies on some fundamental things – speaking the language, seeing the game the same way – and this is Russia.
"If you don't speak the language, your No. 1 skill is now out the door," Maurice said. "So how do you teach when you can't talk?"
Maurice has an English-speaking Russian assistant coach who can translate for him, and he has some English-speaking players who know the aggressive North American style he is coaching, including locked-out NHLers Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Nikolai Kulemin.
Still, he uses a lot of video so he can stand and point to what he wants. He asks himself before every drill: "What are the main ideas?" He is specific in practice. Amid the chaos of a game, he tries to make the complicated as simple as possible.
"It's funny," Maurice said. "I'm coaching more like I did when I started my career than at the end. You're trying to make your points easily and clearly understood without being able to talk about them. And then on the bench, the same thing. 'What's the most important thing that's happening in the game?' You can't give them five points, because they don't understand."
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Maurice understands these players better now, though. At home, he was like most coaches. He would try to stick a European peg in a North American hole – and get frustrated when it wouldn't fit.
Maybe a player would come over from Russia and attempt a pass across the blue line, in the air, through five guys. Maurice would tell him to put the puck deep. The player wouldn't, and when Maurice would wonder why he wasn't listening, the player would give a blank stare. He would say something like, "This is bad." Maurice would take it personally.
Maybe a player would come over from Russia and wind up too much on the breakout. Maybe he wouldn't shoot or go to the net enough. Maybe he wouldn't finish his checks or fight. Maybe he would dive.
Well, maybe there were reasons for that.
When Europeans come to North America, they go through what Maurice is going through here. They are bringing their backgrounds to a different place. They are trying to adjust to a different game and a different culture, while speaking a different language.
Europeans are used to a larger ice surface. They play east-west, not north-south. They are taught puck possession. They don't put the puck deep, because why would you give up the puck willingly when you could make a play instead? When they say it's "bad," they're not necessarily being insubordinate. They might be trying to explain themselves with a limited English vocabulary.
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"When you don't speak the language, you're not picking the right words all the time," Maurice said. "I got 'good,' 'bad' and a couple other things [in Russian]. That's 'good.' That's 'bad.' …It's not a matter of them saying, 'This is good,' and, 'This is bad.' This is the only way they've done it their whole careers. That's the way they move the puck. That's the way they think."
Europeans wind up more on the breakout, because structure isn't as important when you have more time and space. They don't shoot for the sake of shooting and don't crash the net looking for rebounds, because they're trying to set up a shot, looking to go backdoor.
They don't go for hits because you can get caught out of position on the big ice. Because of that, some of them don't even know how to hit. They rarely fight. Though there is a lot of passion in their game, there is not a lot of anger. It's more of a soccer mentality – which brings us to diving. The way the officiating is here, to get a call, you often have to sell it.
"We expect – and I have in the past – you would forget everything that you've learned about the game that's got you here and do it the North American way," Maurice said. "We would take an 18- or 19-year-old kid and bring him over and expect him to throw all that DNA out. That's just so difficult to do. …
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"You have to be on the ice and watch them play and see what they value. It's not wrong. That's just my arrogance, right? Probably North American coaches. 'This is the right way to play.' We all believe there's a certain way to play. These guys come over, and when they don't [do it the North American way], it's wrong. Except that's not their intention. They're not trying to piss you off."
They're trying to improve, trying to win, trying to be the best, just like North Americans are. It's just that there are different ways to do it, and the challenge is to find the right blend.
When Maurice comes home, he will be a more worldly person because of this, and he should be a better coach. He should be a better communicator for all players, but especially more sensitive to Europeans. He should have a fresh perspective and new ideas.
Perhaps the most interesting lesson of the adventure is this: It really doesn't matter where you're from. It really doesn't matter where you're coaching or playing.
"Everybody," Maurice said, "is trying to get to the same place."