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Buzzing The Net

Junior coach Varnakov’s a hockey legend back home in Russia

Andrey Osadchenko
Buzzing The Net

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Team Russia

One of the biggest assets to Russia at the last two world junior championships was their head coach, Valeri Bragin. For Russia team he was a magic man. As the head coach he guided Russia for  three years and made it to the finals every year — including 2011 in Buffalo — where they won gold.

Now that Bragin's gone to work with a pro team, the KHL's CSKA (aka Red Army), the question is — who's the new guy? Who is that grey-haired gentleman in the high-school jacket with Russian lettering on it? Who is the man who led Russia to their first ever win against Team OHL at the Subway Super Series?

Well, his name is Mikhail Varnakov and he is a legend.

But a legend most North American hockey fans would not know.

If you visit his hometown of Nizhny Novgorod, located roughly 450 km east of Moscow on the Volga River, chances are hockey fans are still talking about the Kovin-Skvortsov-Varnakov line.

This should illustrate just how big Varnakov is in Nizhny Novgorod. His son, also named Mikhail Varnakov, is currently the captain of Torpedo — the same team his dad used to play for — and the younger star's son, born in 2008, is also named Mikhail Varnakov. Is this common in Russia? Not really, but Mikhail Varnakov is arguably the most famous name in Nizhny Novgorod.

His team, Torpedo, was founded in 1946. They were the first non-Moscow team that managed to win a medal in USSR Championship, when they were runners-up in 1961. However, since that time, the team has failed to match that feat.

Varnakov looked so good on Torpedo he parlayed that into joining the Red Army powerhouse. He won the championship with that team in 1978. He returned to his home the next season, when the glamour just wasn't as appealing to Varnakov as it was for so many others.

Nevertheless, the Kovin-Skvortsov-Varnakov line was such a dominant force in the league they all played for Krylia Sovetov in the 1979 Super Series in North America. Krylia Sovetov played four games at the tournament against the Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins. Krylia went 2-1-1. Skvortsov and Varnakov led the team with 10 points each and  Kovin was tied for second with nine. Overall the trio scored 13 of their team's total of 21 goals.

Varnakov was often called up to play for Team USSR but mostly for the pre-tournament games and friendlies. He finally made his World Championship debut in 1985 when he was 28. Team USSR won bronze at the tournament. He did win gold, though, with the Soviets in 1986 and added a silver medal to his collection a year later.

He retired at the age of 36 in 1993 after spending three years playing in Austria and Germany — which was not an uncommon move for Russian players at the time. After his playing days were over, he went right into coaching.

For the past 19 years he was the head coach of Amur Khabarovsk, his beloved Torpedo and their minor league affiliate HK Sarov. Most importantly he was legendary head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov's right hand as an assistant coach on Dynamo Moscow for three seasons and on Ak Bars Kazan for another two.

Bilyaletdinov, a former Winnipeg Jets assistant coach (1993-1995), is arguably the most successful Russian coach of the past 12 years. He won twice both the Russian Super League and Gagarin Cup. He also won 10 out of 10 games at the World Championship this past spring for the gold medal with Team Russia.

When a new coach had to be named for junior Team Russia, Bilyaletdinov suggested his former assistant. He said they both shared the same vision for hockey with the national team. He felt the juniors could really benefit from the same defensive-minded approach. Bilyaletdinov's Russian team led the last World Championship with eight goals allowed in 10 games.

Much in a way Bilyaletdinov liked to have somebody he could trust by his side, Varnakov brought aboard Vyacheslav Ryanov — his former teammate from Torpedo — to be his assistant. Ryanov is more known for being a part of the dynamic duo with teammate Anatoli Vodopianov, but he did occasionally play on a line with Varnakov in the late 1980s.

The two of them together have already led the Russian junior squad to a historic win to snap the OHL's 18-game win streak in the Super Series.

And the pair having again played a part in Russian hockey history is something to cherish.

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