ALEXANDER BARKOV: “CHINESE PROJECT PROVED TO BE GREAT AND PROMISING”

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16.04.2018 в 13:09

ALEXANDER BARKOV: “CHINESE PROJECT PROVED TO BE GREAT AND PROMISING”

Kunlun Red Star Junior head-coach Alexander Barkov speaks about his team’s inaugural season in Junior Hockey League.

- Alexander Edgardovich, this season was unique for the league as well as for Chinese hockey, and, of course, for you personally. Have you ever had at least somewhat similar experience in your career?
- No, of course, I haven’t had anything like it. Although, I did coach young Finnish players back in a day, I worked with U18 and U20 teams. But this project was absolutely special. It was very interesting to work on it.

- What was the most exciting part?
- I guess, see how Chinese players develop and adopt a whole new way of life. They had never played 64 games a season, never practiced so much and at such a professional level, never eaten like that – all in all, they had never lived a hockey life for several months in a row. This is why I think they were excited to be a part of it.

- So you never regretted about signing up for the project?
- No, never! In my opinion it’s a great project and it was very beneficial to Chinese players, who made a huge step forward. But it was just the first step, they still have a lot of room to grow. So it’s an interesting and promising project, I believe.

- It’s about time we spoke about the season. What’s your take on it?
- First of all, we should talk about the goals our team had. One of them was to about the tournament, which is obvious. And the second goal was more important for us at the time after all – ease in Chinese players to professional hockey, teach them the right approach to games, practices and lifestyle. I believe, we were able to achieve that goal. The players became more disciplined and more responsible. They also made a huge step forward in terms of skill. They improved skill-wise and tactics-wise. As a result, some of them were able to become core players of our team.

- Who would you point out first of all?
- Among forwards, it’s first of all Huang Qianyi and Wang Jing. The former played 62 games and averaged about 17 minutes of ice-time, while the latter played 53 games and averaged about 12 minutes of ice-time. These are normal numbers for Top-6 forwards. They also played on our special teams.

Huang Qianyi, who were nicknamed Gretzky, can develop into a good center, while Huang Jing turned out to be a real surprise. The kid was born in 2001 but it times he played such a mature game, that even older players could envy it.

As for defensemen, I’d name Zhang Pengfei and Zhang Dehang. Pengfei actually played all 64 games and he was one of our key defensemen right from the beginning, while Dehang, on the contrary, was rarely making the roster at first but he improved during the season and little by little he earned himself a spot on the roster and never gave it up.

These four guys were our leaders. Others had less game practice and for obvious reasons. They’re young players and it’s not easy for them to adjust to a whole new level. Nevertheless, closer to the end of the season it was obvious that everybody made a certain progress. Players, who struggled getting out of their defensive end at first, learned how to create scoring chances at the other end of the ice. And it’s only going to get better.

- Let’s talk about your other goal – the result.
- Obviously, we wanted to get a good result. First step was to build a competitive team. We had to build from scratch and it’s not always easy, especially in China where the players didn’t understand what was ahead of them; nor did we know what to expect from them. Actually, any team is difficult to build from scratch, and when it comes to junior team, it’s twice as difficult because the market is even more limited than in professional hockey. All good players are within some club’s system. Who is going to give up his potential star all of a sudden? But, nevertheless, I believe that we have built a competitive team of JHL level that can at least battle for a playoff spot.

- At some point your chances of making the playoffs in the Western Conference actually seemed good enough.
- Yes, until New Year’s we were quite happy with our results but than the schedule played a mean trick on us. When the World Juniors came, our Chinese coaches and players had to leave to Bulgaria, where they had a tournament to play.

- How did they do?
- Unfortunately, we didn’t achieve the main goal – only the best team proceeds to higher level and we finished second after Israel. Although, we remained in the same division, so next year we have another shot of making it to the next level.

- Let’s get back to JHL.
- As I said, the World Juniors came at a very unfortunate time for us. We were 7th in our conference when that long pause happened. We traveled to Bulgaria with the Chinese, and what did everyone else had to do? We thought about bringing them with us, so we could at least practice together but we couldn’t do that. So there was only one thing left for us to do – let them go. Can you imagine what it’s like to give a 3-week vacation to a young player? When I talked about it with my colleagues from other teams, they were shocked: “What are you doing? You give these kids two days off and it takes them a week to remember how to play hockey, and you gave them a really long pause”…

Well, after that 3-week pause, we managed to win just two games out of 14. And that’s explainable. Chinese players were tired physically and mentally after the World Juniors, while others had to get back into shape when we had a very important 6-game home stand ahead of us… So the result is more or less logical. But what can we do? The schedule is the way that it is. As you understand, there subjective and objective reasons for everything.

- So it looks like you achieved only one goal out of two this season?
- Yes, but, like I said, the first goal was more important to us. Of course, we wanted to make the playoffs but when we talk about developing Chinese players, we understand that it’s a long term goal. China, as everybody knows, prepares for Winter Olympics in Beijing. And it was in Beijing where the first Olympic camp called Road to 2022 was held. So you see that national development program for the Olympics is underway. The camp was attended also by players from Kunlun Red Star system, who play in KHL, VHL and JHL. Four players from our team were called up and they looked decent. Although, obviously, they were among the youngest players.

- Speaking of the regular season, what stood out for you the most? Perhaps, you had some really good games?
- Obviously, we didn’t do all that well but there were a few things to remember. Usually, it has something to do with the games from Moscow and St. Petersburg, who are traditionally among the strongest teams in the league. If you were able to beat Krasnaya Armiya, or JHC Dynamo Moscow and JHC Dynamo St. Petersburg, you remembered it for a long time. Even though, we didn’t beat them as many times as we wanted, those games still brought us vivid memories, especially when we beat them on the road. For example, we beat Dynamo and SKA-Serebryanye Lvy in St. Petersburg.

I also remember several individual performances. For instance, Huang Qianyi scored four points in a game against Kapitan. It was great to see and very important in the context of what I’d said about Chinese players’ development.

- Do you think the fact that you played your home games in Riga had something to do with the end result? After all, it’s your home rink only technically.
- You know, sometimes I get a strong feeling to give this explanation to our results. I mean, had we played in China, we would have certainly gone very far. But I’m not going to say that. Who knows how it would have been, had we played home and, consequently, in the other conference. On the other hand, you can’t dismiss the fact entirely. Being close to home, having support of your family, friends and fans – it’s very important. Chinese players were homesick and the food they’re accustomed to. The young have unbalanced psyche and their mood changes rapidly. Everything’s great when they win, and everything’s wrong when they lose. ‘I’m sick and tired of this, I want to go home, I want Chinese food…”. Sometimes you could feel that homesickness very strongly and it probably had something to do with our results. But, perhaps, there was an upside to that. The players were developing in tougher conditions. Maybe that’s the reason why we have such a friendly team where everybody understood each other. Import players were helping Chinese players and vice versa. We never had any segregation within the team. Everybody was hanging out with everybody, it was always a mixed group.

- In conclusion: all in all, are you satisfied with the team you built?
- Generally, I am. Maybe it could have been done better but I believe that we built a good team, especially under the circumstances we were given. We had leaders among our import players, some really good Russian guys such as Pavel Krutiy, Vladimir Zababurin, Nikita Strizhov and others. They led Chinese players by example and showed them the way. And they learned from them. Hopefully, now they can teach something younger players themselves. We worked with several Chinese players who born in 2001. Even though they rarely made the team or didn’t make team at all, they are the future of Chinese hockey. Perhaps, one day they will learn from their older teammates, which will be the core of the team. Huang ‘Gretzky’ Qianyi, Wang, Pengfei, Dehang… Although, that’s a distant future. And, like I said, our project is very promising. I hope it has a future.

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