VITALY SOLOVYOV: “I’M JUST HAPPY TO DO WHAT I LOVE!”

VITALY SOLOVYOV: “I’M JUST HAPPY TO DO WHAT I LOVE!”
Interview
24.10.2019 в 16:00
VITALY SOLOVYOV: “I’M JUST HAPPY TO DO WHAT I LOVE!”
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Parimatch Junior Hockey League season kicked off almost two months ago. Avto Yekaterinburg are among the top teams of the Eastern Conference. The team won silver medals last year and was just a stone’s throw away from winning championship title. Avto went through some changes in the off-season but Yekaterinburg coaching staff still expects not only make the playoffs but go for a deep run in there, while continuing to develop players. Head-coach Vitaly Solovyov speaks about the aftertaste of the final series, new goals and difficulties that young players have to endure.

- Vitaly Yevgenyevich, let’s talk about last season when your team re-wrote Yekaterinburg junior hockey history. What did you feel in the last minutes of the last game?
- It’s a tough one. I believed in our team right till the end. I believed that we could turn the game around. Besides, it was a close game. While we had the lead in Game 6, we didn’t play as well as the opponent but in the final game we battled till the end and did our best. After that game I just thanked my team. They still did an amazing job. We had a team where no one panicked, didn’t throw a fit and yelled at one another. We were united. It’s always tough to lose a cup game. And yet after the final buzzer of the final game, which we lost, I was proud of the boys and the team.

- Are you still frustrated because of the loss?
- Losing is always losing, obviously. We were a step away from winning the championship. It was hard on the boys, it was hard on us. But as they say – there’s room to grow.

- How long have you thought about the finals? What did your team lack?
- It took me a while to get over it, I was blow for me. I analyzed my mistakes in some games. We played against a more skilled team. It’s no coincidence that six players from that team went on to get drafted by NHL teams, while we had just one. I’m not going to talk about luck, let’s not anger hockey gods. We were getting lucky bounces all through the playoffs. Sometimes we lacked skill and sometimes we lacked confidence because for the boys and myself it was the first success of such caliber.

- What led you to that success?
- The boys proved time and again during the season that they deserve to win medals. They improved as the season went on and honed their skills. When we finished second in our division in the East, we had a feeling that the boys were ready for something bigger, that they were ready to get to another level because they had never achieved anything like that. They were winning and got so deep because they had a great group of guys.

- Would you say getting silver is more of a win or a loss for Yekaterinburg?
- I would say it’s more of a win because we came into the playoffs as a dark horse and got so deep because we managed to put together a great team. Our management gave us everything we needed. The team, coaching staff and management – we were all in this together.

- Are you frustrated that Eastern teams don’t face Western teams in the regular season?
- There are strong teams in the West and in the East. There are no interconference games right now but it’s exciting to play against the West. We faced a Western team in the pre-season. Their brand of hockey is a little different. But I can’t say for sure that we’re a better team. Yes, Western team win more often but even Loko have players who were born in our region. We played against St. Petersburg and Yaroslavl and their teams had players who began playing hockey here – in Tyumen and Khanty-Mansiysk, for example.

- Avto roster went through a lot of changes. Top players left the team and got replaced by young players. And yet your team plays well. What’s the secret?
- Last season’s spirit still floats in the dressing-room. There are still players on the team from that season, albeit just a handful. We wait for our injured players to get healthy again because we currently play without some of our key forwards. I’d rather not comment on the skill level of this team just yet because none of our players have good stats. We win because we stick to our gameplan and commitment. Sometimes we have to grind our way to win, sometimes the boys block shots and goalies play well. It’s a new team, so it’s difficult for everyone. We haven’t had an easy win yet.

- Do you expect your team to be at its best when your top players return?
- At least, that’s what we’re hoping for. Zakharov, Sedod, Tyutyayev – these are the guys who were key for us last season. Obviously, we can’t expect them to deliver right away, they’re going to have to adjust first. But these are the guys who played at a certain level last season and made it to the finals.

- What’s modern Avto is like? What can be expected of the team?
- While last year we had a five lines from the previous season and got some players from YHL, who played well at that level, this season it’s almost a brand new team. We expect more from it than it currently shows. The rookies still need to acquire that taste for winning. They don’t feel responsible for the outcome just yet. Their approach is more like, ‘Winning is good and if we lose – we’re going to win tomorrow’. They don’t get upset too much. Last year we had a team that had a taste for winning after successful games. We hope that we can re-create that so the boys would play hard to win in every game, thriving to be successful.

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- Are you happy with the level of hockey your team puts forward right now?
- Can I be honest? I’m not! They struggle right now. I don’t see the level of play I want to see. It’s good that we stay in the top half of the table. It looked rather grim in the pre-season. They really struggled after going through the heavy workload we gave them. Right now some things work and some don’t. It’s not very impressive, to be honest. But it’s the adjustment period. I want our guys to be more aggressive and play with more confidence. Our scoring is low so far.

- How did you like the soldout crowds in the playoffs?
- It was a grand atmosphere in the playoffs (smiles). We’re very grateful to out fans. It was amazing! It’s really something to play in front of a soldout crowd. I don’t pay much attention to the stands right now but I feel like there are more fans there than in the early days of last season. Obviously, our fans are a little spoiled because Avtomobilist is the #1 team around these parts but playoffs are always great.

- Some players put their money on their junior hockey school alumni. Is Yekaterinburg one of them?
- There was a time when if a player dedicated his whole life to one time, it was considered a good thing, especially if the player was an alumni of a local junior school. It’s different now. But if I were to draw comparisons with Lokomotiv, they sign up top players to their junior hockey school. They have built a network a long time ago. Obviously, we have high hopes for our players. They develop little by little and get their feet wet in JHL. Our goal is to develop them for our pro team, especially because we have a great club vertical now. We have a VHL affiliate and those players who played for us in JHL playoffs last season continue developing there. Our club has a great system! Hopefully, we’re going to see more of our alumni on our pro team.

- What are the goals for your team after such a successful last season?
- Our priority is developing players for our KHL team – Avtomobilist. Perhaps, through VHL’s Gornyak. But if our goal is to develop players, the players have to be winners. They have to have the winner’s spirit and it’s not going to come without trophies and medals. Avtomobilist have ambitious goals right now. Only leaders can join the team and one becomes a leader through winning.

- Is winning a medal one of Avto goals?
- But of course! You always have to set the bar as high as possible! Obviously, there are more skilled teams in the league but as Vladimir Galkin said after defeating SKA-1946, “Order beats skills”. That’s what it was like for us.

- Do you know a secret how to get into JHL and become a regular?
- Grind it! Most importantly – you have to really want to get there. We always tell our players that we demand them to really want to win. They have to grind it out there for the 15-20 seconds that they’re on the ice. They have to pounce on the opportunity and battle for a roster spot. They need to go into a bout, not just a hockey game. The coaching staff is going to see and will increase their ice-time.

- How can a junior player adjust to KHL?
- First, you have to really want to go further. Keep your head down and don’t think you’ve already become a hockey player. The moment they think they made it hockey – even after they just joined a JHL team after a junior hockey school – that’s where they end as hockey players. Some think they’re hotshots when they make it to KHL. A lot of players are lost at this level.

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- What can one do to avoid it?
- It’s youthful exuberance. There not quite men yet but are man-like. They become more mature and start having girlfriends. Sometimes they deny certain things. We talk to them and have one-on-one chats, if they still don’t understand, sometimes we penalize them. We try to make them understand that it was them who chose this profession, we didn’t drag them into it. If you on the path, you have to go down the road till the end.

- You have experience coaching kids. What are the differences between coaching kids and JHL team? What is the biggest issue in adjusting to JHL?
- I didn’t work with little kids. I mainly coached graduation teams in junior hockey school. There’s a big difference. At a kid hockey level if you’re a leader, you’re always going to be on the ice and play, you’re irreplaceable. In JHL there’s a 4-year age difference. You have to edge your older teammates out of the line-up. If you’re ready for it, you will go further. But there are some who think, “Oh, hey, these guys are older, anyway, I’m just going to bide my time on the 4th line”. That guy is never going to make it out of the 4th line. Some players fail to adjust because the age difference comes in play. They run into the reality that there are older players in JHL. Several players who were born in 2002 joined our team and we still have those who were born in 1999. They need to squeeze out of the line-up and it’s 

- What qualities to you cherish in your players?
- Honesty, commitment and work ethic. If you make a mistake but it’s obvious that you did your best, it’s one thing. But if you dog it at practices and games, it’s another thing. I’ve always been a hard-worker and got everything I got through it.

- What kind of coach our you? How would you describe your coaching style?
- Some say I’m too soft. My coaching style is whip and reward. I have two sons and, let’s put it this way, I have coached them (smiles).

- How do you motivate your team?
- It’s the same routine all through the season. In the dressing-room I try to talk straight and work with video. In the playoffs, especially in the semifinals and finals, I was strictly to the point. You have to see what state the team is in. When the game is tough, I can butt in a joke or two. After the game in Ufa [which lasted 122 minutes and 54 seconds, setting a new JHL record] I was all jokes. After Game 6 of the finals it was really tense in the dressing-room. Sometimes I had to raise my voice because we had Game 7 ahead of us and nothing was lost yet. I had to shake them up.

- Is it difficult to coach a junior team?
- I haven’t really thought about that. I’m just happy to do what I love!

- What are your coaching goals?
- Every French soldier carries a marshal’s baton in his knapsack. Of course, I want to move forward to VHL and KHL… Obviously, these are far-fetched plans. Right now I have to win with the boys. I expect to have a good season and go as deep as possible.

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