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Former Oilers coach opens up about life in KHL and the major differences from North America

7 novembre 2019
Former NHL player and coach of the Edmonton Oilers during their 2005-2006 run to the Stanley Cup Final, Craig MacTavish, opened up with TSN about his recent endeavor into the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) as head coach of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

MacTavish accepted the position as headcoach of the Russian club on May 16th, 2019. After just 8 games, he was terminated on September 24th.



On Thursday, TSN released an article in which MacTavish spoke of his time with the team, and his experiences while abroad. He referred to his acceptance of the position as “fearfully optimistic.” It seems as though he sensed his time there might be limited.

The former Oiler spoke highly of the players and their work ethic, while also acknowledging the difference in lifestyle from North America.

“The players, young and old, were a pleasure to work with. They were hard working, dedicated and would do anything you asked, living by the old ‘Animal House’ adage – thank you, sir, may I have another? There were no issues whatsoever regarding work ethic and passion. That was a surprise. The players very much have an old- school North American mentality of respecting authority. They’re mostly intimidated by authority figures and uncomfortable with communication with the coach,” he told TSN.

“It took longer to develop trust with the players than I expected. However, over time I came to enjoy them and respect their perspective on the game.”

He had high regard for his translator and former teammate in Edmonton, Denis Grebeshkov.

“He played for us in Edmonton with the Oilers and had the responsibility of acting as my translator. He’s very good and a sharp guy. The import players used to say that the Russian translation of the drills were far more informative than the original version I provided. Of that I have no doubt. Denis was a huge help to me and important to the Lokomotiv hockey team.”

In regards to the KHL facilities, staffing and policies he encountered during his eight games with the club, MacTavish stated that he expected things to be of lesser quality, but was surprisingly wrong.

“The KHL was very well run with a high level of professionalism,” he mentioned in his statement.

“The Yaroslavl facility is world-class and NHL-class. The fitness, medical, sport science and support staff are NHL quality. I was expecting dilapidated facilities and unprofessional support staff, but was instead blown away with the level of funding and staffing for the team and at the practice facility,” he noted in his recollection of his time there.

The former NHLer was put off a bit by the style of play in the KHL, telling TSN that he anticipated play to be a “skilled, puck possessing, passing game.” He shared a fair amount of interesting detail regarding game play in the league.

“I imagined Russian hockey was going to be the skilled, puck possession, passing game that we saw when Anatoli Tarasov was coaching Central Red Army and the Russian national teams from the 1940s all the way into the 1970s.

Not quite.

It took me a while to understand the KHL game. It is a frenetic, high-energy game that seldom sees more than two passes completed in succession. Passing, to me, has always been the most graceful, entertaining form of the game. Glenn Anderson would constantly say, ‘Can’t pass, can’t play,’ and Edmonton saw the greatest passer in history of the game, so I have always viewed passing ability as essential to success.”

MacTavish noted that the ideas and views of how the puck is controlled, especially by defensemen, is substantially different from what we see in North America at the professional level.

“On 95 % of the KHL teams, when the defencemen get the puck – with any time – the forwards take off for a stretch pass and chip to forecheck. This tactic is executed with the intensity of a fire drill. All the defencemen would see was the sight of diminishing players fading through the neutral zone. I thought it was a crazy way to play and still do, but at least I understand the rationale behind it now.

Offensively, they’re expecting and managing the turnover.”

The longtime Oilers coach also noted that “KHL logic holds that it’s better to turn the puck over just outside the opposition’s blueline than inside yours.”

Though his experience with the league was brief, MacTavish got to experience a different world of hockey from what we have in North America, while also realizing some aspects aren’t that far from home. He noted that “there is a huge NHL influence on all aspects of game presentation and operations.”

The NHL legend best surmised his time with the KHL as noted in this quote;

“The hockey is entertaining and fast. Players have good puck skills but the playmaking just isn’t near the NHL level.”
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NHL LEADERS
POINTS GP PTS
LEON DRAISAITL 23 44
CONNOR MCDAVID 23 43
BRAD MARCHAND 21 35
JOHN CARLSON 24 35
DAVID PASTRNAK 21 34
NATHAN MACKINNON 21 31
PATRICK KANE 21 28
JONATHAN HUBERDEAU 21 28
ALEKSANDER BARKOV 21 27
AUSTON MATTHEWS 23 27
COMPLETE STANDINGS  
GOALS GP G
DAVID PASTRNAK 21 19
LEON DRAISAITL 23 16
CONNOR MCDAVID 23 15
ALEXANDER OVECHKIN 24 15
AUSTON MATTHEWS 23 14
COMPLETE STANDINGS  
ASSISTS GP A
CONNOR MCDAVID 23 28
LEON DRAISAITL 23 28
JOHN CARLSON 24 27
BRAD MARCHAND 21 22
ALEKSANDER BARKOV 21 20
COMPLETE STANDINGS  
DEFENSEMEN GP PTS
JOHN CARLSON 24 35
DOUGIE HAMILTON 21 23
CALE MAKAR 21 23
ROMAN JOSI 20 20
BRENT BURNS 22 20
COMPLETE STANDINGS  
ROOKIES GP PTS
CALE MAKAR 21 23
MARTIN NECAS 21 15
VICTOR OLOFSSON 21 15
QUINN HUGHES 21 14
ILYA MIKHEYEV 23 12
COMPLETE STANDINGS  
WINS GP W
BRADEN HOLTBY 17 11
MARC-ANDRE FLEURY 18 11
PETR MRAZEK 14 10
JORDAN BINNINGTON 17 10
CONNOR HELLEBUYCK 17 10
COMPLETE STANDINGS  
SHUTOUTS GP SO
CARTER HUTTON 12 2
PEKKA RINNE 13 2
TUUKKA RASK 13 2
DARCY KUEMPER 14 2
PETR MRAZEK 14 2
COMPLETE STANDINGS  

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