Konstantin Panov: “I dream about victories and developing my players.”

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30.11.2021 в 14:00

Konstantin Panov: “I dream about victories and developing my players.”

The former legendary Traktor forward, who also lined up for many other teams, including Lada, Amur, Dynamo Moscow, SKA, and Yugra Konstantin Panov started his coaching career in 2019, being hired as an assistant by Alexei Zavarukhin who was then coaching the JHL’s Belye Medvedi. He was consequently appointed as the team’s head coach before the 2021-2022 campaign. Recently, the 41-years-old coach was picked as a Stanislav Shumik’s assistant at the JHL Challenge Cup, who was then cancelled. In this interview, Panov talked about his work in Chelyabinsk, his coaching career, and his best moment as a player, both in North America and with Traktor in the Gagarin Cup finals.

“My playing career helped me a lot,” he says about his new venture as a coach. “I passed through an excellent school. I had a chance to learn from real masters of the coaching art, and I absorbed as much as I could. This is helping me a lot now. I try to pass my experience to the younger guys, so that it would help them develop.”

Panov became the Belye Medvedi’s head coach after being an assistant to Alexei Zavarukhin for two years. “He stopped playing earlier than me,” Panov explains. Both players were born in 1980, but Zavarukhin retired after the 2015-2016 campaign with Chelmet Chelyabinsk, while Panov kept on playing until 2019. “He started working as an assistant right away – the sooner you ‘kill’ your player within, the sooner you can start coaching. I admit that in my first couple of seasons as an assistant I was still playing with the guys trying to transmit them my experience. Now I understand that this should go more to the background, and you need to think just as you were the head coach. I learned all this from Zavarukhin – you need to ‘kill’ your player within. There are nuances and subtleties in all this. When I was a player, I just went to the practice, where the coach showed what to do, and I executed it like a soldier. As a coach you already think a lot more, you try to make up the right training process, you select the physical load. There are a lot of things in this job, I still have a lot to learn and study. But it only spurs me on, I try to absorb everything. For example, I watch exercises in the senior team and add something of my own. It’s a creative process.”

Moreover, he had to adapt fast to his new reality. “I wasn’t expecting to be named the team’s head coach,” he says. “You know, I spent most of my career playing with Zavarukhin. We went through the same school, and we see hockey the same way. I try to repeat all the right things we did the couple of years before, adding something from myself, naturally. I changed the number of practices, there are also other subtleties and technicalities. This year we have a whole new team. The guys who played last season were taken to Chelmet in the VHL, and we have many younger guys. They are getting used to me, I am getting used to them, so we are trying to build a team and get the good result that the managers expect.”

One of the most interesting things in coaching youth is to see how the players develop, and also how they differ from each other. “There is a difference between younger and older players on my team,” he admits. “Even if it’s small, it’s palpable and visible. When you look at the guys born in 2002, they are responsible, they listen to themselves and their bodies more. I am very pleased that after two years of work with them I can see tangible results. I am pleased with that. I hope that now that I am the head coach, the result will be the same.”

However, after more than 40 regular-season games, Belye Medvedi still lack consistence and are just the eighth seed of the Eastern Conference. “We have a new team, the guys are young, more than half of the players are just taking their first steps in the JHL,” the coach explains. “We don’t have a permanent roster at this point either, as many guys were called up to the VHL, then they send us back. We, the coaching staff, are trying to give the guys something new, but we understand that often it’s too early because of their age. Right now, we’re minting what needs to be minted. They’re used to having practice at school and they do the same drills that they do like robots. I want them to be ‘thinking’ hockey players. But still, what we had in the summer and what we have now is already a big difference.”

Being a ‘thinking’ player is important to Panov. “It shouldn’t be like they just give the puck away and run,” he explains. “Sometimes the younger guys look like that: a teammate is close, but they look down. I try and explain to them, ‘Guys, get your head up! You’ll see a lot of new things; a lot of things will start to happen.’ Hockey is a team game, although the individuality of some players has a role. Somewhere you must give an accurate pass to your partner and open up. We must teach the guys all the time. We need to play combinational hockey, understanding between forwards and defenders. Take my generation: we knew how to play soccer, basketball, volleyball. Now, if you look, if they play, there’s nothing playful – maybe that’s why there’s a problem with coordination.”

When a player gets to the JHL, it’s a whole another world for them. “Everything is new to them,” Panov says. “The arena, the locker room, atmosphere, doctors, food, uniforms, equipment. The school system doesn’t have any of that in such quantities. They see it and humbly ask, ‘Oh, can I have that?’ Of course, it’s yours! You’re the face of the club, you must look dignified both on and off the court. Plus, the JHL has a different set of requirements than school hockey. They have more control over the regime here, because before the games we always go to the base. In the JHL’s regular season you play two games in a row, then you have a two-day break, then you move on, and play again. In school hockey the teams play on Saturday and Sunday, then again, a two-week break. The calendar in the JHL is more stacked and it’s a little bit different for the kids. Some adapt to it quickly; some need more time.”

However, Traktor and Chelyabinsk always produced high-quality players. From the old times of Sergei Makarov to the more modern stars in Evgeny Kuznetsov or Valery Nichushkin. “If you take the 2002 players who are currently with Chelmet, three or four of them should play at the highest level. Of the current generation, there’s a good trio of forwards born in 2005 who were already called into the national team. If they keep working, they have a good chance. But it all depends on themselves: they need to work, listen to the coaches and develop the best side that is pointed out. There are a lot of star junior players who were lost after a good season for different reasons and circumstances.”

Naturally, Panov set many goals for his first season as the Belye Medvedi’s head coach: “Our task is to develop our players, to strengthen them physically, to increase their game intelligence, to bring them up to the level of the VHL and KHL. But there must be a result as well: without it, there will be no development. As a coach, it’s clear that I set the bar high. And I tell the guys that if you are a professional team, you should aim high. The bar is set high inside the team. But there is no pressure from above: we need to develop players and supply them to the senior team.”

As a player, Panov was a legend for Traktor. He played seven seasons for the team and was a captain for Chelyabinsk in the KHL. “When I was appointed as an assistant, at first it was obvious that the guys didn’t know much about me,” he recalls. “Then they read up on Wikipedia and were surprised. I worked more with the forwards, we had some chemistry: the guys listened and started doing things as I asked. There were times when you said to someone: try it this way, see what happens. Then he would go out, do it exactly as they said, shoot the puck and come back to the bench happy: ‘Coach, I did it!’ When my career was over, I decided to pass on my experience to the kids. I went to the management myself and told them that I would be happy to work with the young guys if the opportunity arose.”

In his youth – a rarity in those years – Panov played three seasons in the WHL with the Kamloops Blazers between 1998-2001. “The language and mentality in North America are different,” he says about his experience in North America. “It was hard in terms of everyday life. In terms of hockey, it wasn’t easy at first either: the ice surfaces were narrower than in Russia. We had real airfields where you could run around and beat everyone if your physique and technique allowed. If you got stuck there, you were right in the middle and had to reconsider things quickly. But it was interesting. I was getting used to it for the first six months. I got drafted by Nashville, went through the rookie camp, then the main training camp, signed a contract and went to the farm club.”

Moving to North America wasn’t an easy decision for Panov. “It was hard for me to make up my mind,” he says. “At the time, I spent all the training camp with the first team, played in the playoffs against Ak Bars, and even scored two goals. I was in a dilemma: to go or not to go. But Sergei Makarov convinced me not to go. It was hard because we didn’t know the language and the environment. We lived with our families; we were given away as orphans,” he laughs. “Me and a Canadian from out of town lived with a family of a firefighter and a 911 dispatcher, they had two small children. This guy and I didn’t know each other’s languages, we simply gestured with our fingers. But it was good that they put me in school and found a Russian-speaking teacher, it helped. After the first year, I already began to understand and speak in bits and pieces. Then I started to communicate, more or less. When I moved to the U.S., I was already living on my own, renting apartments, dealing with banks, shopping, and so on. You couldn’t go anywhere without English there. At first, they other players looked at me like I was an alien,” he laughs again. “Then, when he started doing good things on the ice, they understood that this guy can do something. I scored more than 200 points in two seasons for a reason.”

Today, Panov’s name is engraved with the history of Traktor in the KHL – he was in the team that made it to the Gagarin Cup finals in 2013, losing 2:4 to Dynamo Moscow. “It’s nice when you win, take titles, and then you do it in your hometown. Losing the final of the Gagarin Cup? It’s hockey, there’s no getting around it. It turned out that we made one extra mistake. We sat and grieved a little. But we made it a real holiday for Chelyabinsk. These two seasons, the city lived hockey like never before; I think even more than in the 90s.” Traktor had an excellent lineup in those years, with players like Michael Garnett, Petri Kontiola, Jan Bulis, Kuznetsov, Nichushkin, and Valery Belousov as the head coach. “In the locker room everyone was a leader in his own way, everyone did his job,” he explains. “That’s what brought us a positive result. It’s not for me to judge who the main star was; let the fans talk about it. All of those you mentioned are masters, and we can’t do without stars. But there were also excellent role players. You can’t do without them either. That Traktor could have won the Gagarin Cup. We were going for it, but we were a little unlucky.”

And lastly, as a young head coach, Panov has his dreams for his career. “I dream about victories, about developing kids and watching them later when they reach their peaks. I want to continue to work, to do what I like, that’s the most important thing. I haven’t given much thought to what kind of coach I see myself, a junior or a pro coach. But you need to start somewhere.”

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