ONE-ON-ONE WITH MIKE PELINO
Mike Pelino has spent seven seasons in the KHL, one of the longest unbroken tenures of any expat. As an assistant coach at Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Pelino won the Gagarin Cup twice under Stanley Cup-winning head coach Mike Keenan and subsequently Ilya Vorobiev. Two weeks ago, Pelino stepped into his first head coaching role at the helm of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, one of the youngest squads in the league. Given Mike’s experience in the New York Rangers franchise as well as the KHL, I asked him to comment on the case of Vitali Kravtsov among a variety of other topics related to KHL life and—last, but not least—his affinity for the Russian national anthem.
GILLIAN KEMMERER (GK): How did you wind up in Russia alongside Iron Mike Keenan?
MIKE PELINO (MP): Back in 2013, Mike Keenan had been in touch with me and we had hoped to work together again at some point. He phoned me and said, “Well, we’re going to be working together if you want—but it’s in Russia!” And I said, “That sounds great!”
We both approached it with the idea that this would be an outstanding experience from a life standpoint, and from a coaching standpoint. It was a great opportunity to work with some outstanding players and so-forth. The expectation going in was very exciting, and I wasn’t worried at all about any rumors or fabricated stories or whatever. We just wanted to experience it for ourselves, and the reality matched expectations.
GK: I have had the opportunity to ask a lot of players what it was like to play for Keenan. What was it like coaching for him?
MP: Mike is, in a lot of ways, a very misunderstood individual. He is a terrific person. His biggest strength as a coach is that he wants to get the most out of his players—and he will do whatever it takes to make that happen. I think that’s where he can somehow turn players off, and at the same time, still get the most out of them—which is his goal. I cannot say enough good things about him as a friend, as a mentor. The stories, I think, are blown out of proportion. I am sure there are stories about every coach who doesn’t connect with a player. But Mike was great in Magnitogorsk, and I know the players enjoyed working with him there.
GK: The Russian work ethic in hockey is unparalleled. I would have to think that Iron Mike was a good match for that.
MP: Yes, that’s a great comment. The one thing I’ve noticed is how respectful Russian players are, and how important the coach still is in their eyes. They revere him to a certain extent, and are much more motivated to listen. Much more disciplined. There is a greater respect for authority than we have in North America.
GK: Did you ever experience culture shock?
MP: Nothing in a negative way. It was exciting to learn the traditions and customs. You can’t pass salt hand-to-hand. If you bump into someone’s foot, you have to offer your own so that they can step on it. You don’t shake hands through the threshold of a door.
GK: What about sitting in silence before road trips?
MP: No, we try to keep more energized! Nothing really caught me by surprise, but I enjoyed what I was learning.
GK: You stepped into your first head coaching role just a few weeks ago. How has life changed?
MP: There is an extra commitment you need to make as a head coach. As an assistant coach, you’re committed, you’re keen, you do the work. As a head coach, you’re consumed with your team twenty-four hours per day. You’re thinking about this combination, that player, this tactic, that opponent. It seems like you don’t let your mind rest when in this position.
GK: So a few more sleepless nights?
MP: No, I’m a pretty good sleeper! You coach because you love the game. If you have to think about it more often than not, it doesn’t bother you.
GK: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl iced the youngest team in KHL history during the playoffs last season. I believe the average age was 23. How do you value the vigor of youth versus the maturity of experience?
MP: You love to have the experience and the maturity from your veterans, and you love the youthful exuberance and potential that you see in how a player can improve, his willingness to buy into becoming better. You’re dealing with eager young students versus established, more comfortable and confident players. To try and mesh the two together is an interesting challenge, and you pay the price at times. The youth doesn’t grasp things as quickly, it takes them a little longer, they’re less consistent. You lean on your leadership group and your veterans to help them through it.
We’ve got Svitov, Lander, Nakladal — you previously mentioned Da Costa. Now we have Andrei Markov. These guys will all be great influences on our young players. At the same time, our young guys keep these [older] guys more energized.
GK: The KHL has such an intense travel schedule—does a youthful team have an advantage from a recovery standpoint?
MP: There’s definitely something to be said for that. They’re younger bodies and minds. They probably do recover quicker. It’s not like the veteran guys who have more aches and pains that they’ve acquired through the years. More sore muscles need a longer time to recover. The youth, if you can intersperse them into the lineup, give you that much more energy.
GK: How do you sleep on those crazy-long plane rides?
MP: Well, I remember a friend of mine telling me that a good conscience is a soft pillow!
GK: So you get through KHL road trips because you’re a good person? I have never gotten that answer before!
MP: Hey, you do the best you can, and you be honest! But in all seriousness, I don’t find it uncomfortable at all on the planes.
GK: You are one of the best possible people to comment on Vitali Kravtsov’s decision to return to the KHL because you have coached in both the New York Rangers’ locker room and the KHL. Can you weigh in on where he’s more likely to develop into a star — Chelyabinsk versus Hartford?
MP: I think the biggest thing for a young player is earning confidence. I think when someone like Vitali goes over, and he’s not comfortable with the language necessarily, he’s not comfortable with the environment, he’s much more insecure…the confidence does not develop. I think, in his case, he’s definitely better off coming back here, finding his way again, and preparing himself now that he’s had a taste of what it’s like in North America. He can allow himself to succeed when he goes back.
I’ve seen it with quite a few players over the years—we had Antipin, Bereglazov from Magnitogorsk come over. It’s a tough transition to the NHL or the AHL, just as it’s a tough transition to the KHL for anyone with no knowledge of the language. These are all pitfalls, and then the worst part—I think—is the expectations that people put on these young players. They are unrealistic.
Vitali is a young player, he’s not a physical specimen yet. He’s still growing into his body. He’s not ready yet for what they’re expecting of him. He’s got the talent, the skill, he’s a great human being from what I’ve observed and from the people I’ve talked to. But if you put unreal expectations on him, no one will live up to that.
GK: Speaking of growing into his body, Vitali recounted a story of being on a stationary bike in Hartford. He said that he was set a goal of reaching 180 beats per minute (bpm), but struggled to get above 160 bpm. He says that he was accused of a lack of effort. Do you think these are metrics upon which a coach would base benching decisions?
MP: I really don’t think they are. I think it’s an indicator to catch a player’s attention. I know for a fact that there are some players for whom it’s impossible to get up to a certain number, and yet they’re as fit as can possibly be. I think it’s just a tactic that they can use to try to motivate a player or let him understand he needs to work harder.
GK: So you’d take it with a grain of salt?
MP: I think so.
GK: What are some coaching differences you’ve had to account for in the KHL?
MP: Up until this year, there were definitely some different developmental situations because of the rink sizes. The players in Europe, who have more ice on which to maneuver, were more free-flowing with not as much stop-and-starts, not as much so-called immediate intensity. The North Americans who trained in smaller environments have to play like that. To try to meld those two together is an interesting challenge.
GK: Are there any hockey-specific elements of culture clash?
MP: Definitely. It’s much quieter in a Russian dressing room, much less talk on the ice. That’s something that could be so beneficial to a team if they can do it. But when you’re born and raised, and [talking on the ice] is so foreign…we are working on that all the time in terms of communication. Other than that, hockey players are hockey players. They enjoy their time together in the dressing room, they enjoy listening to the music.
GK: You must have a wild warmup playlist given the mix of cultures.
MP: Oh yeah! It’s interesting to see how the Russians start enjoying Country Western. By the same token, the Europeans and North Americans are finding a hankering for the Russian music. I know I like it!
GK: Speaking of music, I’ve noticed that you sing the Russian national anthem on the bench. Not sure if I’ve ever witnessed a foreign coach even make the attempt!
MP: I know the words and I am sure I don’t sing it as clearly as a Russian person would. But when I first came here, I took it upon myself because I liked the song, for one. For another, I am very patriotic to Canada. This was my new home, and I thought by singing the words to the Russian national anthem, it gave me a chance to pay homage.
On top of that, my father is a wonderful singer. He goes to the hospitals and the senior homes to sing. When I found myself singing, especially during the early years when I got here, it gave me a few moments to reflect on my family. It was a nice thought before the heat of the moment.