Canadian-born players and coach key to Belarusian success at worlds
Three-thousand kilometres from where he grew up in Toronto, Geoff Platt couldn’t have felt more at home.
Moments after scoring and setting off another wild celebration at Minsk arena, Platt leapt into the arms of Belarusian captain Alexei Kalyuzhny. Not long after, fans were chanting his name.
“It’s an emotion that I’m not sure I’ve achieved ever in my career, just because of the atmosphere and the electricity in the building,” Platt said. “It just runs through your veins and grabs a hold of you.”
Along with goaltender Kevin Lalande, Platt is one of two Canadian-born players representing host Belarus at the world hockey championship and playing major roles in what might be the best international showing in the country’s history. Led by Canadian-born coach Glen Hanlon, Belarus is in the quarter-finals for just the third time and the first since 2009.
This is the biggest event Belarus has ever hosted, so Minsk has been partying for two weeks. And this team is giving locals another reason to celebrate.
“You have to understand the magnitude (of) what this means to them,” Hanlon said. “It’s bigger than just a game. This is their chance to show everybody.”
By show everybody, Hanlon means the city, which is decked out in IIHF signs welcoming the world and reminding them in the form of giant bison mascots that hockey is happening here.
Inside the 15,000-seat Minsk Arena, home of the KHL’s Dynamo Minsk, good hockey has been happening for Belarus. Lalande, a native of Ottawa who plays for Dynamo and gained citizenship, has been stellar and Platt has added timely offence.
But the Canadian imports want the credit to go to leading scorers Mikhail Grabovski and Sergei Kostitsyn.
“Players are playing for this symbol, and it means a lot more to them to represent their country than probably a National Hockey League team or any club team around the world,” Platt said, pointing to the Belarusian coat of arms on his chest. “You’re seeing that with Sergei Kostitsyn, Mikhail Grabovski just really taking their game to a level I’m sure they’ve almost never played at.”
Grabovski beamed with pride when talking about what this tournament means to him. He’s showing that to Hanlon, who first coached him as a 21-year-old at the world championships in Vienna in 2005.
The Grabovski at this tournament is an other-worldly player.
“I don’t even look at Mikhail anymore because I know he’s going to play great,” Hanlon said. “I never get tired of saying, ’Good game, Mikhail.”’
Hanlon is limited in what he can say to some of his players because of the language barrier. He understands Russian and Belarusian and is trying to learn to speak both languages, even though he doesn’t have to.
The former Washington Capitals coach and longtime NHL goaltender, who’s in his second stint as coach of the Belarusian national team, has someone with him at almost all times who speaks English. At his news conferences with local media, the Brandon, Man., native answers in English, occasionally splicing in Belarusian words and pausing to let the interpreter next to him do his work.
“I’ve taken lessons, I’ve done all of it,” Hanlon said. “I have a better handle on it. I’ve gone home here after every friendly tournament, so I take all my books, put them in my backpack like the college student on spring break and I end up dealing with my 12-year-old son and my wife and I sort of break away from it for a couple weeks.”
Hanlon’s wife and son still live in Vancouver, and because she’s a teacher and he’s a skier and hockey player they don’t accompany him to Europe.
“He’d rather play his own hockey than watch me coach,” Hanlon said.
Everyone in Belarus is watching Hanlon coach with keen interest. In Minsk, televisions all over the city have tournament games on, whether Belarus is playing or not.
Inside Minsk Arena, one section is full of fans jumping up and down and doing chants normally reserved for soccer matches. Others whistle and fill the building with the kind of noise Lalande and Platt have no comparison for and Hanlon can only relate to the old Chicago Stadium.
“When you go into somewhere like Bell Centre or Madison Square Garden, it’s pretty loud but it dies off after a while,” Hanlon said. “Here it’s sustained for the whole 2 1/2 hours of the game. I’m not kidding: You can’t hear a word down there. I’m screaming and I’m yelling at my players who’s up and everything.
“From before the game starts till after it’s over, it’s like a festival.”
It’s a festival that’s special to the Belarusian players, whether they’re from Novopolotsk in the north like Dmitry Korobov, or Ontario like Lalande and Platt.
How they got here wasn’t a matter of having Belarusian ancestry. Anyone who plays for Dynamo Minsk for two