Dave King Can't Quit Hockey
The former long-time head of Canada's Olympic hockey program has found another "Mission Impossible" as an assistant coach with the surprising Phoenix Coyotes. With a shaky financial situation and limited talent other than world-class goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, King has helped the league-owned Coyotes become a playoff foothold while working alongside two of his former players, head coach Dave Tippett and goaltending coach Sean Burke.
The underdog Coyotes have stayed above the playoff bar most of the season as King, Tippett and Burke draw from their Olympic experiences to give more creative, international elements to a team comprised mostly of non-stars.
"A lot of us have seen a lot of hockey," says King. "When you play in the Olympic program, you get a real insight into the European style of game and to their players and how they're developed. Tipper's played in two Olympics. Burkie's played in two Olympics. So I think it gives them just a very wide view of the game. They know the value of what the Europeans could do with their game, what applies to our (Canadian) game. Kipper works very well with our Czech players and many of our European players. Kipper knows their game. He knows how to take it and just change it a little bit so that it fits the NHL style of game, and I think it helps our whole cause.
"You watch European hockey, it's still a lot of rhythm and flow to it," he says. "They've got lots of speed in there, and they do definitely thing more offensively. It's a good thing, because when you bring the European players here, the No. 1 thing you're looking for is some production offensively. What Tipper's done, he's been able to help those guys improve defensively and yet still contribute offensively."
While the Coyotes try to ensure they're not on their last stand in Phoenix, King is on his last coaching stand. He returned to the NHL unexpectedly after coaching in Europe the previous five seasons – one in Russia sandwiched between four in Germany.
"Actually, I was going to retire a couple of years ago and then, when Wayne Gretzky decided not to come back, they were looking for some help, so I was available," says King. "I was living in Phoenix – I've got a place there – so it was really convenient for me to join the team. It's been good. It's been a good organization to work with. We're trying to rebuild something, which gives it a little bit more impetus, too."
King's season in Russia was chronicled in his book King of Russia, co-authored by GlobeandMail.com hockey columnist Eric Duhatschek. Many North American players and coaches find it difficult to handle the hockey and living conditions in Russia, but King, who briefly coached Evgeni Malkin before he joined the Pittsburgh Penguins, cherished his single season with Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the KHL.
"I enjoyed it because it gave me a chance to see how they develop their kids," he says. "I had seen their development programs a little bit when I'd been on tours and things like that and talked to Russian coaches. But to see it every day, to see them working with these young players and to see the progression they use with these young kids to develop these great players is very interesting. Not many get that opportunity to get behind the scenes in Russia and watch player development, and I was lucky to have that situation."
Fewer Russians have been drafted into the NHL in recent years while league and Russian hockey's governing body and the International Ice Hockey Federation grapple with player transfer issues and rights fees. After losing many stars to the NHL, he believes the Russians are getting back on track.
"They lost a lot of players to the NHL and it's hurt their development," he says. "The KHL is looking like it's becoming a better and more stable league. They have a new junior league now in Russia where the top young players can stay and play in Russia in a pretty competitive league. So they're trying to do some things to enhance their game again. But they're still competing against the NHL. They're losing a lot of players to this league which, I think, waters down the KHL a little bit. But it's a situation where you can never think the Russians are out of it, because they do develop very good players.
"I don't think (the KHL) is a serious threat to lose players (to), because this is still a premier league to play in, but it does give some players another option," says King. "It does give, for example, a Russian player a card he can play with in terms of negotiation. So that's what it's done, and they are paying some pretty good money there. How long can they pay these salaries? Hockey in Russia will go on. Will those salaries be able to maintain that level they're at right now?"
Good questions, but King is glad that he does not have to solve them. Now, he is enjoying life as an assistant coach, where he no longer has to be "the heavy" like he was as a head coach in Calgary and Columbus and during days in the 1980s and early 1990s as coach and general manager of Canada's former full-time national team. (It was only known as the Olympic team during Olympic years, because many players came and went in the intervening years.) He tutored many future NHLers like former Edmonton Oilers star Glenn Anderson, Burke, long-time Buffalo defensive stalwart James Patrick and Detroit's Kris Draper, to name a few.
About two decades have passed since King was in control of the program. But, through his time there, he has had a lasting influence on hockey. In addition to many players, he has groomed many coaches and executives who are in the NHL or other leagues, espousing the lessons he delivered either through direct contact or the education program that he spearheaded.
"(The Olympics) has changed a lot now," says King, whose best finish in the Games was fourth in Calgary in 1988. "Now, it's the NHL players. It's a whole new ball game. We played against the Russians and they were untouched by the NHL and we were younger players, American League players and the odd NHL player who hadn't made it or whatever and come back. I liked our situation. It was kind of like Mission Impossible, but it was fun. We embraced that idea that we had to pull a major upset to get a medal at the Olympics. Now, the expectation is that if Canada delivers a good team, they've got a good chance to win a gold medal. It's good for our country to have best on best.
"But I've gotta tell you, deep in my heart, I still like the Olympics as they were, because it gave us a chance to give you young players a platform to aim for. It was an intermediate step to the NHL and I think that was good. There's the American Hockey League, which is still fine, but there's no program like it that takes them to a different level above the American Hockey League. And that's what the national team was. It was a chance for guys to play in a situation where your competition was going to be, on many nights, as good as NHL teams – in fact, better than NHL teams some nights, when you played the Russians. Especially with our teams. That's gone now, and that's too bad. I liked the ongoing national team."
Still, the uber-positive King, who also guided the University of Saskatchewan Huskies to Canadian University crowns and served as a bench boss with the WHL's Billings Bighorns, is not complaining about the ups and downs of a career that has spanned three and a half decades.
"Overall, I've enjoyed what I've done in coaching," he says. "Certainly, 35 years is a long time."