Friday, December 30, 2005

2006 World Junior Hockey Championship
Day 4: Searching for Evgeni Malkin


It was a long day at the rink today, one that began at 11 a.m. when I learned Russia's junior team had cancelled their practice and wouldn't be available for game-day interviews.

The plan had been to finally pin down the enigmatic Evgeni Malkin for an interview, learn a little bit more about him — at least more than what's been written so far — and, yes, write something for Friday's paper.

Easier said than done.

Team Russia has continued to deny interview requests with Malkin, adopting a sort of 'code of silence' that was in effect even for the postgame after Russia's 3-1 win over Latvia tonight. Both team's coaches addressed the media (through translators) at the press conference, but following that sitdown, we were informed the Russian players had been whisked out the backdoor and onto the team bus. My night ended standing in the cold with the Vancouver Sun's Gary Kingston, searching for Evgeni Malkin.

Let's just say it's not how I'd recommend spending many Thursday nights.

The lockdown on Malkin and many of the other Russian players is perplexing, especially considering how small the media contingent for these early tournament games is. I highly doubt the team will be able to shelter their reluctant star quite so much when the games shift to Vancouver, so why not acclimatize him with the 'tame' version of the media gauntlet?

Of course, there are a variety of reasons Malkin is personally loathe to address the media, not the least of which is his less-than-perfect grasp of the English language. He's also reported to not be a fan of the spotlight, another idiosyncrasy he'll have to shed when he joins the Pittsburgh Penguins as expected next year.

Bring on the Swedes

Luckily, I'd spent part of the afternoon chatting with some members of Sweden's entry at the world juniors, including the club's entertaining head coach, Torgny Bendelin. The team's storyline has been the same everywhere you read it — no medals since 1996 in Boston. That's an awfully long drought for one of hockey's supposed superpowers.

Bendelin said there's been a culture of losing with the club for so long, something that he's continuing to work on in his third year behind the bench.

From Friday's Globe and Mail:

Sweden's straight-talking head coach, Torgny Bendelin, knows the answer, at least in part, and he doesn't mince words.

"The reason is, we haven't been good enough," said Bendelin, in his third year as the national junior team's head coach. "That's the big reason.

"The only thing I can say is that 2½ years back, we began working really, really hard to get a change in our development program. We have increased every year [from an eighth-place finish in 2003 to sixth last year in Grand Forks, N.D.] and the big goal is to keep on increasing."

Granted, a sixth place finish is nothing to crow about, but Bendelin's club did look mighty good in a 3-2 win over the Czech Republic on Wednesday night.

Two of the players I chatted with from Team Sweden were Johannes Salmonsson, who was one of the world junior tournament's top scorers last year in Grand Forks, and just-turned-18 Nicklas Backstrom, who has been called Sweden's next great offensive weapon and will be a top 10 pick at the 2006 entry draft.

Salmonsson, a second round pick by the Penguins in 2004, has made the jump this season to the WHL's Spokane Chiefs, where even he admits he's had a trying season. He also talked a little about how the national junior team receives very little coverage in Sweden, the result of so many fruitless years at the tournament.

"We have a little spot in the big newspapers back home, but that’s pretty much it," he said. "Because we have been so bad the last couple years — and that’s often how it works with sports. If you’re playing good, they pay attention to you, and if you’re not, they don’t care. I think if we have a good tournament now, I think we’ll have a much bigger interest in the media in Sweden."

Despite how poorly the team has fared at the tournament the last decade, Salmonsson said his third time at the tournament was just as worthwhile. "It’s so exciting. This is the funnest tournament you ever could play — there’s always a big crowd and a very, very high skill level in the games."

(Speaking of the crowds, they've been fantastic in Kamloops despite the fact only European countries have been competing, including the overmatched Latvians twice.)

Two years younger than Salmonsson, Backstrom is obviously still getting used to the limelight. Despite the fact he became the fourth-youngest player to ever suit up in the Swedish Elite League last season, he's a little green when it comes to interviews, but I give the kid credit for talking to a big, scary (there's a laugher) Globe and Mail reporter — even when he's learning the language. Perhaps he and Malkin should be introduced.

Even in talking about the draft, one can sense Backstrom's apprehension. "I don’t think about it," he said. "I just play my game out on the rink, and if they want to rank me for the draft... I don’t want to think about it."

One can imagine, then, that the comparisons to Peter Forsberg might be a little heady to hear. (Although he says he tries not to think about that as well. That's a lot of not thinking.)

Farewell B.C.

Well, my stay in Kamloops amounted to five days, which is a shame considering all of the great hockey being played and the excitement going on. Had it not been Christmas, I probably would have spent every day at the rink — it is, after all, a rare thing that the world junior tournament is in your backyard.

Here's hoping that next year at this time I'll be in Sweden, taking all this in again. (Too bad I'm not from Sweden.)


At 12:57 p.m., December 31, 2005, Blogger Brushback said...

Great report, James-- some very interesting stuff for us to read...

I'm wondering if there's a "North American" approach to putting together a story, meaning putting some personal or human interest into the subject, that the Russians are shielding their young players from.


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