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Zinetula Bilyaletdinov: Russia’s ice hockey coach

The performance of the Russian ice hockey team at Sochi will make or break the Olympics in the eyes of many Russians. RBTH takes a look at the career and credentials of the man shouldering the expectations of a nation, coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov.

It took Bilyaletdinov more than 40 years of hard work to get to the point where the most powerful man in Russia appoints you to the most important hockey position in the country. Source: Reuters

Ilya Zubko, special to RBTH

When Russian hockey bosses sacked the national team’s head coach Vyacheslav Bykov and his assistant Igor Zakharkin, few had any doubts as to who would replace them. Their successor was to prepare the team for its first home Olympics in history, and Zinetula “Bill” Bilyaletdinov was at the peak of his powers as a club coach at the time. He had brought Dynamo Moscow and Ak Bars Kazan to victory in the national championship; Ak Bars had also won two Gagarin Cups in a row under his stewardship. No other Russian coach could boast such impressive credentials, and foreigners weren’t even in the running. In addition, Bilyaletdinov already had some experience of working with the national team. He was assistant coach at the Nagano and Salt Lake City Games, and even spent some time flying solo in 2004-2005 (albeit with little to show for it). In other words, hockey experts and fans were unanimous: “The national team should be led by Bilyaletdinov and no one else."

Interestingly, Bilyaletdinov himself was not particularly eager to take on this nerve-wracking job. He was sitting pretty at the time in Kazan, where he had earned himself a stellar reputation over the previous seven years. He was also very well off financially, so the job as the national team’s head coach was nothing more than a headache to him, albeit a very prestigious headache. It has long been regarded in Russia - since Soviet times, in fact - that the country's success at the Winter Olympics depends on the performance of the hockey team. If it wins gold, then the Games have been a success. If it doesn’t, the whole Games are judged a failure for Russia. Obviously, the pressure of expectation will be even greater at the home Games in Sochi - and victory is far from guaranteed.

Having agreed to sign a contract with the Russian Hockey Federation after all, Bilyaletdinov immediately admitted that the decision had essentially been made for him. "The question of my appointment was decided at the level of (then) Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov, so I simply could not say no.”

The road to the top

It took Bilyaletdinov more than 40 years of hard work to get to the point where the most powerful man in Russia appoints you to the most important hockey position in the country. Like all Soviet children, he started playing hockey as a boy, on an improvised ice rink in the street. He was then drafted into the HC Dynamo Moscow junior team, and played his first senior game for the club in 1973. At the time, everyone called him by his Russian name - Sasha, or Alexander. He started using his given Tatar name, Zinetula, after retiring from the national team in the late 1980s.

For 15 years Bilyaletdinov was one of the best defenders in the Soviet Union. Alas, his staunch loyalty to HC Dynamo meant he was never able to win the Soviet championship with the club; CSKA Moscow was simply unbeatable at the time. For this reason, Bilyaletdinov’s list of trophies, like that of another Moscow fan favorite, Alexander Maltsev, is oddly lopsided. He became an Olympic champion in 1984; he won the World Championship and European Cup on more than one occasion; he even holds the 1981 Canada Cup - but he never won the Soviet championship, though he has silver and bronze medals galore. Incidentally, Bilyaletdinov played for the Soviet team at the memorable 1980s Games in Lake Placid in the U.S. He was directly involved in what was later called the “Miracle on Ice”, when the famous Soviet “Red Machine” lost in the final to a team of American students. For obvious reasons, he doesn’t like to talk about that game. “We should not have lost, our team was obviously the stronger," he once said. “But the Americans beat us fairly because they were better prepared for that game. We underestimated them, hoping to win with one hand tied behind our backs - but it turned out rather differently.”

Bilyaletdinov’s career as a coach has been fairly unusual. After the break-up of the USSR, hockey players began to move in their droves to the U.S. and Canada, but not the coaches. The first coach to receive an offer from the NHL, Bilyaletdinov spent four years there from 1993 to 1997, first as an assistant coach with the Winnipeg Jets (the team that later became the Phoenix Coyotes), and then with the Chicago Blackhawks.

On his return to Russia, where he became the Dynamo Moscow head coach, he was often described as a “Soviet coach with a Canadian slant”. He was also given a new nickname, “Bill”. Having combined the very best of what the two hockey schools on both sides of the Atlantic had to offer, Bilyaletdinov really stood out from other Russian coaches, who could only dream of working in the NHL. In 2000 he brought HC Dynamo to victory in the Russian national championship, finally winning as a coach the one trophy he failed to win as a player.

Success breeds success

Four years later, after a short stint with the Swiss club Lugano and with the Russian national team, Bilyaletdinov accepted a very serious offer. HC Ak Bars Kazan, which was going from strength to strength at the time, desperately wanted to win the Russian championship in 2005, the year Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, was celebrating the 1,000th anniversary of its founding. As luck would have it, the 2004/2005 season at the NHL was cancelled due to a lockout, and many of the top players moved to Russia. Ak Bars assembled a truly world-class team that included Nikolai Khabibulin, Vincent Lecavalier, Darius Kasparaitis, Dany Heatley, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Alexei Kovalev, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Michael Nylander. It is said that the club’s payroll reached $50-60 million that year. The Ak Bars bosses thought it was only right and proper to entrust the position of the club’s head coach to Bilyaletdinov, a Muscovite but also an ethic Tatar. Alas, “Bill” led the club to a crushing defeat on that occasion; Ak Bars lost to HC Lokomotiv in the first round of the playoffs. The cup went instead to Bilyaletdinov’s old club Dynamo Moscow that year.

Many expected that after the fiasco, Bilyaletdinov would take the first flight out of Kazan, but to everyone's great surprise, Ak Bars decided not to sack him. The club's confidence in its new coach soon paid off: Ak Bars won the Russian championship the following year, then added two Gagarin Cups in a row to its list of trophies. Bilyaletdinov became the most celebrated coach in the history of Russian hockey, and was entrusted with the Russian national team.

Offense or defense?

Once at the helm of the Russian team, “Bill” immediately proceeded to deploy his trademark defensive strategy; as a former defender, his had always emphasized that particular aspect of the game. As a result, Russia won the 2012 IIHF World Championship, defeating its opponents in all 10 matches. A year later, following the departure of Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, the team suffered one of the most humiliating defeats in its history. In the quarterfinals the Americans tore Bilyaletdinov's team to pieces 8-3 at the Hartwall Areena in Helsinki. "Do you think I am not ashamed? I have never lost like this in my life,” Bilyaletdinov said after that crushing defeat.

The drubbing taken by the team in Finland changed its head coach. He began to avoid journalists even more studiously than before; for all his experience at the NHL, he is always very reluctant to be interviewed. He has also lost his confidence in many of the players, who have not been called up to the national team since then. But he continues to rely on his old tactic, which many now question. His team always has two five-player squads that play with a heavy emphasis on attack, and another two five-player squads who play defensively. That is exactly why the Russian team that will play in Sochi includes some forwards who clearly aren't the best of the best, even by KHL standards. They don’t score very often, but they are extremely good at frustrating the opponent's plans. Many fans don't like this style, but if it brings the Russian team victory in Sochi, all will be forgiven.

The challenge

Bilyaletdinov understands better than anyone what is expected of him at the Sochi Olympics. Nevertheless, when interviewed by the RIA-Novosti news agency, he dodged the question of whether this is the most important tournament of his life. “It is important to me. I have taken part in two Olympiads as a player, and in one as assistant to head coach Vladimir Yurzinov," he said. “Now, I am taking part as head coach. This is, of course, a challenge. It’s a chance to test myself, and to demonstrate my skills. I will do whatever I can, the best I can. Will it be enough? At any rate, I will try to do all that is necessary for victory."

Dossier

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov

Born on March 13, 1955 to an ordinary working-class family in Moscow. His parents worked at the Red October chocolate factory.

He was trained at HC Dynamo Moscow, the club which he played for as a defender throughout his entire professional career from 1973 to 1988. He scored 63 goals in the 588 matches he played for Dynamo, and also played in 253 matches for the Soviet national team, notching 21 goals. Bilyaletdinov took part in two Olympic Games and two Canada Cups as a player, winning one of each. He is also a six-time world champion.

As a coach, he worked for Dynamo Moscow as an assistant coach (1988-1992) and head coach (1997-2001 and 2002-2003). He was the head coach of Ak Bars Kazan in 2004-2011, and assistant coach at NHL clubs such as the Winnipeg Jets, the Phoenix Coyotes, and the Chicago Blackhawks (1993-1997). He was also an assistant coach at Swiss club HC Lugano in 2001-2002. As a coach, he has won four Russian championships (2000, 2006, 2008 and 2009), the IIHF European Champions Cup (2007), the IIHF Continental Cup (2008), and the World Championship (2012).

He has received several awards from the Russian government. He holds the rank of Colonel (reserve, Border Troops).

He is married; his daughter Natalya is married to the former hockey player Stanislav Romanov.

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