Some coaches mess with sunflower seeds, others chew gum. But as he stalks the bench, Mike Keenan gnaws on shards of ice, as if to toughen up while cooling down. It’s a tic he cribbed early in his career from Scotty Bowman, the legendary NHL coach who gave Keenan his big break back in 1979.
In the nearly 35 years since then, Keenan has made four trips to the Stanley Cup final, winning it once; he’s also earned championships at the OHL, AHL, and Canadian collegiate levels. He’s coached for eight different NHL and two Canada Cup teams. He’s burned bridges and turned to reality shows; he’s taken jobs in broadcasting and international consulting.
Now he’s behind the bench once again, still chewing those ice chips, not in Vancouver or St. Louis or Florida or Philadelphia these days, but Magnitogorsk, Russia, a Soviet-era steel city at the foot of the Ural Mountains, on the cusp of Siberia. The man long known as Iron Mike has ended up in a place best known for its iron mines.
Metallurg, the aptly named KHL team Keenan coached to a second-place overall finish in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League in his first season overseas,1 is currently the top remaining seed in the Gagarin Cup playoffs, and — after a five-game series win over Admiral Vladivostok in the first round and a sweep of Sibir Novosibirsk after that — now heads into the Eastern Conference finals.
As well his first in a professional head coaching capacity in general since being fired by the Calgary Flames in 2009.
Keenan, to his surprise, was named a KHL All-Star Game coach in January. He’s overseen a team split between relatively young players and bona fide Russian stars, and he’s done so without fanfare or incident. His infamously mercurial personality seems to have mellowed, but it has also come to the right place.
“There’s only one phrase,” Gennady Velichkin, general manager of Metallurg Magnitogorsk, said to me through team translator Igor Mouraviev. We were sitting in his office one night in November, following his team’s fourth straight home win, and I asked him to describe Keenan. Velichkin smiled through a thick white mustache. “From all the Canadian coaches — he’s the most Russian.”
We could have been inside any top professional hockey facility in North America. Equipment carts were parked in bright hallways at rink level that wound past a well-appointed weight room. Through one doorway was a tableau of players draped on massage tables; another threshold led to a little dining room; and a third revealed Keenan, who spent 20 seasons as an NHL coach and general manager, sitting at his desk. Behind his head you could see smokestacks, though more noticeable was the golden-domed Orthodox cathedral gleaming in the sun.
“It’s not a pretty city,” Keenan said. “It’s a blue-collar factory city. But I’m accustomed to it. Part of my upbringing was in Whitby-Oshawa, and that’s a General Motors city. My grandfather worked in General Motors for 50 years, and my father and his two brothers, they all worked in General Motors for 35 years — shift work, the whole deal. It wasn’t foreign to me that all the people here are completely tied into this factory. That’s the base.”
He was referring to the Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works — or Magnitogorskiy Metallurgicheskiy Kombinat, known as MMK — the enormous compound of factories, furnaces, mills, and mines spanning the bank of the Ural River just across from the arena. In the absence of other tall buildings, they constitute the skyline, and that day iridescent clouds lingered above them.
In the late 1920s, Joseph Stalin and his planners identified the mineral-rich but largely unused Magnitnaya Mountain as an ideal place to implement some of their grandest Soviet visions. They saw a planned city that would both fuel and be fueled by its adjoining metallurgical operation; it would be built from the ground up as part of an ambitious five-year plan. Initial blueprints were commissioned and modeled, with the help of Western consultants, after the preeminent steel concern of the times: Gary, Indiana. (Pittsburgh, too, was admired.) When the plant was up and running, officials hoped for a steel output to match that of the entire Soviet Union previously. It was an overly lofty aim, but Magnitogorsk did become a thriving locus of production that still endures today.
Even the hockey club is inextricably linked to the factory: It was founded by the steelworks leaders back in the ’50s, and today, both the team and the business, MMK, are run by billionaire oligarch Viktor Rashnikov.2 Magnitogorsk has long been a proud hockey city: Evgeni Malkin grew up within walking distance of the arena, Nikolai Kulemin also came up through the city’s youth program, and the team won a number of championships in old iterations of Russian hockey leagues.
Dave King, a Canadian coach who spent just over a year in Magnitogorsk and wrote about it in the book King of Russia, confessed: “I’m fascinated by Rashnikov because I’ve heard and read so much about the Russian oligarchs and I can’t seem to get a straight answer about his rise to power in the post-Soviet era — or how he accumulated so much wealth so quickly.”
Now, Metallurg is one of the KHL’s biggest spenders, with the league’s third-highest payroll after SKA Saint Petersburg and Ak Bars Kazan. It’s also a franchise willing to experiment with North American coaches. Dave King was brought on in 2005-06, and Paul Maurice took the job during last year’s lockout-shortened NHL season, which sent many players overseas. After a season, Maurice decided not to return, and Keenan, then working for NBC Sports during the playoffs, got a call about the position. He rang Maurice and grilled him for information about the team — its facilities, personnel, players, etc. — then he flew over to see for himself.
“I found all his history, all his stories,” said Velichkin, explaining the Keenan hire. “I read everything about him, and I analyzed everything, and then gave it to my boss, the president of the club, Mr. Viktor Rashnikov. When the president read all my materials, he said, ‘Oh, I like it.'”
If Velichkin really had found all of these stories, he must have known that as a young man, Keenan had worked his way up through the coaching ranks, with no assignment too small. (At one point, he patrolled the practices of a high school girls’ swim team.) Velichkin would understand just how much of Keenan’s calculated persona was influenced by Bowman, his idol, who gave Keenan that AHL Rochester Americans job when Bowman was the Sabres coach and GM. (“You hated him for 364 days a year,” one of Bowman’s former players, Steve Shutt, said about Bowman. “And on the 365th day you collected your Stanley Cup rings.”)
Velichkin would have no doubt taken note of Keenan’s early successes: the championships in college, junior, and minor league hockey; the two trips to the Stanley Cup final with the Philadelphia Flyers in his first three seasons; the Canada Cup wins in 1987 and 1991; another Cup final with Chicago; and the seven-game series win over Vancouver in 1994 that gave the Rangers their first championship in more than half a century.
But he’d also have read these sorts of takes: “The 36-year-old Keenan emanates all the color and warmth of a bottle of seltzer fresh from the refrigerator.” (1985.) “The majority of Keenan’s players would like to run him down with a Zamboni.” (1990.) “He tears professional hockey teams apart and puts them back together, and he does it with all the warmth and tenderness of one of those guys who club baby seals.” (1995.) And those were just from Sports Illustrated alone!3
Even Wikipedia gets in on the act: “His coaching resume includes abrupt terminations or resignations from coaching or general manager positions, sometimes at bafflingly inopportune, or peak, moments of his career.”
In the ’80s, players on his Philadelphia Flyers and Canada Cup teams referred to Keenan as “Adolf” and “the Führer.” Denis Savard vowed to himself he wouldn’t let Keenan “break” him again. Keenan alienated Brett Hull, Pavel Bure, and Trevor Linden, among others. His Stanley Cup win with the Rangers came in his first and last season with the franchise; his subsequent exit — he fled the remaining four years on his contract — was so swift and acrimonious that he never even spent his allotted day with the Cup.
Even players with whom he remains friendly, like Jeremy Roenick, remember Keenan as “a tyrant, a schoolyard bully, an oldschool coach who tried to motivate players through intimidation, belittlement and fear.” In his memoir, J.R., Roenick recalls some of Keenan’s tactics from back in the day: Wanting to know which players had broken curfew, he’d give a bellhop a Blackhawks hat and have him ask players to autograph it as they came in during the wee hours. Later, he’d take note of the names. (This is straight out of Bowman’s playbook: He’d ask his players for a light so he could check out which bars their matchbooks came from.) Those like Eddie Olczyk, whose life Keenan made miserable during the Rangers’ ’94 Cup season, remember him less charitably.
“The belittling, the berating, the degrading way that he treated a lot of guys, whether it was one-on-one or, probably more disrespectfully, in front of the guys, is what really bothered me,” Olczyk said. “At the end of the day, was it calculated? Absolutely. Did he have a hand in us winning? Absolutely. But I think we would have won even if he didn’t have to be the way he was with certain guys.”
Looking back now, Keenan stopped short of saying he would have done things differently. “I think the best way for me to summarize it is that my principles of coaching have never changed,” he said, “but the methodology has to change over time.” He says that as he’s evolved, so have the players themselves; they’re more coddled in some ways, but less entitled in others, particularly in comparison to some of the high-profile stars with whom he feuded in the ’90s. “We went through a tradition in the NHL,” he says, “where the players were very difficult to coach because they were making excessive amounts of money. And I used to tell them, ‘Just because you make a lot of money doesn’t make you really smart, or it doesn’t make you a really good hockey player. You’ve got to learn your craft, and work at your craft.'”
Keenan, though, chased the money, too, as well as the control. He didn’t just want to coach; he wanted to pick and choose players and make trades. There was barely enough time in the day. In 1995, he told Gary Smith, “Humans overrate sleep. I’ve trained myself to sleep from two to six.” But he now admits that his constant insistence on playing the roles of both general manager and coach simultaneously — as he did in St. Louis, Chicago, and Florida — might not have been ideal.
“It was all-consuming,” he said. “I had no life — zero. I don’t know how I even did it. Seriously — my life was like, get home from a game at one or two in the morning, and then I’d be on the road driving to the stadium and talking on the car phone with the scouts as I was driving at like 6:30. I now think back to it and I’m like, what … did you do? It wasn’t that tough, but it was just so consuming that I probably … after a while, I know I was getting burnt out, and I didn’t do either job justice.”
In 20 seasons, Keenan worked for eight different teams, none for more than four years. After he was let go by Calgary, he turned to television. It was strange to see him on NBC Sports, grinning and joking around with Roenick, when you were used to watching him glare from the bench. Velichkin said when Keenan got to Magnitogorsk, the coach had very few questions, having prepped himself thoroughly before arriving.
“Just the experience of seeing parts of this country — like, this is real Russia here,” Keenan said. “This isn’t Moscow. This is real Russia, where most of these people don’t speak English, and this is how they live. It’s hardworking people.”
On weekdays, as factory workers bustle below, the massive statue of Vladimir Lenin outside the main gates of Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works almost passes for fatherly. It presides over the dutiful chaos like a proud patriarch, one arm outstretched, as if to hold the front door open so all the kids can file inside to wash up for dinner.
When I stood at the figure’s impressive stone base on a Saturday morning, though, the surrounding plaza was mostly empty. The statue, with its stone cloak draped off a stiff elbow, and its resolute middle-distance stare, now looked more like a matador alone in a ring — a giant Bolshevik in a bolero, just waiting for the bull.
Behind me, the two Russian locals who had volunteered to be my ad hoc tour guides regarded Lenin and made visual comparisons of their own. One of them, Pavel Zaitsev, was a gracious and gregarious play-by-play announcer for Metallurg’s local TV affiliate. He spoke perfect English and routinely apologized that it wasn’t better. The other, Vladimir Letuchev, had been introduced to me as “a businessman” and “a friend of the club” the first time we met inside an arena office, and much about him remained cheerfully unclear. “I’m like a dog” was how he had described himself through a translator that day. “I can’t speak English, but I can understand.”
I could do neither with Russian. But as Vladimir ashed his cigarette and made small talk with Pavel, the two of them squinting up through the spitting snowflakes at the former Soviet leader’s looming likeness, I caught a few familiar words that made me perk up.
“He says,” Pavel relayed, “‘Doesn’t Mike Keenan sort of resemble Lenin?'”
I was grateful for the tour, because my first attempt to see the city hadn’t exactly gone well. It started with a hopeless conversation with a well-meaning hotel receptionist that ended when she typed something into Google Translate, turned the screen to me, and nodded politely as I read the word “DANGER.” Things progressed from there. I had ended up walking along a stretch of road adjacent to the river that featured a surprising number of car dealerships, a massive nightclub I originally thought was a furniture store, lots of apartment buildings, an old billboard for the Russian Super League4 and one for a nearby ski resort also owned by Rashnikov, and finally, next to what appeared to be a circus venue, a closed-for-the-season amusement park with dead-eyed elephant rides and apocalyptic-looking swans.
The Russian Super League, the predecessor to the KHL, hasn’t been around since 2007-08.
Vladimir opened the front door of his Chevy TrailBlazer for me. “Big American car!” he boasted. He was wearing a Sochi 2014 sweatshirt, a jacket with an American flag embroidered onto one bicep, and a baseball hat featuring a bald eagle and another American flag. He said he had bought the hat during a trip to Las Vegas shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. There was a deep permanent imprint in the shape of his heel near the Chevy’s gas pedal. Pavel sat behind us, leaning forward to translate Vladimir’s running commentary as we drove across the Ural River, which runs through Magnitogorsk and separates Europe from Asia.
We passed clusters of weathered stand-alone homes and decaying rows of midrise buildings, and based on their proximity to the steelworks, it was easy to imagine the grueling efficiency of the town’s early workers’ daily paths. As the mines flourished (if not necessarily at the rate envisioned by the Soviet functionaries), Magnitogorsk became home to a technical university as well as a teacher’s college. The production was originally intended to serve domestic needs, but as the world tumbled toward war in the late 1930s, Magnitogorsk shifted toward becoming an engine of military supply.
Pavel pointed out several municipal buildings as we continued on toward a town square, joking that — in true Russian fashion — they were all called “palaces.” On a soggy plaza, a World War II tank was mounted on top of a carved-out plaque.
“The sign says, ‘In the Great Patriotic War every second tank and every third shell was built of our steel,'” Pavel read. “‘Produced at our plant.'”
We took a detour down a mining road on our way to see one more monument, Vladimir ignoring various roadblocks as we drove further into work-site territory. Even on a weekend, trains full of rocks rattled past and big yellow trucks with fat wheels prowled the dug-out mountain.
The scale of the landscape combined with the basic nature of the operation — essentially, moving earth around — was almost confounding to the senses; I felt like the hand of some giant cosmic toddler was going to reach down, grab one of the bright, chubby trucks, and plow it into a pile of sand. Pavel later told me that Vladimir’s business involved importing those trucks from Belarus.
One of the first things Keenan did after deciding to coach in Magnitogorsk was make a phone call to an old friend, Mike Pelino.
Keenan and Pelino first crossed paths in the late 1970s, when Pelino was a player on the Oshawa Legionaires Junior B team5 and Keenan was coach. (Keenan was also, at the time, teaching gym classes and coaching swimming and prep-school hockey.) Several years later, Pelino played for Keenan at the University of Toronto, where the team won a Canadian collegiate championship, and in 1991 Keenan made him an assistant coach at the Canada Cup. A decade later, they would pair up behind the bench again with the Florida Panthers, and after that, they both worked on the CBC reality show Making the Cut.6
Also on that team: a teenage Dale Hawerchuk.
Pelino described it as American Idol for hockey players.
Pelino had recently been fired as the coach of the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, and before Keenan received the Metallurg offer, the two had been planning to go to Israel that summer to coach Team Canada at the Maccabi Games.7
Neither man is Jewish, but Keenan’s first wife and daughter are.
“Mike had said, ‘Whenever I get called, or if I ever get called by the NHL again, I’d like to have you come work with me, so I’ll keep you informed if something happens,'” said Pelino, a barrel of a man with lots of smile lines around his eyes. “So he phones me up one day, and he says, ‘Well, there’s a team that wants me to coach them! But it’s in Russia, soooo …'”
“He turned to his wife and said, ‘Well, we got a job! … But it’s in Russia,'” Keenan said.
“Right off the bat I was excited — I mean, first of all, to have the opportunity to work with Mike again, and now all the sudden Russia,” Pelino said. “But I wanted to think about how it was going to impact my family. If it was just me I’d be like, ‘Yeah! I’m there! Let’s go!’ But my family was completely supportive. I didn’t know how my parents would react, but they were the strongest proponents. My dad’s 82, my mom’s gonna be 80, and I could see them saying, ‘Stay close to us,’ but no — my dad said, ‘No! Go! It’s with Mike!'”
“They’re both from the old country, though,” Keenan said, smiling. “His dad’s Croatian and his mom’s Italian.”
All of Pelino’s family — wife, kids, parents — have made the trip out to Russia at some point this season; when I caught up with him late last week on the phone, he said his son and wife were in town for a pair of playoff games. Keenan’s daughter Gayla and his sisters visited when the team was on a road trip in Moscow. His wife, Nola, was and has been particularly supportive, as she happens to be something of a Russian history buff.
“She’s an American from Maine, but for some reason about 10 years ago she started to read about all these czars and this history,” Keenan said. “She knows more history about Russia than the Russians. It was just a fluke, but when I decided to come here it was: Absolutely.”
Keenan and Pelino, along with Swedish goalie coach Tomas Bjuhr, live in the baza, a vestige from the old days of Russian athletics, when training took place year-round and players and staff lived, ate, and hot-tubbed together. Now, the athletes are mostly trusted with their own apartments — most live in the same concierge building in town — but the team-owned baza still stands about a 10-minute drive from the arena.8 It was rebuilt recently, and resembles the kind of dorm you’d find at a nondescript but state-of-the-art college campus. With their big apartments at the ends of the otherwise empty hallways, the coaches’ living situations are not unlike those of professors during the summer. A fourth coach, Ilya Vorobyov, chooses not to live there. The 39-year-old grew up with a father who played and coached hockey in Russia; Vorobyov’s spent more than enough time in bazas over the years.
Keenan said the junior team still sometimes stays there before big games, and that last season, Maurice took the team there during the playoffs once.
Both Keenan’s and Pelino’s wives “commute,” as Keenan put it, visiting for weeks at a time but not permanently relocating. When I visited, Pelino’s wife, Kim, had just left after a weeks-long stay, while Nola Keenan, a substitute teacher who splits time between Maine, Canada, and Florida, was around a little bit longer. When the women are not in Magnitogorsk, conditions at the baza devolve ever so slightly, but the coaches do take turns cooking for one another. (“We each have a special,” Keenan said. “I do a chicken special, Mike does, uh … grilled cheese sandwiches …” He trailed off.)
I asked Pelino how he’d seen Keenan change over the years. He chose his words carefully.
“I think at one point in Mike’s career, he was ‘win at absolutely all costs, whatever it takes,'” he said. “I think now there’s a little more … a different perspective on that. Though that’s still the ultimate goal. But it’s not necessarily as cutthroat or, whatever the word is, as ruthless as it could be.”
As we sat in the coach’s office talking, with Vorobyov searching YouTube for Pavel Datsyuk videos, Keenan’s phone started to beep. “Uh-oh!” Pelino hollered.
“That’s another neat thing that happens here,” Pelino said. “The way we’re hooked up with the bank, when your credit card gets used, you get a text right away.”
“And it dings,” Keenan said.
“And so when our wives are in town and use our credit card …” Pelino began, “we get” — he motioned at the phone, and — as if on cue — it dinged again.
“She’s at the Metro,” Keenan said. “Have you been to the Metro? It’s like Costco. So that’s what that is.” Vorobyov started describing a Datsyuk clip to him that he wanted to show some players — “This one is all hits, all hits, all hits; it’s when guys go to hit him, and he’s quicker” — but Keenan’s phone dinged again, and his face broke into that trademark Jack Nicholson grin. Soon after, Nola called.
“The card went through,” he announced when he hung up, “but they had to do it manually. We’re like, ‘It’s espionage!'”
Russians do a lot of things really well, but up there in the top three or five would be monuments and saunas. Pavel and Vladimir, ever the thoughtful tour guides, took me to a perfect example of each.
First we went to the Rear-Front monument, an enormous work on the bank of the Ural that depicts a steelworker handing a freshly forged sword to a Soviet soldier. The structure is stunning on its own, radiating the ideals of glory and labor and caution and pride, but takes on even larger significance when you learn it’s now considered to be part of a triptych of loosely related monuments that trace the role of the sword through World War II. The others are the iconic, Statue of Liberty–size (and possibly doomed) tribute The Motherland Calls, which rises up in Volgograd to commemorate the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Warrior-Liberator statue in Berlin, which depicts a Soviet soldier carrying a German child as a shattered swastika — destroyed by the sword! — lies at his feet.
Pavel and I looked over the etched names of World War II soldiers and the eternal flame, lodged inside a star, that burned despite the damp falling snow. Vladimir turned the car around and then got out to have a cigarette. When he finished, he smiled. “Banya!” he announced.
“Banya is like church,” Pavel said. “When you are there, no differences matter, and everyone is the same.” We stopped at a market to buy grapes, beer, and nuts — a promising start.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I think my banya mental images were a little too far to the side of “Roman baths.” Instead, we walked in on a little ski chalet of a room, complete with a fire, karaoke-enabled TV, a spread of food, and several coed naked Russians. I was given a little felt hat — “so your hair doesn’t catch on fire,” Vladimir said solemnly — and a ripped piece of floral bedsheet for modesty.
After some small talk and sips of tea laced with Russian honey, which I was told was good for the lungs, I lay on a wooden slab with my face pressed into a branch of fragrant pine needles. Vladimir struck me repeatedly with leafy birch tree branches. In his own felt hat, which came to a little curlicue on the top, he looked like a Bad Keebler Elf. Overwhelmed by the plumes of steam, I prayed I wouldn’t pass out on the table.
I prayed the same thing as I got the first of three unyielding massages from two friends of Vladimir’s, a husband-wife couple named Andrei and Svetlana. They had apparently studied the practice in India, and they lectured me sternly, in Russian, on the failings of my lymphatic system. “You spend too much time in a chair, don’t you?” Svetlana said accusingly, drawing lines with her fingers across the backs of my thighs, as Pavel, wrapped in a floral sheet and standing off to the side, translated. I made a mental note to exercise more when I got back to the U.S.
“Was it coed?” Keenan asked when I mentioned I’d been to the banya a few days later. It was, I said. “You have a bathing suit on?” he asked, alarmed. I did, I half-lied. “Yeah,” he said, relieved. “’Cause Pelino went somewhere like that. And he said it was like going through a car wash!”
In many ways, coaching in Russia, especially in a place like Magnitogorsk, simplifies everything. Baza, rink, repeat. The winter? Not that bad, because you’re always focusing on hockey. The road trips? Long, to be sure — Metallurg’s first-round playoff opponent, Admiral Vladivostok, was an eight-hour flight away, near the border of North Korea — but balanced out in some ways by the schedule, which is shorter and has more midseason breaks than in the NHL.
For someone like Keenan, there are other benefits, too. Here he has no real reputation to precede him; sure, people have heard of “Iron Mike,” but around these parts, that kind of nickname is looked at with respect. “I didn’t know a lot of details,” Evgeny Timkin, a 23-year-old with the team, told me through Igor, the team translator. “I just knew him to be rather popular, with his strong character, his iron character.” Keenan’s to-the-point personality pairs well with Russian sensibilities, and his coaching style — disciplinarian, yet also encouraging of creativity — has suited his Metallurg team.
Another of his young players, 21-year-old defenseman Viktor Antipin (January’s KHL Defenseman of the Month), told me Keenan allowed a European style of play. When I relayed that to Timkin, he remarked: “Yes, I agree. And maybe not even European, but maybe sometimes even a Soviet style.” He added, quickly, that of course he had not played in Soviet times himself, but when I mentioned an offensive zone sequence the night before, when Metallurg’s nonstop passing made the team appear to be on the power play while they were actually even strength, he nodded. “That is what I am speaking about,” he said.
One team observer I spoke with told me that, having heard about Keenan’s image, he was surprised at how laid-back and “calm” the coach was around the arena and offices. When I asked Velichkin what had surprised him most about his new coach, he said, “He very much likes music and likes singing.”9
Some things never change: In college, Keenan was in a band called Nik and the Nice Guys.
And it’s hard not to think that in some ways, the language barrier might be a good thing. I asked Keenan if he’d picked up any Russian. He shook his head. “You know, I contemplated that,” he said. “And I said, no, I’m not gonna do that, because this is a really young group and English has now been declared as the international language of the world … I first went to Finland coaching Team Canada in the late ’70s and nobody could speak English. Now everybody can speak English there, and the same thing’s gonna happen here in 10 years.”
Rather than undermine his authority with flubbed Russian, Keenan conducts his practices in English, same as always. When he needs translations, Vorobyov is there. (As the son of a coach, he’s well-attuned to the cadences of the profession.) Many of the players speak English — some have played in North American leagues, a couple are North American, one is married to a model who spends time in New York and Australia, others learned it in school — but in general, Keenan is otherwise limited. For someone who routinely dealt in the dark arts of manipulative sarcasm and mind games during his days in the NHL, this might be a blessing for everyone. At the very least, it’s made him reconsider some of his old habits.
“You don’t even have to finish asking the question,” he said, cutting me off when I started inquiring about how he now thinks about the foreign players he coached decades ago.10 “Like, boy, are we ever arrogant. No appreciation for the young guys that come over. Here, we have an interpreter helping us. When we go to the grocery store, we’ve got someone to come around. We just throw those kids to the wolves and say, ‘See ya at practice tomorrow.’ They don’t even know what we’re saying.”11
When the Rangers won the Cup in 1994, it was the first time Russian players had been on the winning roster.
Asked about his yearlong stint in Magnitogorsk, Paul Maurice reflected: “Probably the biggest thing I walked away with is a blanket apology to every Russian player I ever coached.”
Don’t mistake Keenan’s lack of Russian, however, for a deficit of cultural interest in the place and its people. He marveled about the way the country has changed over the course of his international hockey career. He likened the women who dress up in high heels and furs just to go to the Magnitogorsk mall to his own working-class parents putting on their finest attire just to have dinner at a friends’ house — those same small signs of proud progress. He loves the travel he’s done while coaching in the KHL. He compared Vladivostok to Vancouver, Zagreb to Prague, and laughed as he mentioned how people park willy-nilly on the sidewalk in Moscow. He described the shock of going from the German autobahn to Russia’s notorious roads. He made me promise to visit the Hermitage Museum when I was in Saint Petersburg.
“It’s been a very interesting journey to see some really old cities, thousands of years old,” he said. “Makes you really appreciate this country. Americans and Canadians, we have no perspective — or very little — in terms of that kind of age of cities. Obviously, that didn’t exist in North America.”
More recently, he’s watched the unrest in Crimea from all sides. The KHL team Donbass was forced to relocate its playoff games to Bratislava as tensions mounted in its home Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Keenan’s wife, Nola, who had been visiting and was going to extend her stay, decided to return to the U.S. And Vorobyov keeps Keenan and Pelino updated on what the local Russian news broadcasts are saying.
“We’ve paid attention to it because Ilya, as you know, can translate for us, and every day we’re asking him about the reports here,” Keenan said. “And I watch CNN at the baza, so it’s interesting to get two perspectives. Putin is a hero right now in Russia, and then you’ve got the perspective from Obama and from the United States, as well as Europe. From a world-politics point of view, it’s fascinating … it makes you wonder what has gone on in history in the past.”
Keenan said he hadn’t had any problems in Russia of late, noting that most Russians see Canadians as foes only when it comes to hockey. But even then, people make exceptions if it means their favorite team has a chance to win. “We think about our team as a very bright future,” said Velichkin, the general manager. “We have rather many good young prospective players … [Keenan] pays a lot of attention to the young players. And to my mind, such international work is much, much better than other work in geopolitics. Because this work — this work, here — makes international people from other countries much, much closer.”
The news was, as usual, playing on TV when I went to the baza for dinner on one of my last nights in Magnitogorsk, but there was nothing about Ukraine; this was November, and the story of the day was a plane crash in relatively nearby Kazan. The elephant in the room was the Yaroslavl crash in 2011 that killed the entire Lokomotiv hockey team, including North American coach Brad McCrimmon. (Ilya Vorobyov’s father, Pyotr, coached Lokomotiv this season but stepped down at the Olympic break and was replaced by Dave King.) Keenan and Pelino agreed they didn’t worry too much during flights — driving freaked them out more.
Nola, the kind of sharp-tongued woman you long to sit next to and gossip with at parties, came out of the kitchen with a dinner of chicken and pasta. Red wine was produced and poured into outrageously large glasses. “To the baza!” Keenan toasted. “To the ’gorsk!” added Pelino. As we ate, Keenan turned to his wife and asked her about a book he wanted to recommend.
“The one written by an American, his parents were a little off-center and they sort of bought into communism, and he came and worked in this mill?” he prompted.
“Behind the Urals by John Scott,” she said, encyclopedically.
“That’s the one,” he said. “He came here and lived when this place was just being built, this factory. He talks about people dying trying to build it, freezing to death, and living in little, like, trailers and going to the grocery store and waiting in line and looking for food rations. It really is interesting.”
Later, I read Behind the Urals, which I feared might be tedious, in the way so many old-timey primary-source documents are. But I found it sharp and illuminating, like a real-life Catch-22 set in the Soviet Union. John Scott’s spare (and unsparing) descriptions hold up almost eerily well: Of one prisoner-engineer named Tishenko, he writes, “He was not a wordy man. He had been [a] responsible engineer for a Belgian company in the Ukraine before the Revolution. He had had a house of his own, played tennis with the British consul, sent his son to Paris to study music. Now he was old. His hair was white. He had heard a great deal of talk since 1917, and had decided that most of it was worthless.”
Scott lives in the worker’s barracks, labors as a welder and ultimately a chemist, meets and marries a Russian woman,12 and in 1937 is kicked out of Magnitogorsk as an increasingly paranoid Stalin tightens policies on foreigners. (Scott notes the efficiency of the purge.) He patronizes the local corner stores, participates in workplace gossip (and, sometimes, mourning), and at one point enjoys a monthlong earned vacation, complete with wacky travel mishaps.
Masha’s first impressions of John Scott in her diary are fantastic: “I had never seen an American … I imagined him as being tall, handsome, and very interesting … The next evening a stringy, intense-looking young fellow came into the office … When Anya told me in a whisper that it was John Scott, I didn’t believe her at first. Then I was very disappointed, and then I became sorry for him … The first American I had ever seen, he looked like a homeless boy.”
As he flies back to Magnitogorsk, he notes that, “from the air, [it] presented a very different picture from Chelyabinsk or Sverdlovsk … no glistening Socialist city, no shining whitewashed factory buildings.” Because of transportation problems, all the passengers have to get from the airport back to the city by foot. Still, Scott is thrilled to return. He writes:
Nevertheless, when we arrived at the crest of the hill and saw Magnitogorsk spread out like a complicated differential geometry problem on a blackboard, crowned by its aura of thick black smoke, everybody in the party felt a distinct sense of pride … Even the least important of the builders, even those who worked under sentence in expiation of alleged crimes, felt that in a very real sense the city was theirs because they had helped to build it.
“I love to teach, I love to coach, I like competition and winning, and I like learning,” Keenan said, explaining why he’d come to Magnitogorsk himself. “One of the first things I wanted to tackle and master and get an insight into was the mentality of the Russian hockey player. There’s a great saying I loved in education — that it’s better to understand than to be understood.”
Illustration by Mike McGrath Jr.