‘The guys who came here really want to be part of the whole project’
Source: KHL official website
Kunlun’s head coach, Vladimir Yurzinov, told KHL.ru about the challenges of building a roster from scratch and bringing hockey to a brand new audience in China.
For a team facing all the teething troubles of its rookie season in the league, Kunlun has made a good start and sits in a playoff place. Are you happy with the season so far?
Yes, I’m happy enough. The biggest challenge came at the start when we were drawing up our roster with sporting director Vladimir Krechin. It was important to look closely at every potential player and that took up a lot of time. Last year I had the chance to watch a lot of players in the Finnish League, and I’ve got a good working knowledge of players from Finland and Russia.
Of course, every player is a gamble, and that responsibility was twice or even three times greater here because when you form a new team you cannot go back to the management a month later and complain about your players. We assembled pretty much an entire roster in July, and then it got easy to add new players during our pre-season games and then the regular season.
Did you immediately set a target and say that the team should make the playoffs?
To be honest, there just wasn’t time to think about the playoffs. We were working 24/7 from the moment we started pre-season at the beginning of June. It wasn’t until the internationals in November that we could finally give the players three days to rest.
Reaching the playoffs is always the first target, but we had some really tough months. In September and October, we could only ice three lines and I was terrified that the guys would start picking up injuries. Because we knew we had a short bench, we had to change our whole preparation for the new season. That was a totally new experience for me, something I’d never encountered before. We had to rely on our intuition and experience to work things out. As time went by, we could put out a team that could play a more or less consistent game and pick up points. Once we started winning games, the players gained some confidence and the way ahead became much clearer.
Your team is very well organized on the ice. How did you manage to achieve that kind of understanding so quickly so quickly and teach your players to execute the gameplan you want to see?
I brought together players who fit my plans. And then I explained how I saw the team, how we should play. Vladimir Krechin and I put in a huge amount of work to form the team. And we did all that with one of the smallest budgets in the KHL, without signing big-money players.
We had to build a team from scratch, bringing in every single player ourselves. That’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity. Sometimes you arrive at an established team and find 10 players who don’t fit into your plans even though they could do a good job in another organization. Every coach has his own ideas about his teams, and the only criterion is getting results.
When you came in the summer you said you were excited by the whole project. Do you still feel that passion?
Last season I didn’t work and, to be honest, I felt I had something to prove. I missed the game. This is a fascinating new project, something different. Despite my previous experience, it’s completely new territory. Right now, things are going OK, but there’s no guarantee that we won’t have problems later. We’re living in the moment, enjoying our work and trying to keep making progress.
In September you had a bad run, losing games and not scoring goals.
A team like ours should get stronger as the season progresses. Because we have a small budget, we couldn’t afford big goalscorers. We don’t have anyone who will get 30 goals or 50 points in a season. But through coaching, through finding the right combinations, we can improve. If a player usually gets five goals a season, it’s unreasonable to ask him for 30. But we can be solid on defense, and we need that if we’re going to achieve anything.
It’s interesting how players like Max Warn have improved at Kunlun.
We have many players who are improving, not just Warn. You could mention Lahti, Yashin, Pereskokov, Makarov. I could name plenty of guys who are playing better than before. The key thing is that they are playing for the team, not just for themselves.
What about the Chinese players?
We took a group of 12 Chinese players to our pre-season camp in June. By the end we had five left. Some of them played in the minor leagues in Canada, some of them came from Harbin. But we started late, so it wasn’t easy to get these players up to KHL standard in time for the season. If someone usually plays six games in the regular season in China, it’s not easy to get him set, physically and mentally, for the KHL season. But we are spending extra time with these players and they are getting better. When we get the chance, we’re trying to give them game time, but we can’t forget that we need to win games.
So next season we might see a line entirely of Chinese players?
We’ll need to keep working through the spring and the summer. It’s not easy to make the shift from amateur to pro hockey. It’s one thing to play for fun, it’s completely different when it’s your job. Which of these guys is mentally ready to take it further? Before they had a completely different life but now they have to devote themselves entirely to their sport.
We have five Chinese players and we’ll be bringing more. One of our aims is to find the brightest young prospects in China. There’s a pretty high level of hockey among the kids here, but once they get to 11 or 12 there’s nowhere for them to go – no junior hockey or youth hockey. By the time they are 18 or 19 they are already coaching. Hockey is developing, but not as a professional sport. That’s what so important about the Kunlun project – people can see what their kids could achieve in the future if they can carry on playing at junior level and youth level, then maybe play in a Chinese championship of 20-30 games a season. That should give more impetus. We’re trying to do three things at once: win games, nurture players and promote the game. We want to do all this, but sometimes we have to prioritize one over another.
What about supporters in China? Does the club have real fans yet? Are you worried about how to get more people into the arena?
We’ve not had so much support in Shanghai, but at recent games we’ve seen more expats coming to the games. And the locals are starting to watch and even cheer for the team, even though there aren’t many of them yet. A winning team is the best way to get people to come. We have to work hard on our marketing plan, maybe offer free tickets to students and schoolkids. If the team plays well, we need to attract fans. After seeing a few games, people will bring their friends and the sport begins to grow. The players and coaches are also happy to take part in events to promote hockey. The only problem is that we have so little time between games and practices. But in time we’ll work more on attracting new fans.
Don’t forget we’ve only had pro hockey in China for four months. It will take time.
What was your biggest surprise in China?
I’d never been before; I’d never got further than Astana. Of course, two huge, beautiful modern cities like Beijing and Shanghai make a big impression. I didn’t expect the cities to be on such a scale. It’s a well-developed country. Other surprises? It’s always warm. We’ve had a few problems, but there’s nothing unsurmountable. We’re here to play hockey.