Curt Fraser, who had his first experience in Europe as Team Belarus head coach between 2006-2008, started coaching Kunlun on January 18. Under his direction, the team played 12 games.
The charismatic American coach is satisfied with his move to China and the KHL. “It’s been a great experience,” the coach says. “It was very good to get to a new country, meet new players and the staff, have a look at how such a non-ordinary team works. I also enjoyed later getting to Beijing, have a look at the fabulous arena, finally plunging into a real hockey environment and study how to develop the sport further to allow China to get to new reaches in hockey. It has been incredible.”
Fraser knew that moving to such international environment wouldn’t have been easy, considering the difficulties in day-to-day life and the language barrier. However, the experience at the helm of the Belarusian national team went a long way for him. “Thankfully, I already passed through all this ten years ago when I worked in Belarus,” Fraser confirms. “I worked there for two years and got used to this kind of difficulties. I even tried to learn some Russian. I can’t say that I was particularly successful in that, but I had great assistants who talked a perfect English, without mentioning the fact that many players had experience playing in North American leagues, and thus they also knew the language a bit. And getting here to China, I was surprised to see so many North American players with Chinese roots. Thus, I had no problems whatsoever in communications with the players. However, with the staff, it has been a little different. I probably need to learn some Russian and Chinese to improve communication, but they are excellent professionals and know their stuff. As a result, my adaptation was fast and smooth.”
Fraser is also delighted with working in the KHL: “It has been great to get to know a new league. The KHL is fantastic, hockey is great, and some of the games I worked on were played at a very high level. Of course, it wasn’t easy to fight with so many injuries, and the team had a short bench. You know, I didn’t even get to know a few players of the team: they started the season with Kunlun, then they picked up a serious injury and went back home. In any case, it has been a fantastic experience, I love the team, and I’m sure that it can improve in the future and prepare well to the Olympic Games.”
The Kunlun head coach, however, already knew the KHL. “When I was working with the Belarusian national team, I followed many KHL, I had to check the national team’s candidates who were playing all over Russia. Of course, being a spectator is very different from being a coach. Now, when I watch the games from the bench, and I have a chance to participate in the game and influence the outcome, I enjoy them much more. The League shows a very high level and great venues. Trying to help the guys getting through all this was a huge experience for me. I really liked their approach, for many players it was a new League, a new experience. And they tried hard and fought fiercely.”
But of course, it wasn’t just about the day-to-day experience and the adaptation. The team also had to show results. “When Ville Lajunen and Sam Lofquist got back from their injuries when Wojtek Wolski returned to the ice for the last games of the season, the team changed and improved a lot. I really want to have a look at the team once all the injuries are healed. It will be an excellent team, and I’m sure that coaching it will be incredible.”
Currently, Fraser doesn’t have a contract for the next season. However, judging by his words, it’s pretty evident that he wants to return next year. “Yes, I still have to talk about it with the team’s staff and general manager,” he admits. “However, it looks like I’m not the only one happy with how things are going on. Everything is going on very well, and everyone, the staff, the coaches, the personnel, can’t wait for the start of the new season. Everyone is sure that the next season will be better than the current one. I think that the team has great potential, and that’s why I want to be a part of it.”
Since Fraser got to the team with the season in an advanced stage, his contract de facto lasted only a few weeks. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right motivation in such a short span, but for the American coach, it has been not. “Firstly, I wanted to get to know the League and the team, that I knew was having a hard season. I had the motivation of having a little influence on it, and a chance to start rebuilding the team. Of course, I knew that I didn’t have the time to introduce serious changes, but just to tune in some details that would help the team in developing further towards the new season. I think that the team reacted very well, even if it’s hard to jump to a conclusion after only twelve games. In the future, when the players will have more time to understand my requests, we’ll see some serious progress.”
As the coach already mentioned, injuries played a significant role in Kunlun’s season. The team was physically tired also because of the high number of games played. But this wasn’t a problem for Fraser. “Before getting here, I watched a few games of the team to better understand what I would get. Having watched the matches, it was clear that the team isn’t a bad one, but it began to fall apart due to the load of the problems. Because of that, it stopped being a team but rather was a group of good players who mostly played for themselves. My main goal was to turn them into a team again, to give the game a more unified structure and raise the morale of the troops.”
The latter, especially, seems to have been quite a success for Fraser. “The first couple of practices were incredible. The guys were flying on the ice, you could feel their enthusiasm, and they were thrilled with what was happening. Of course, when we began facing teams like Salavat Yulaev or Avangard and others, the fun runs out and the team risks to get back to the previous status. It’s a big responsibility for the coach to avoid this from happening.”
A coaching change is also a good chance for players to get them noticed. “We tried to give to all the players the chance to start from scratch so that the team could play the way it could,” Fraser explains. For example, under his direction, both Zach Yuen and Rudy Ying scored their first goals of the season. “I think we were successful. We didn’t win a lot of games, but the hard times didn’t demoralize the team, who unified itself and fought as hard as it could. This kind of confidence will help the guys to prepare for the next season.”
Naturally, working with Kunlun means also working for the national team. Something that Fraser already experienced in Belarus. “However, I think that this is most similar to working in the AHL,” the coach explains. “The focus is on developing players, with the difference that there you try to prepare them for the NHL, and here – for the Olympic games. Turning young Chinese players into successful professionals is our first and most important task. This is not something that can be done overnight, you need time and hard work to achieve that,” he admits. “If we manage to create the right environment for the Chinese players, to get them playing side to side with experienced veterans who can show them the right way, then they will develop. And I can say that we already achieved significant results in this short period. And I will say it once again, we need to work a lot to turn players from the VHL or MHL level to the KHL level. It’s not easy to play against experienced players who spent many years at the highest levels and to fight against teams who worked for whole decades to reach their today’s status. Closing such a wide gap is not easy. But the Chinese players are hard workers, they only need some time.”
To help developing players, this summer Kunlun hired an exceptional assistant: Alexei Kovalev. “He’s a terrific guy,” Fraser smiles. “I didn’t know him in person before, but as soon as I crossed the threshold of the locker room, I immediately understood how lucky I was to be working with him. He had a giant effort and helped me a lot when I first got there. He got me up to speed, told me absolutely everything about the players, evaluating them to the littlest detail. He tirelessly worked with the guys on every aspect of the game: skating, shooting, and much more. Such a shining star can give a lot to any team. He only has a problem: he still wants to play each shift of each game. I had a hard time getting him staying on the bench and not wearing skates to hit the ice himself. Seriously speaking, in the past he was an incredible player, and now he’s a fantastic coach who perfectly knows his possibilities and how to transmit them to his guys.”
Fraser is having a great time in China, also because of the chance of developing the local program reaching new heights. The coach is sure that China has a huge potential. “The potential is definitely there. We have many talented players, with whom Alexander Barkov is doing a tremendous job in the VHL. He teaches them a lot of things, showing them the right way and allowing for further development. As I already said, such progress is not something that happens in one day. The players need some time to show good progress. It’s excellent for us to have a group of Chinese players from North America: their experience significantly helps the other guys. You need to carefully mix this cocktail: North American guys with experience in different leagues, at a different level, and local players who must study and learn from them. And working, working, working… But this is why we, the coaches, work. It won’t be easy, but I enjoy being part of the challenge.”
Born on January 12, 1958, in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
Playing career: Victoria Cougars, 1974-78; Vancouver Canucks, 1978-83; Chicago Blackhawks, 1983-88; Minnesota North Stars, 1988-90.
Coaching career: Milwaukee Admirals, 1990-94 (assistant and head coach); Syracuse Crunch, 1994-95 (assistant coach); Orlando Solar Bears, 1995-99 (head coach); Atlanta Thrashers, 2000-03 (head coach); New York Islanders, 2003-04 (assistant coach); St. Louis Blues, 2005-06 (assistant coach); Grand Rapids Griffins, 2008-12 (head coach); Dallas Stars, 2012-18 (assistant coach); Kunlun Red Star, 2019-today (head coach).