Vladimir Krechin, Sporting Director of Kunlun Red Star, gave an interview to KHL.ru – on the quest for Chinese players, on why two planes were needed for Far East travel, on new coach Mike Keenan, on the team’s prospects, and much more.
This time last year, the debut club of the 2016-17 KHL Championship, HC Kunlun Red Star, existed only as a plan outlined on paper, but life was breathed into the project with astonishing rapidity. To create a team from scratch was a mammoth task, but the obstacles were overcome, theory was put into practice, and the practice resulted in real achievement
Under the guidance of coach Vladimir Yurzinov, this multinational collective more than fulfilled the main task set before it. Awareness of the KHL spread throughout this vast nation, the most populous on earth; Kunlun Red Star matches were staged in China’s two largest cities, Beijing and Shanghai. The first professional hockey club in Chinese history qualified for the playoffs in its debut season, which only came to an end with defeat at the hands of the current Gagarin Cup holder, Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The journey has only just begun and we are still in the first chapter of this story, but we can already look back on a successful beginning. We opened our interview with Vladimir Krechin by asking for his views on the Beijing boys’ flying start.
- Overall, how would you rate Kunlun’s season?
Vladimir Krechin: “Definitely as a successful one, even very successful. This is agreed by all: the club management, shareholders, and members of its Board of Trustees. In fact, the main task for this first season was that we would not fall flat on our faces, and in this we succeeded, but qualifying for the playoffs was a wonderful bonus. Another significant achievement was winning a playoff match in Beijing against Magnitogorsk. Only now can we fully appreciate just how great was that victory, seeing that no other team in the subsequent rounds has managed to claim a single win against the reigning champion.”
- How quickly did you adapt to working in China?
Vladimir Krechin: “At first it was very hard, because it really is a different world in all respects, ranging from the climate and daily life to work at the hockey club. Life became easier with the beginning of the season, firstly when my family arrived and secondly when I got back into the familiar rhythm of hockey matches, training sessions, travel... That was when I felt fully acclimatized.”
With a coach like Mike Keenan you don’t need to set any targets for the season. He sets his own goals for himself and those around him. He clearly knows what he wants to achieve and what needs to be done to achieve it.
- How did the players react to the news they would be playing in China? Does it create extra difficulties?
Vladimir Krechin: “Some of the players had offered their services, so they knew where they were going. As for those whom we sought, some refused outright while the others thought for a while before agreeing. Quite a few refused, and I fully understand their reasons: it’s not easy to take such a leap into the unknown. And we expected those that agreed to persevere, and they did just that. Granted, Anssi Salmela was the exception that proves the rule – he stayed for a month before saying he’d had enough – so we let him go straight away without any recriminations. As it turned out, we got by without him. All the others signed the contract and got on with their job without a word of complaint.”
- Was there not a fear of failure? You were given a very short time in which to assemble a team.
Vladimir Krechin: “Sometimes fear raised its head, but we had no time to dwell on such things – we were working day and night, putting a team together piece by piece.”
- If you could turn back the clock, would you take up this challenge again?
Vladimir Krechin: “Of course I would. It has been a very interesting year and valuable experience for me, both in my life and in my work. Not for a single second have I regretted getting involved in this enterprise, and now I’m looking forward to each new day. I am sure the future will be even more interesting.”
- Would you have made any changes in the roster?
Vladimir Krechin: “No, I wouldn’t make any changes and I don’t have a bad word to say about any of the players. Possibly someone did not perform quite as we expected, or we expected more from someone else, but that’s not important. What matters is that they were united, a cohesive team, and only thanks to this were we able to perform successfully. I am grateful to them all as a team and as individuals, regardless of how many goals they scored or games they played.”
- Tell us, please, about the search for Chinese hockey players. This season Kunlun had four, two of whom had learned their hockey in North America. Is that number likely to stay the norm?
Vladimir Krechin: “We can never know for sure and it was hard to make accurate predictions, as Chinese hockey was not familiar to us. At the first training camp in Finland we had thirteen players with Chinese citizenship, but it became clear that most of them were not good enough for the KHL. We pared the group down to four players, and each of them has played in at least one game.”
- Zach Yuen emerged as the leader of the Chinese contingent. Was that expected?
Vladimir Krechin: “To repeat, it was hard for us to have any expectations of guys whom we were seeing for the first time in our lives. As for the fact that Zach turned out to be the strongest, that is easily explained: age, experience, North American school – he had all this on his side. But, of course, he is still not an established star. He needs to do a lot of work on his game, but he fully understands this and that is what matters. I hope he will continue to progress. And North America will provide us with many more players of Zach Yuen’s caliber - ethnic Chinese guys who have been to hockey schools. You will see for yourself, soon.”
- Were there any difficulties in the preparations for staging the first KHL match in Beijing?
Vladimir Krechin: “Yes, there were many problems, because everything was completely new to the Chinese. We had to meet all the requirements set down in the KHL Regulations, right down to the finest detail: the quality of the ice, the boards, the lighting, the video goal system, the arena – the Chinese had not seen anything like this before. Problems arose at every step, but fortunately for me, solving them was the work of another department.”
It would be naive to suppose that a team created from scratch could just stroll through the Gagarin Cup playoffs. The KHL is a serious championship, and such things are not going to happen.
- Is it fair to say this has been the hardest job in your managerial career?
Vladimir Krechin: “I cannot really say so, because in our line of work there are no easy jobs. First and foremost, we are held responsible for the results of the team, and the demands were no softer at Traktor than they are at Kunlun, so I couldn’t give a definite answer to that question.”
- Have you learned Chinese?
Vladimir Krechin: “No, that's one of my challenges for the future.
- Have you notched more air miles this season than in the rest of your life put together?
Vladimir Krechin: “Frequent flying is an integral part of the sporting life. I've always traveled a lot, but never as often as I do now.”
- What is the most striking or memorable episode connected with your move to China, or about the country itself?
Vladimir Krechin: “A couple of times at the beginning of the season we had to use two planes to fly to games in the Far East. It turned out the Chinese were completely unfamiliar with charter flights, and couldn’t believe a big plane could just fly wherever it pleased. However, they did have business flights, but these aircraft only have enough seats for 28 people at most, and there were 34 of us. As you can guess, 28 of us went on one plane and six on another, which was a small, nine-seater private aircraft. From the comfort point of view it was great – the whole team was flying in business class, although we looked a little ridiculous, of course. Soon the Chinese began to accept our charter flights and everything returned to normal.”
- For part of the season, the team played in Shanghai and the attendances were very disappointing. Could nothing have been done to attract more people to the games?
Vladimir Krechin: “This is another topic on which it is hard for me to judge, because this, too, came under a different department – marketing, in this case. Probably, someone could have come up with a plan but I think our marketing staff did not deem it necessary to make any special efforts to attract spectators, given that Shanghai was just a temporary home. Our club is based in Beijing, where we have all our sponsors, partners, and advertisers, so moving to Shanghai was a temporary, albeit necessary, measure. All our thoughts were focused on reaching a swift agreement with the LeSport Center and returning to Beijing. Under those circumstances, increasing the Shanghai audience was not a priority.
“Frequent flying is an integral part of the sporting life. I've always traveled a lot, but never as often as I do now”
I don't know what else to say about it. I think we'll just try to forget about the attendance figures in Shanghai. Yes, this was an unfortunate episode in our history, and the attendances really were very low, but how long can we dwell on it? We returned to Beijing and there we consistently attracted crowds of 5-7,000, and sometimes even more. And there are some clubs in the KHL, ones with far longer histories and more tradition, that would love to have attendances as high as those we achieved in Beijing. Should the newest club be constantly reminded of one failure during the very first steps of its existence?”
- Did you sense an increase in hockey’s popularity in China?
Vladimir Krechin: “Yes, I could feel it. I wouldn't call it a hockey boom, and we can hardly expect the people do develop a passion for a new sport in such a short time. Think about it: we have only played 15 matches in Beijing, and there was a gap of more than three months between the first and second games, plus a month-long pause between the last game of the regular season and the playoffs. Of course, this is not enough to arouse a strong interest in hockey and to ensure a packed arena, but we could still feel the spectators gradually getting more and more involved and responding to events on the ice. They understood that a goal at one end was good and at the other end was bad. Overall, things are moving in the right direction, but there’s no point thinking we’ll wake up one morning and China will suddenly be crazy over hockey. Everything takes time.”
- Which players would you single out as the leaders, not just for statistics but for their value to the team?
Vladimir Krechin: “Many contributed, each in his own way. Some set a good example to their partners with their positive attitude and ability – such as the North Americans: Chad Rau, Sean Collins and Brett Bellemore. Some inspired others with their dedication - Tuukka Mantyla or Tomas Marcinko, although we often had words with the latter about picking up too many penalties. Tuukka, again, and Alexei Ponikarovsky were natural leaders in the locker room. We could heap similar praise on many other players. That is why we had a genuine team, solid, without any cliques or groups. We didn’t have the type who would rock the boat, so to speak. If anyone voiced concern about anything, they did it calmly, business-like, without bleating or searching for sympathy.”
- During the championship, were there ever any fears that you would not get into the playoffs?
Vladimir Krechin: “Was anyone guaranteeing a playoff place for us? We couldn’t assume we would finish in the top eight, but we didn’t have time to ponder it. Vladimir Yurzinov said at a press conference, “We are spending the whole season in the playoffs,” and I agree. For us, there were no easy games, and in every match we had to prove we had the right to play in the League. What is the point of staring at the standings and wondering your chances of reaching the playoffs?”
- Do you think you would have progressed to the Conference semi-finals if you had met a team other than Magnitogorsk in the quarters?
Vladimir Krechin: “It is hard to say that. On the one hand, there is always a chance. The weaker the opponent, the better your chances. But on the other hand, it would be naive to suppose that a team created from scratch could just stroll through the Gagarin Cup playoffs. The KHL is a serious championship and such things are not going to happen, so maybe the outcome was a fair and logical one.”
- Why did you decide to part company with Vladimir Yurzinov?
Vladimir Krechin: “It was his decision, not ours. He announced it in a statement he made at the press conference after the final game in Magnitogorsk, and it was a complete surprise to us. We just accepted his resignation.”
- Did you part on good terms?
Vladimir Krechin: “Yes, it goes without saying. How could it be otherwise? He did a great job putting the team together and developing its game. Our success was his success. After that, how could we be in conflict with him? Of course not. We parted on good terms and we agreed to all his wishes – this was a sign of our respect for him and our appreciation for the work he performed.”
I don’t have a bad word to say about any of the players. Possibly someone did not perform quite as we expected, or we expected more from someone, but that’s not important. What matters is that they were a cohesive team
- How did Mike Keenan appear as a possible replacement, and were there other candidates?
Vladimir Krechin: “We had quite a few options, Russian and foreign, but Mike was already nearby, as he had just joined the newly established International Advisory Board at the club. And such a coach, as I’m sure you understand, puts all other candidates in the shade. There was only one man on our list who had won the Gagarin Cup, Stanley Cup, Calder Cup and Canada Cup.”
- Did Mike agree quickly?
Vladimir Krechin: “Yes, after he made sure that the club was prepared to comply with his vision of how things should be organized. For Mike, the most important thing was for the job to be tailored to the way he thought necessary, since he knows exactly how things should be done.”
- Have you already started work on strengthening the team for next season?
Vladimir Krechin: “That work started on Mike’s first day in his new job and it continues every day from dawn till dusk. Well, since we have no way of knowing whether the focus of our work will be in Russia, China or North America, maybe it is more accurate to say we are working round the clock.”
- Will we see big changes to the Kunlun roster?
Vladimir Krechin: “There will be major changes, and only a few from the current roster will still be here next season.”
- Have you discussed with Keenan the targets for next season, and has he made any requests to sign specific players?
Vladimir Krechin: “Mike is a top-rank professional of the kind I have never before encountered. Every day that I work alongside him gives me valuable experience. It is the same pleasure I had when I worked with Valery Belousov at Traktor, many of whose methods I adopted – in particular, the principles of team-building and of establishing relationships with people. And Mike, as I have witnessed, is the supreme master of organizing an entire process. It is no coincidence that he has many years of experience, not only as a coach but also as a general manager.
Those players who offered their services knew where they were going. As for those we sought, some refused outright while the others thought for a while before agreeing. Quite a few refused, and I understand their reasons: it’s not easy to take such a leap into the unknown. And we expected those that agreed to persevere.
What I'm saying is that with a coach like Mike you don’t need to set any targets. He sets his own goals for himself and those around him. He clearly knows what he wants to achieve and what needs to be done to achieve it, including how to put together a roster. There is no lack of candidates for our team, because many would like to work under such a coach and be part of such an unusual and ambitious project.”
- Does the hiring of such a renowned coach signify that Kunlun plans to reach new heights, in the strength of the roster, the quality of the hockey and the results of the team?
Vladimir Krechin: “We are counting on heading in that direction, yes. Surely, no-one could think that such a great and ambitious coach would accept a mere ceremonial role.”