100 games a season: Gare Joyce's puck blog

Just like being in the scouts' & press' lounge, without the bad coffee and day-old Timbits

Location: Toronto

I've written for ESPN The Magazine and espn.com the last five years. My work has made the "notable" list of the Best American Sports Writing seven times and won four Canadian National Magazine Awards. My most recent book is Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts. I've written three other sports books: When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey's Cold War and Changed the Game; Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm; and The Only Ticket Off the Island: Baseball in the Dominican Republic.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Sergei Samsonov Waiving Bye with Habs: Retrospective

I wouldn't bet on Sergei Samsonov being done, waived or not. But I'm only saying that because I lost a bet the other night that SS won the Calder. (I thought Drury won his year. What do I know? Right. Precisely nothing.)

Anyway, I first saw him when he came over as an underage to world juniors. He seemed like a prodigy (but his skating got exposed at the next level). Interestingly, the first time I wrote up SS ties back to the imbroglio in Montreal. The late Igor Dmitriev, the classiest Russian coach, got the most out of SS by benching him. Who's to say it won't happen again? Don't ask me to bet on it.

THE officials at the world junior hockey tournament asked Russian coach Igor Dmitriev to provide a team lineup before his team's qualifying contest against Finland on Monday afternoon. On the official stationery, spaces were left for the surnames of players. Dmitriev filled in numbers instead of names.
Those nostalgic for the Cold War and concerned about the Communist Party's showing in the last Russian election will say that Dmitriev's handling of the roster is a reflex developed in decades under totalitarian rule. Others less reactionary will point out that the officials' request was made impractical by the Cyrillic alphabet.
Still, the use of numbers rather than names is consistent with the character of Dmitriev. At practice yesterday, on the eve of the semi-final between Russia and Canada, he provided technical answers to questions that begged a different sort of reply. When Dmitriev was asked about the Russians' 8-5 loss to Canada at last year's tournament, he didn't respond emotionally. No expression of regret or anger. Instead, Dmitriev asked for a reporter's notebook and pen and then drew a diagram. "Game is tied 3-3," he said. "We say, 'Don't go to this point. Don't go.' He goes. Then a two- on-one. Canada goal. You can't forget such things."
Digits and diagrams were Dmitriev's domain as a young man. He earned a degree in engineering and had thoughts of studying architecture. "I studied building highways," he said through an interpreter. "I sat in class and thought, 'Why am I doing this?' " Before he could think of a good answer, Dmitriev moved on to the department of physical education, where he found his calling, first as an elite hockey player, then as a coach.
Though dedicated to a life in the rink, Dmitriev admits that he is still "a technician," that his character was shaped as much in physics classes as much as the rink. He describes himself as "analytical" and he uses his words only after consideration and measurement. "Common sense and decision making comes from education," he said. "My education developed the way I look at problems. And I learned that there's no one set way to solve a problem. There always has to be a new way to solve a problem."
The immediate problem for Dmitriev and his charges is a Canadian team undefeated through the first round. Dmitriev summed up in one word the strategy he expects from the Russians' opponent in the semis: "Canadian." To expand on this he took hold of a phantom stick and vigorously made a motion that resembled a cross-check. His pantomime was to the point. As ever, the Canadian team possesses a ferocity unmatched at this tourney.
The coach wasn't about to diminish the importance of the contest. "We didn't travel thousands of miles to play the United States," he said after his team beat Finland 6-2 to advance to the semi-finals. He added that if his young charges had lost to the Finns, the plane home "would not have landed in Moscow but in Siberia."
This dated joke aside, the game is significant for Dmitriev because of the Russian program's recent dearth of success at the world junior level. The Soviet Union's team in the late 1970s set the standard with four straight golds, but Russian teams have won but once in the nineties. "A mess," said Dmitriev, who coaches Wings of the Russian league. "There was a loss of structure in age-group leagues because of the (political) changes. That's why I've stayed in Russia."
To overhaul the national program from the grassroots up would require a visionary on the scale of Le Corbusier. Though Dmitriev might have that vision, like any architect he recognizes that grand designs require capital before the concrete is poured. The Russian program is strapped for cash. "It's bankrupt and development of players is made difficult," he said.
Nonetheless, players are a coach's building blocks and Mother Russia might have the foundation for a restored program in Sergei Samsonov, a 17- year-old who has been touted as the top choice in the 1997 National Hockey League entry draft. All of 5 feet 8, Samsonov rode the bench in the opening games. Only against Finland, only with the Russians down 2-0 and facing elimination, did Dmitriev play Samsonov on the team's first line with Dimitri Klevakin and Vadim Epantschintshev. The phenom responded with a goal, an assist and a dozen breathtaking moves.
Samsonov said that he had been sick before the tourney and was only now rounding into form. Many assumed that Dmitriev was undertaking a little social engineering, forcing Samsonov to buy into the team's program. The coach didn't do much to dispel the assumption. "Engineering and coaching are the same," he said. "To build a good highway or to build a good team is never easy."
Sometimes you have to carve through mountains, sometimes you have to cut a spritely teen down to size.

Fine print ... Ottawa 67's owned SS's junior rights. Woulda been nice to see him with Killer. Woulda made for some good stories, anyway ... Patrick Elias and Mattias Ohlund were the Calder finalists that year. Mike Johnson was in the running til late in the season ... That year Samsonov scored a hat trick in the game that clinched a playoff berth for B's ... it also clinched him a million-buck bonus .