About the League
The Steel Foxes’ coach talked about his coaching principles and shared his opinion on the new formula of the JHL’s regular season.
Nikolai Lemtyugov has played for more than fifteen teams during his playing career. He started his career in the old Russian Superleague with CSKA. In the Kontinental Hockey League, he played for Severstal, Ak Bars, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Neftekhimik, Atlant, Traktor, Sibir, Spartak, Avangard, and Yugra. In the VHL he lined up with Neftyanik and Sokol. Moreover, in the American Hockey League, he played for Peoria Rivermen, the former St. Louis Blues’ farm team.
In 2017, Lemtyugov suffered a serious injury, a ruptured spleen. The forward was put into an induced coma for ten days, but he was able to recover and return to the rink. Nikolai spent one more season with Medvescak, then played in the Asian League, Great Britain, and in October 2020 he terminated his playing career.
Lemtyugov has appeared on television as an anchor and expert, held summer camps for young players, and before the start of the 2021-2022 JHL season, he was appointed assistant head coach of the Steel Foxes, Stanislav Shumik. This is the first experience as a coach for the former forward. In the new issue of the JHL ZOOM show, Nikolai Lemtyugov told about how he found himself in the Steel Foxes’ coaching staff, the atmosphere in the team and what he wants to pass on to young hockey players.
He says to be already used to being talked with in a much more formal way in his new life as a coach. “I used to host training and hockey camps in the summer. At first it hurt my ears, but I got used to it,” he explains. He’s happy with his new role behind the bench. “I get a lot of satisfaction from the process, especially when I see that I can help the guys. I didn’t expect it to work out that way, even though we show good results and lead the Eastern Conference.”
However, Lemtyugov didn’t start his coaching career right after retiring as a player. “Last summer I worked at Sport-Express and Yandex.Sport,” he says. “Television is great, but you need a lot of energy to work that way. I was so tired – I was watching NHL games at night, analyzing and writing reports in the morning. I realized that you need to do what you know how to do. I started holding hockey training camps and got a feel for how dynamic it was. Then I found out from reporter Alexei Shevchenko that Magnitogorsk was going to build a team in the VHL. As I already knew one of the team’s executives, Sergei Gomolyako, I called him and offered him my candidacy for the position of an assistant. He said he would think about it and let me know. Then, Alexei told me that Magnitogorsk in the end wouldn’t be create a farm club in the VHL. Then, on May 7, I called Gomolyako again to see if there was any news for me. Three days later, I already signed a contract in Magnitogorsk.”
As Lemtyugov said himself, it wasn’t his first actual experience as a coach, therefore he claimed to be not worried. “I had no fear, my initial goal was to help create a healthy coaching staff,” he said. “As the saying goes, ‘a fish rots from the head down,’ so if there is a conflict in the coaching staff, the players will soak it up like sponges. Everything will get out of control and there will be no result. The players will stop accepting demands, knowing that we can’t work it out amongst ourselves.”
“I’ve been in these situations more than once in my career,” Lemtyugov goes on. “So, the main challenge was to find a common language with the staff, and it’s not an easy task, with five coaches and the administrative unit. Now we have a great team and the result – first place in the Eastern Conference – shows that. The guys see when they can go to work and when they can relax. We’re going to let them do it. We have no disagreements in terms of the training process, we do everything together.”
As a player, Lemtyugov didn’t have an easy career. He’s now trying to explain younger players what to do and what to avoid. “I give the guys examples from my career,” he says. “I can tell them when I thought I was a superstar, where I hit rock bottom, and how I got out from it. I was wrong 60% of the time and 40% of the time I was just in different situations. Our coaching staff try not to exaggerate with authority. If a player didn’t play well, we don’t take him out of the lineup. We work 24/7, the guys write in the evenings and ask something. This is a period when they have to be taken care of, even in terms of life. When a person is not being dealt with, they try to make decisions alone, and they don’t always choose the right one. That's why many players’ careers ended miserably; they were taken in the wrong direction.”
“I could at least cut my list of teams in half,” he talks about his long list of teams changed in his playing career. “Because of my character, I mostly made the wrong choices. I didn’t have people around me who would slap me and say, ‘Listen, do what you’re told’. That’s how it was for me in Kazan: I thought that I deserved more playing time with that roster, when all the stars were playing great. Zinetula Bilyaletdinov explained that I had a different role within the team, but that was not what I thought. I’m very glad that at least near the end of my career I had a good showing and got a feel for what it was all about. I was a completely different person back then: I had already fallen to the bottom, but I got out. And now, I have something to teach the guys, tell them what they can and can’t do. Not only in terms of game moments, but also in terms of everyday life.”
He also feels the need not only to help the younger guys avoid mistakes he had, but also not to go through some bad things from coaching he suffered in his career. “I talk the guys about how many coaches didn’t even give you a second chance. If you fail a game, you go to the reserve squad for two or three games. But we don’t do that. We talk to them, show them videos, explain and let them play a second, and even a third game. If he doesn’t get into the starting lineup, we continue to talk to him and show what he does wrong and what he can do right. We don’t work by the rule ‘if you make a mistake, sit down and don’t play.’ A person always has a chance to improve, to prove that he has a rightful place on the team.”
Modern-day players and coaches, different from a few years ago, usually have active profiles on social media and the likes. However, it looks like the Steel Foxes don’t have much local coverage despite their success. “I talked to local journalists. I asked them why our team is not covered in the regional media. We are in first place almost all season, the players have good numbers,” he says. “But local journalists don’t show any interest. I always say to the guys that they should develop, communicate, be open, and avoid blocking the fans who contact them. They should answer even to negative comments, try to explain to people why, what, and how. The person you’re talking with has any right to their opinion. If they understand – then it’s fine; if they just follow their agenda, then maybe blocking that person is the best choice. Now I am constantly faced with this, but I always react with a smile, even if they discuss me. I respond to any text, and I ask the guys to do that too. As a player, I wasn’t a star, but I was always upfront with the fans, responsible for personal and team results. I never hid, and never went out the back door. If you lost, be kind enough to answer to the people who pay money, come to the rink, and cheer you on.”
Starting from next year, the JHL regular season will change, with the teams split into two divisions. “In any case, something new is always interesting, it will bring a twist to the league and in terms of hockey as well” – Lemtyugov is excited with the upcoming changes. “We’ll see how it goes. We’ve talked a little bit about it in our coaching staff. Right now, the Belye Medvedi are not in the playoffs, but next year they’ll have a competitive team based on guys born in 2005. We might have some problems with that – we will face good teams, while the Belye Medvedi will face the Tyumen Legion. I can remember the fans’ favorite phrase: ‘If you get paid, you must play.’ So, we got paid, and we work. Next year will be a tough one for sure.”