About the League
Tomi Lämsä’s assistant coach Mikhail Vasiliev opens up about Italy, effective club system and goes in depth on every young hockey player.
Mikhail Vasiliev’s playing career began in the early 1980’s in USSR. He played for CSKA Moscow for seven years before joining Torpedo Yaroslavl in 1989-90. In 1990 Vasiliev moved abroad but his destination was a bit unorthodox. The forward went to Italy and played for local teams for ten years, spending a year in Denmark as well.
Vasiliev began his coaching career also in Italy as he was at the helm of Bolcano and Pontebba for five years. However, after 18 years spent abroad he came back to Russia. He has worked with U20 and U18 Team Russia, spent a year in Belarus and focused on Russian club hockey after. Vasiliev worked for three years with Krasnaya Armiya Moscow in Junior Hockey League before landing the head-coach post at Tolpar Ufa in the 2019-20 season. In 2020 he got a promotion – last season he was Tomi Lämsä’s assistant on Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the Kontinental Hockey League.
After Salavat Yulaev was eliminated from Gagarin Cup Playoffs, Vasiliev was temporarily sent down to Tolpar. The coach, whose job is to develop young players for the KHL team, helped Igor Grishin throughout Junior Hockey League playoffs. Tolpar made it to the semifinal round and lost to future Kharlamov Cup champions JHC Dynamo Moscow, ending the season with bronze medals.
In early May Salavat Yulaev extended contracts with many young players from their club system. We reached out to Mikhail Vasiliev via phone as the coach is spending the off-season in Italy with his family. We spoke about his unusual career, Tolpar and the future of the team’s young players on with Salavat Yulaev.
“Italians are very similar to Russians”
— Mikhail Alexandrovich, how did you end up playing in Italy?
- I came here in the year of 1990. I have played for Selva, Bozen 84 and Bolcano. Later on I worked as a coach on Pontebba. I promoted the team to the country’s elite division and won Italy Cup. It’s a team located in a small town on the border with Austria. I’m connected to Italy through my family and daughter, who is going to turn 17 soon. Italy is a beautiful and comfortable country. The people are very kind and they treat Russians well. Actually, Italians are even quite similar to us. They like to have a good time, hang out with friends and cherish family ties.
I first came to Italy back in 1981 as a member of CSKA. We competed in European Champions Cup in Val-Garden, which is incidentally pretty close to where I am right now. Aside from CSKA, Finnish HIFK, Poldi Kladno from Czechoslovakia and Brynäs from Sweden made the final round. Later on CSKA played in Italy twice – in 1983 and 1984. First we had a semifinal game in Bolcano and then the final. I made friends here. And in 1990 I got a chance to play in Italy. Vladislav Tretiak came over here per invitation by local hockey federation. After that I got my offer. The league was strong. Notably, there was a limit for two import players per team. I came here even though I had an offer from Sweden. Italy has always drawn me. First I signed a 2-year contract and played for a Seria B team, which was also a strong league. Then I moved to Varese, which is a short way from Milan, right on the border with Switzerland. I spent two years there, then moved to Bolcano and stayed there. I have never regretted the decision. I speak Italian very well, even though I obviously have an accent. I can talk about anything – just chat or talk about any topic, I can read and write.
— German is pretty common in South Tirol.
- Yes, South Tirol is a great place and a popular tourist attraction. German is quite common here. Many people speak two languages. It’s an autonom province with its own governor. But German is difficult for me. I did my best and took classes three times a week at a language school. I can understand the gist of what I’m told and read sports-related articles. But it’s way easier for me to speak Russian, English or Italian.
- Your coaching career also began in Italy.
- As it’s the case everywhere in the West, it’s a European mentality here. Everything is based on trust, on correct coordination between the club, head-coach and team. Good, strong players used to come here. Such as former Montreal Canadiens player Mark Napierre. He played for Milan Devils. Or Jari Kurri, who also played for Milan, after he terminated his contract in North America. I have never had any problems. Before switching to coaching, I had played and lived here long enough, got to know local mentality and I was ready for anything. I spent a whole year taking coaching classes. I passed my tests. You can’t work as a coach without the necessary license. Actually, it’s valid not only in Italy but throughout European Union. It was hard to study but it was exciting. There were a lot of coaches from Canada and my American friend Lou Vairo. On Saturdays and Sundays we would gather in one of towns where seminars and practical lessons were being held, after which we would report back to our teams.
— And yet you decided to come back and work in Russia.
- After 1990’s hockey in Russia began to grow steadily. As it’s fashionably to say these days, I took on the challenge. I wanted to prove that I was good enough not only to work in a ‘non-hockey country’ but I could also be of service for Russian hockey. Krasnaya Armiya? I was developed by CSKA system. CSKA gave me all the best. The team has always had amazing coaches. Even back in junior hockey school I worked with Vinogradov, Brezhnev, Galamazov and Ragulin. Tikhonov, Kuzkin, Moiseyev and Yurzinov worked with the top team of the system. I was lucky to have worked with such great players as Vladimir Petrov, Boris Mikhailov and Valery Kharlamov. Later on our generation took over – Vyacheslav Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov, Vyacheslav Bykov and Andrei Khomutov. The list of names like these goes on forever. I made a decision to come back because it was exciting for me. I needed to make a step forward and Russian hockey is one of the best in the world.
“Tomi Lämsä speaks pretty decent Russian when there are no cameras and pressure”
— Later on you found yourself within Salavat Yulaev system. At first you were a member of Toros Neftekamsk coaching staff and then you took on the role of head-coach with Tolpar Ufa.
- I took Tolpar’s offer with pleasure due to several reasons. First of all, Salavat Yulaev wasn’t an unfamiliar system to me because I had already worked at Toros. Second of all, I was enticed by the work system, top team factor and promising young players. I didn’t take me long to accept the offer. I knew that I would have great material to work with once I have joined the team. Back then the boys born in 2001 and 2002 won Russia’s junior hockey school championship. This year it was the 2003 team that won it. The young players were just as good as those Krasnaya Armiya has available. And I wasn’t wrong – with the right approach, these kids produce great results. In the 2019-20 season we finished on top of the Eastern Conference [in Junior Hockey League], beating Omskie Yastreby. Moreover, we played great hockey – we were fast and aggressive and the fact couldn’t make me happier. Prior to last season nine players were called to KHL team’s pre-season camp and I had worked with every single one of them. Obviously, the club gave them a lot. They went up the rungs of junior hockey school and junior Russian championship guided by good coaches. I’m certain that several of these players – Danil Alalykin, Rodion Amirov, Shakir Mukhamadullin, Semyon Chistyakov, Alexander Pashin, Alexei Pustozyorov, Yegor Suchkov and Danil Bashkirov – have a bright future ahead of them. They understand modern hockey, its philosophy and they don’t cheat on hockey.
— We’re going to talk about them in depth in a bit. How did you become a member of the KHL team and what responsibilities have you been given?
- After the 2019-20 season I was offered to continue my work as a member of KHL team. After I have spoken to the head-coach, we have set a number of goals for me – I’m responsible for forward and power play unit along with Viktor Kozlov. On top of that, I’m the head of our junior player development, mainly Salavat Yulaev junior hockey school alumni. It’s a very serious job. Many clubs focus on their own junior hockey school product and not every team has them. We continue to go down the path and we have been successful in fact.
- What is the primary language of Salavat Yulaev coaching staff?
- English. We continue to speak it. It’s good in terms of practice. I don’t have any problems with hockey terminology and I feel confident enough in everyday situations. There’s always room to improve. Actually, Tomi Lämsä speaks pretty decent Russian when there are no cameras and pressure. When it comes to work, we all understand each other.
— How did you learn about being sent down to Tolpar coaching staff for the playoffs? Who made the decision? What objectives were you given?
- Developing young players is one of my responsibilities. The core of the team is made up from players born in 2000. I have worked with all of them and I know them well. I work a lot with them, we’re constantly in touch and I help them to adapt. But I wasn’t sent down to Tolpar to strengthen the coaching staff there. My position at the club is junior hockey player development manager. That’s what I do at the club. The boys had a decent regular season, made it to the semifinal round and had a good series against Dynamo – the top team of the Western Conference, which got great reinforcements from their Kontinental Hockey League team. The club made the decision after Salavat Yulaev got eliminated from the playoffs. We discussed the topic and came to a conclusion that it’s going to be useful for me to help the young players get in the right rhythm as soon as possible. The first game against Dynamo turned out to be very difficult but then it got easier after that. The boys acclimated and the series was decent. It could have been better but there you have it. Giving the circumstances, I would like to congratulate Dynamo with the good win.
- What is your take on the season that just ended?
- Well, unfortunately, Salavat lost but the 4-0 outcome doesn’t reflect justly the unfolding of the series. Every game against Ak Bars [Kazan] was intense. We have discussed the games against Kazan with every member of our coaching staff and made certain decisions aimed to help us improve our results next year. It wasn’t an easy time for anyone. I can tell you that it was a bumpy season for both Tolpar and Salavat Yulaev. 16 Tolpar players got Kontinental Hockey League experience. And excluding Danil Aimurzin, everyone played more than a couple of games. This goes to show the effectiveness of the club system. Obviously, the boys still have a lot of work ahead of them and they need to improve their play. We prepare our players for that. As a result, the group of players born in 2001 and 2002 have already been called up to KHL team for pre-season camp. It’s going to be difficult for some to adjust to men’s hockey but that’s what our VHL team is there for. The boys can get good game experience there. And that’s great. That means the club vertical works.
- How different is your job at KHL team comparing to that at JHL team?
- It’s the same as anywhere else. Head-coach, if he’s being trusted, has the advantage of making independent decisions. These decisions are right at the given moment and we can discuss if it was truly the right way to go afterwards. That’s how head-coach’s job is different from that of assistant coach’s. Everyone on coaching staff on any team participates in discussion on this or that matter. We all work scrupulously but it’s the head-coach who makes the final call. It was me who made such calls on Tolpar. On Salavat Yulaev it’s up to the team’s head-coach Tomi Lämsä to make such decisions.
- What is the difference between Kontinental Hockey League and Junior Hockey League hockey?
- Young players are more passionate and to a certain extent not very well-educated. Competing in Junior Hockey League is a huge step forward in terms of honing your both skillsets – technical and tactical. Junior Hockey League hockey is less structure-based. In my opinion, coaches should trust their players. The latter need to be given the right to make mistakes. They shouldn’t be punished for mistakes. It’s the coach’s job to give advice and adjust certain things instead of just benching players. The price of mistake augments in men’s game but they still happen. Even the greatest players make mistakes and they need to be trusted. They need to have the right to make mistakes. When I played on CSKA, older players were always going easy on me. They would give me advice and help out. Everyone learns his lesson. It comes with experience.
— Is winning bronze a success for Tolpar?
- Last year we also won bronze, even though the tournament was cancelled due to the pandemic. The five playoff games we had last season gave the team a great emotional boost. I’m convinced that we could have done better that year. We wanted to improve on the result but I can’t say that we were futile in the 2020-21 season. Seven or eight current Tolpar players deserve to be on KHL team. It’s the main result of the work our Junior Hockey League team has done along with Salavat Yulaev system. We chose the right direction with our development program.
- Is it right to say that you are involved in every rung of the club vertical?
- We come up with a united season preparation plan. We’re always in touch with our junior hockey school coaches. I tell them their objectives, how hockey is developing in the world, what drills they should run and what qualities they need to improve. We also gave out lections on planning. We have to give credit to the club management – everyone understands how important the work is. Everyone – I, Salavat Yulaev head-coach, sports director Vasily Chizhov and general director Alexander Kurnosov – comes to Tolpar games. Club president Rinat Bashirov is very interested in our junior team’s affaires. It’s not a rare sight to catch him at Tolpar games. The players must cherish that. To be honest with you, I have seen it only at CSKA.
- Tolpar got off to a confident start in the series against Mamonty Yugry Khanty-Mansiysk but the opposition almost dragged you into Game 5. What happened in Game 4?
- It’s junior hockey. We can see things like that happen not only in Junior Hockey League but even at World Juniors. A team can have a 3-0 lead and then – bam! – they lose 5-3. Coaches keep telling that to their players all the time. I enjoyed the series against Chayka [Nizhny Novgorod] more. The team won the regular season in the Eastern Conference. They have a very energetic team. I know their head-coach pretty well. It was a tight series, excluding several mistakes over the course of some games. I followed the series closer – because I had the time to come to games in Ufa. It was obvious that the series against Mamonety Yugry has left its mark. The boys have learned their lesson.
- You began the series against Chayka with a confident 4-1 win. But you lost Game 2 8-2. What is your take on the reason behind the result?
- It’s difficult to define the true reason. Sometimes things like that just happen. The 8-2 outcome doesn’t justly reflect what was really going on on the ice. Perhaps, the boys reached a breaking point. It happens. We played well in the following two games. I enjoyed them.
- How important of a factor in reaching the semifinal were the reinforcements you got from VHL and KHL?
- It played a decent role. But then again – when a Kontinental Hockey League team player joins Junior Hockey League team, some expect him to beat everyone in his way score five goals in a game. The boys had the right approach, they gave everything they had and it’s something I can always be pleased with. They had a tough season and they were disappointed. Having said that, they were without a doubt of help to our team. They were helpful and did everything they were asked to do.
- And yet certain hockey writers believe that your young stars failed the playoffs.
- Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. We shouldn’t give out tags like that, for certain. What goes on within the team is not seen by any journalist. Sure, some have expressed their opinions and it can be both – helpful and not. Perhaps, the coach will read something and understand that it was the right thing. Perhaps, it’s not. You have to go easy on whatever journalists write.
- You lost Game 1 to JHC Dynamo Moscow but the following games ended only in shootout and overtime. What did Tolpar do right to create problems for the future champions?
- The boys were nervous. After all they were up against the top team of the Western Conference. Many scoring chances were illogical. For example, certain situations did not lead to goals in the Eastern Conference and it wasn’t the case in that particular series. The boys did a great job. They had the right approach. They had their scoring chances. We lost Game 2 in shootout but I don’t believe it to be a lottery of some kind. It’s a display of skill. We expected to win in Game 3. Had we done that, the series almost would have been tied 0-0. We can list different reasons but it would be in vain. Although, I believe, we should have the same rules regarding coach’s challenges. They should be the same as they in Kontinental Hockey League. After all, we all want to move forward and improve.
— Tolpar finished fourth in the league in power play conversion rate in the playoffs. However, Dynamo was taking very penalties in the series. Was that a factor in your loss?
- I have to give a shoutout to the referees. I have nothing against the way they officiated. Every penalty was justified and every team was given the absolute equal treatment. Officials didn’t interfere with the flow of the game. They didn’t decide its fate. It was completely up to the players. As for answering your question, I would say that playoff games are different than regular season games, even though the difference isn’t all that great. You’re being studied. The opposition does everything they can to cancel your upsides. Obviously, we would have liked to get more power play opportunities. But what can you do.
- Was Dynamo actually that much better than every other team?
- You have to look at it complexly. They have good players and they will have a chance to prove their worth in KHL. Dynamo’s club vertical works well too. They had a great goaltending line. Dynamo is a good and well-balanced team. But Tolpar wasn’t too shabby either.
- How come Eastern teams have a hard time competing against Western teams?
- Every team has a certain plan for the pre-season preparation. It would have been great if Eastern Conference teams played not only against each other but, for example, competed at tournaments in Balashikha with Krasnaya Armiya Moscow, JHC Dynamo Moscow, Loko Yaroslavl and Krylia Sovetov Moscow. You have to play against strong opponents. Games like these are important for the development of our young players. They have to understand what they should try to achieve. So that they wouldn’t play outside of their town’s territory just twice a year. That’s part of the reason why the East has historically struggled against the West. But the exact opposite was true when I coached Krasnaya Armiya. We did not have an easy time against Belye Medvedi Chelyabinsk. Back then Anvar Gatiyatulin worked with the team. We edged out of the playoffs in Game 4 on home ice.
— Nikita Asylayev scored 15 goals in the regular season and yet he didn’t get a single tally in the playoffs. What happened?
- As a coach, I’m not all too familiar with him. But I have seen his style of play. I followed him. Nikita is a very useful player. Not only should he be given credit for scoring 15 goals in the regular season, he also led the league in hits. Asylayev does what he does best. And whenever he gets a chance, he can score, too.
- How did Sergei Varlov, who spent the entire season in VHL, helped your team?
- Sergei changed his work approach. He became more mature. He started with a few regular season games after a very intense year in VHL. He was adjusting to the play, which is a little different in Junior Hockey League. Later on he got his legs going for him and he played with confidence. Tomi Lämsä noticed him. He is now on the extended list of invitees for Salavat Yulaev pre-season camp. These days you can be 25 years old and still be regarded as a young and promising player, whereas back in the day you were either good enough at 18 or it was over. Sergei has done a great job. I would consider this season a positive for him.
- Pavel Yelizarov led defensemen in points but finished the playoffs as a negative in plus/minus category. How would you explain that?
- His season was a bit bumpy, too. When Yelizarov would go to VHL to strengthen the team or get game experience, he was a bit out of sync in a few games. He’s a very responsible player and man. He took it hard. He’s a team leader but after he got sick with coronavirus, it was tough for him to get back in the rhythm. Late in the regular season he had a tight schedule. Besides, he was spending a lot of time on ice – he averaged about 22 minutes a game. It’s not a critical point for a defenseman but it’s still a pretty heavy workload. On top of that, he was on a penalty kill unit and it’s something we need to improve upon as a team.
- Sergei Safin-Tregubov played both in Junior Hockey League and VHL. What is your take on his offensive and defensive sides of the game?
- Knowing his potential, he made a step back. That, or he remained at the same level. We expected him to make progress. We hoped he would be able to make a step forward. What were the reasons? There were plenty of them. Everyday life affects hockey a lot – it makes up 25 or 30 percent of an athlete’s success. The way he prepares for the games, what he eats, the way he recovers. Perhaps, that was the reason that Sergei slowed down a little. But he did extend his contract so I think he’s going to have a good season in VHL. Our club’s policy is to give priority to our junior hockey school alumni. That goes for both Toros and Salavat Yulaev if we have the opportunity.
- Why do his numbers go down in the playoffs after the productivity that he showed in the regular season?
- Getting points is not the most essential thing for a defenseman. Plus/minus category is a different. If a player keeps it on the positive side, that means everything is going well. If a defenseman can be solid on the backend, the points will come. It’s enough to play well and read the play, and points will soon happen.
- Will he be able to bring his signature hip-checks to men’s hockey?
- This is what makes junior hockey so great – everyone notices that! It’s one way to stop an opponent. Hip-checks were quite in fashion back in the day as well. For example, Viktor Kuzkin, Vitaly Davydov and Valery Vasiliev went for them. It’s one of the elements of Safin-Tregubov’s game. And it’s definitely going to stay that way.
- Safin-Tregubov is already 19 years old but he still plays in full-face protection mask. How do you like it?
- This is his personal decision. That’s just what he feels like doing at the moment. There’s really nothing to it. It’s not illegal. Let him play with the mask. Maybe he just feels more comfortable like that. Perhaps, he’s going to switch to visor later on.
- Does that mean that Salavat Yulaev coaching staff won’t persist on making him switch to visor?
- Absolutely not. Hockey player must make his own decisions regarding what’s comfortable and safe for him. It would be the same thing if we were to tell a hockey player that he must play in skates of a certain brand and no other.
- Are there jokes around the dressing-room regarding his Portuguese heritage?
- I know it’s where he comes from. As a matter of fact, Sergei is pretty good at soccer. It’s a great thing for a hockey player. And since he’s got that Portuguese blood in him, you can image how emotional he gets (smiles). We are all different people. Perhaps, no one on coaching staff teases him about it but some of the boys do. If we’re going to get a hockey player from Brasil, no one is going to be against it. Actually, Igor Larionov used to play soccer for Team Moscow Region back in the day. That helped him to develop his game intellect.
- How would you grade Rodion Amirov’s progress?
- We believe in him and trust him. Rodion was a part of our power play team, even though some believed he was too young for that. It’s a huge responsibility. So he’s getting older and more mature. He’s becoming a solid player. Everyone has his own timeframe for maturing. It takes longer for some and it’s faster for the other. He was getting pretty decent ice-time and it was well-deserved. No one is going to get ice-time just because – especially on Salavat Yulaev. Certainly, sometimes he would make, so to say, childish mistakes. But players of that age must have a right to make them. It’s not the end of the world. I’m certain he’s got a bright future ahead of him. Amirov will have a lot of successful games.
- Why hasn’t Sergei Suchkov been able to get to Amirov’s level yet?
- I believe, he definitely has either Brazilian or Italian blood in him. Suchkov has so much energy and will. He always has that fire in his eyes. He’s even vulnerable at times. If something doesn’t go his way, he takes it pretty hard. But that’s a good thing. We all expect him to make progress. I’m certain that Suchkov will be getting more ice-time. He has proven to be a great guy and everyone likes him on the team. Sometimes young players get too intense because they don’t want to make any mistakes and everyone has his own vision and character. Yegor was a really good fit for our team. I wish him to mature sooner as a hockey player and to eliminate unnecessary actions from his game. With the kind of energy that he’s overflown with it’s important to find the right channel for it. He listens to our recommendations and he follows them. Which is great in of itself.
— Danil Bashkirov showed good productivity at junior hockey level. He has a great shot and was called up to Team Russia for Eurohockeytour. Why does his statistics in Kontinental Hockey League and World Juniors was so different from Junior Hockey League?
- I absolutely disagree that there’s anything wrong with Bashkirov. He is a part of the core of our KHL team. He has a role that he plays at a very good level. Just as Amirov, Danil has a great promise to develop into a quality player with a good future in hockey. But I don’t want to pump his tires to much so that he wouldn’t get carried away. Otherwise, I’m going to get him diver’s boots for his birthday (laughs). He has to continue to work hard.
— Loans are now legal in Kontinental Hockey League. Will Salavat Yulaev consider a possibility of loaning out its young players for their development?
- It’s something the head-coach and club management have to decide. Implementing the loan system is a good thing. A player, who doesn’t get enough ice-time on our team or somewhere else, can be beneficial to some other team and average 12-15 minutes a game. That’s useful for his progress.
- Salavat Yulaev called up a lot of players from Tolpar and Toros over the course of the season. Can they be a vital part of the team right now?
- Absolutely. Let’s take last season as an example. The boys, who spent the pre-season camp with us, went on to play good and decent games. I’m not even talking about Bashkirov, Amirov and Mukhamadullin. Our young corps should give a push to the ‘senators’ of our KHL team so they would work even harder. We have talented players. They have hockey IQ and see the ice pretty well. So we’re going to be only happy if they can show progress and realize what they are expected of.
- Salavat Yulaev coaching staff definitely has competing for Gagarin Cup as one of their goals. How are you going to be able to pursue the highest goals at the same time as developing the club’s talented players, of which there are a lot in the system, which is a necessity?
- We have one goal – it’s winning the Gagarin Cup. It’s a great goal and that’s the direction we should take. I don’t see a huge problem in achieving the objective, while developing young players for the KHL team at the same time. The boys are only going to get better under these conditions. I don’t see them being afraid of anything. A lot of them praise the experience they’re getting. And there are so many players who fail miserably in the playoffs, including import players! There are plenty of examples! And I’m talking about full-fledged hockey players right now. If someone’s going to tell me that Danil Bashkirov or Rodion Amirov failed in KHL playoffs, I’m personally going to invite the person to the dressing-room so that they would see the ambience in there for themselves. So they would see how the players carry themselves and how they treat their work. You have to trust your young players. You shouldn’t reprimand it. Certainly, we would like the things to go a little better but there are objectives reasons why this isn’t happening. Such as the coronavirus, which has affected everyone to a certain degree. There were also injuries. You have to put more trust in your young players – that is without the slightest doubt the way to go. You have to work hard and see the potential in them, and develop their strong sides. We can talk at length what Sidney Crosby and other top players of the world need to improve upon. There are maybe five ideal hockey players on the planet. We have to see their best sides and develop them. And when there is a problem, we have to fix it and cancel it out with the upsides.
— How do you plan to use young players in the upcoming season?
- A certain number of them already had their chance – notably, not just on our KHL team. Some have pounced on their chance, while some did not. Our boys did, so that means we have to believe in them. We have to give them another chance so they would continue to improve. Our young players have potential, which we need to scrupulously develop and improve themselves. You have to realize everyday that everything you do is done by you and your coach is there just to help. Only self-discipline, self-respect and self-love in the good sense of the word can help you improve. Russian hockey needs young players like them.