Mike Keenan on KHL adventure, Russian hockey vs. North America and Canada’s Olympic team

The capital of Slovakia Bratislava is playing host to this year’s KHL All-Star Game this weekend. It will be the first such game not just for a few players, but also for a coach in his first year of coaching a KHL team.

Iron Mike Keenan joined Metallurg Magnitogorsk last summer and has his team sitting atop of the Eastern Conference, and second overall in the League. It wasn’t all that great for Keenan as his team really struggled at the start of the season, with some pundits questioning his appointment and wondering if he would last.

“It surprised me how competitive the League is, and how good the play is.” Keenan spoke exclusively with Puck Daddy on Friday. “I wasn’t expecting it to be as quick as it is. It is very, very competitive. And the teams are doing exceptionally well in terms of developing. That was actually a little bit of a surprise to me. A pleasant surprise though.”

In an interview with USA Today last year you said it had taken a while to get your head around what the preparation process was in the KHL and that you were challenged every day. Does this explain the slow start to the season?

“It had to do with a number of things. We had an injury problem. Two of our imports suffered major injuries that they couldn’t play anymore. We had a depleted line up where we had to play 5 or 6 of the youngsters. That was one reason. The other one was having no knowledge of the teams and of the League. You look at the start we had and it was a little bit slow, but we were able to recover, and the first line carried us a great deal until we were able to get some depth. But we were able to get better.”

And during that time, did the team management show their displeasure? Were you worried at all, because sometimes people can get a little impatient?

“I don’t think so. They understood that we had injuries. They understood that we had the import situation to overcome [Ed. Note: losing non-Russian players]. But we managed to get all that resolved. And if you look at the situation overall, you may describe it as a slow start, but we still had the least number of regulation losses in the League. And now, as you know, we are in the first place in the League. But they understood that. It was a part of the growing pains we had to go through to get the club better.”

How did the players of Magnitogorsk respond to you when you got there? Were there any youngsters who were star struck? Did you have to take your time to get through to the veterans?

“We had a good training camp. It is a lot longer here than in North America. It used to be longer in North America too. We had a lot of training sessions, and we built a trusting relationship. We got good results from my best players, obviously. They responded very well. And as I said, they carried the team.”

How different is the team management’s involvement in the coaching process, because sometimes in Russia managers and team owners try to interfere in the coaching process?

“No, I didn’t find it any different from the NHL whatsoever. I am not told how to coach at all. I think they’ve got confidence in our ability as the coaching staff to coach the hockey club the way we think is the most productive. This may not be the case in other situations. But I think they recognize the experience we have as a staff, and they are relying on our experience to make the club as good as we can.”

You are a first year coach in the KHL, and you were named to coach at the All Star Game.

“It is definitely an honor and a pleasant surprise. Again, I never expected this. I don’t know the process, I don’t know how it works, but I am certainly appreciative of the opportunity to enjoy the weekend with the best players in the game here, and to have that experience. I am not sure who was responsible for that, but if I find out I am definitely going to thank them!”

Could you talk about the vibe about the Olympics around the KHL? Your best player, Sergei Mozyakin, didn’t make the team.

“Everyone is pretty aware, and they are talking about who is on what team. We have a mixed number of players on our team, from Canadians, to Czechs, to Finns, to Russians. It was a fun atmosphere in the locker room after the Finns won the world juniors. Everyone acknowledged (Oskar) Osala that his team actually won and everybody cheered. And Tommy Bjuhr, our goaltending coach, everybody cheered second prize for Sweden, and cheers for the Russians, and boos for the Canadians. It was fun in the locker room! Everyone is pretty buzzed up about the Olympics.”

What is your take on Team Canada?

“They are always strong. And it is a difficult process. As you know I selected Team Canada twice. And in 1991 I left Steve Yzerman off the roster [for the Canada Cup], which was a huge controversy in Canada, and we won the gold. There are always controversial moves. The big controversy to a certain extent is that Joe Thornton was left off. So, there is always speculation and talk, and, much like Russia, there is no solution but winning in Canada. If you don’t win, then everyone questions your decision making. And if you do win, then everything is fine. Fortunately for me, in two situations we won gold, so that was perfect.”

How is your Russian?

“Very poor! Trust me, your English is very good comparing to my Russian!”

What is the most memorable thing that happened to you since you came to Russia?

“The thing that is the most memorable to this point is making the adjustment to the League and the adaptation to the culture. The very first thing I wanted to do when I came here was to try to understand the culture of the players and the mentality of the players. I have tried to really immerse myself in the culture of the country and the players and the way people here think. I think that worked out well.”

The Lokomotiv tragedy is still on a lot of people’s minds when they think about the KHL. What are the day to day conditions like in the KHL, when it comes to things like travel, hotels, security?

“I have a very good comfort level as far as the travel is concerned. We travel on charter planes, as you know, just like the NHL. We stay at excellent hotels. Our meals are wonderful. Our training facility in Magnitogorsk is great. The standard that we operate our team with, Mr. Rashnikov [team president] operates just like an NHL team.”

With all the things you have seen and experienced in the KHL, could the League be really viewed as an alternative to, perhaps, European players?

“I don’t know if you could consider it as a threat, but it is definitely the second best league in the world. And whether it is the alternative for European players and a certain section of NHL players will be determined when they decide what the import rule is going to be.

[Ed. Note: only 5 non-Russian players can be on the roster of a KHL team based in Russia].

"Now, for the Russian teams, it’s five players, and I heard they are thinking about them expanding it. And for the teams outside of Russia it is unlimited. There are some issues they want to address. And I think that another exciting part about this League is that it’s not just Russia now. There are several countries. And there’s a great cultural experience as the result of being able to visit and play in these different countries. And there is actually, to a certain extent, a little bit different style of play. For example, the Finns [Jokerit] are coming in next year, they’ve got a style of play that is quite similar to Canadians. So, there is some transition going on in the League as far as play in concerned as well.”

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