Roman Rotenberg: From the Front Office to Behind the Bench

Due to coronavirus, it was a tough month for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, with the majority of the senior players and the coaches – including coach Valeri Bragin – falling ill. Vice president and GM of SKA, Roman Rotenberg, filled in as coach for some matches. Now, with Bragin back and the situation improving, Rotenberg spoke to Graeme Roustan, owner and publisher of The Hockey News, about his experience as coach and his plans to develop this talent.
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Courtesy of SKA

Courtesy of SKA

Graeme Roustan: Valeri Bragin fell ill, while SKA found it difficult to find enough players to compete. Why did you decide to become the head coach for this period?

Roman Rotenberg: Let’s analyze the situation first of all. At one time, 60 players of our system became ill. That also included our staff members, masseurs, doctors and the press office – everyone who was in the epicenter of events. All of our coaches were ill, too, those who work with the goalkeepers, defensemen, forwards, the power play, the penalty kill, our skating. At first, we brought up coaches from SKA-1946 and SKA-Neva, but they also subsequently fell ill. Thank goodness that everyone has now either recovered or is recovering. I didn’t have any other options.

GR: Were you ready for this role?

RR: Our management group has participated in around 500 games over the past seasons, and that’s not taking into account the national team games. We managed to win the majority of those games both in the playoffs and the regular season, so we always have the target of winning. This is clear when looking at the statistics and our results. Despite all of the difficulties during that month, we kept the same goals. Due to obvious reasons, we didn’t always have enough energy. Some of the guys recovered better from this illness, whereas others required more time. Moreover, when we flew to Moscow from Sochi, our plane was delayed. This affected our preparation for the CSKA game. When you compete against such opponents, your physical shape should be perfect. Nevertheless, we had chances on the power play. Yes, our penalty kill wasn’t great, but overall this season we have been one of the best teams shorthanded. This is important in terms of preparation for the playoffs. Of course, we tried to win, I have no problem with the guys’ commitment, character and desire. We fought as hard as we could.

Courtesy of SKA

Courtesy of SKA

GR: How does the team feel now?

RR: Emotionally we feel good, and physically the players are improving. We have some important upcoming games, and our focus is on these matches. During the national-team break, we will have time to train and undergo a mini pre-season. Such difficulties only bring you together. Over the past five years we’ve encountered many different situations, we had tough moments even when we won the league.

GR: How would you summarize your period as SKA head coach?

RR: Statistically, an example of how we can play is the match against Ak Bars, when we only lost the puck three times while dominating the game. We didn’t win because we only took advantage of two of our five scoring opportunities. Nevertheless, it was a vital experience for our young guys, they have returned to the MHL and VHL as different players. They managed to compete on an even footing with KHL teams while even earning some victories. This has given them confidence, consequently allowing them to move to the next level. We use the same playing style for all of our teams, we can always call these players up to the senior side again.

We have been working as a united management group for more than five years. Yes, there have been changes, but in terms of our approach we have stayed true to ourselves. Every person is important. Even with all of the difficulties that we encountered, we continued to move forward. This speaks volumes about the reserves we possess. As we tell the players, there should always be support on the ice, with everyone backing each other up. The same can be said for the coaches.

Decisions made by the coaching staff are all made with the sole aim of increasing our chances of winning games. We had to make extraordinary decisions in an extraordinary situation. Our philosophy is to always find a way to win. When we look at our results, especially in 2015 and 2017 when we won the Cup, we can see that we have managed to make the correct decisions even in the toughest of situations. For example, we did this when recovering to beat CSKA from 0-3 down in 2015, and we can say the same about this epidemic.

Courtesy of SKA

Courtesy of SKA

GR: Were you nervous when you became head coach for the first time on Sept. 23?

RR: I’ve spent my whole life in ice hockey. During the past five years, I have fully been focused on SKA. Yes, I wasn’t on the bench then, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t ready to take on this challenge. Of course, you have different feelings when working as the head coach. It’s like operating a fighter jet or a Formula 1 car, when you have to make quick decisions and understand which button to press. I knew all of these buttons before my coaching debut, my life experiences had prepared me for this moment. As for game management and the training process, we are always constantly discussing these aspects as a management group.

I’m from a sporting family, and I’ve been involved in sport since my childhood. My father studied at the Lesgaft University together with the legendary Alexei Kasatonov, who I worked with in SKA in the past. My experience of working with Vyacheslav Bykov, Igor Zakharkin, Oleg Znarok and other coaches also helped me greatly, and I’m very grateful to all of them. I’m also in regular contact with Vladimir Yurzinov and other legends, I also used to speak to Viktor Tikhonov. We discuss all of the details, analyze games, look at tactical moments and exchange experiences. Furthermore, I also had the chance to speak with Stanislav Cherchesov, the head coach of the Russian national football team. I am acquainted with Ezio Gamba, the head coach of the national judo team. The character of players is just as important as tactics in sport, as well as the recovery process and having the right attitude. When taking the seat in the cockpit, I knew which buttons to press.

GR: So you have always been involved in the coaching process?

RR: Our management group always works together, this is the modern way of coaching. For example, clubs such as Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona also have management groups. The same can be said for the NHL. If we look back at Canada at the Olympic Games in Sochi, they had 50 people travel to Russia, with 20 of them being members of the management group. That group included managers and coaches who helped the team win, even if they weren’t on the bench themselves. I saw this with my own eyes. They had a lounge full of people with computers. Even after winning, they continued putting their reports together. That’s the level of professionalism that they have. 

We are also using modern technology and working methods in SKA, and we’re always ready to replace each other if needed. Thanks to this, we didn’t fall apart even when all of our coaches were ill. Even if our coaches and players changed, our penalty kill has remained one of the best in the KHL. Yes, we couldn’t win every game, but that would have been from the realms of fantasy. We can call our game against Ak Bars a miracle on ice, because we were better than the opponents in all regards. We didn’t score the five goals, but that was a tough ask of players who hadn’t even competed in the VHL before. It was like moving up from being a middleweight to a heavyweight, with your first fight being against Mike Tyson. 

However, we coped with the task well, and this was down to our system that we have been creating in the last five years.

Courtesy of SKA

Courtesy of SKA

GR: Last year, you graduated from the Siberia State University of Physical Culture and Sport. Does that mean you were preparing to be a head coach?

RR: My education for coaching has been going on throughout my whole life. From the age of 10, I have been working with coaches from different countries, participating in tournaments in Canada and the USA. I’ve always been involved in the coaching process. However, in order to earn a diploma, I had to study in Omsk. In order to be involved in business, you need to gain an economic qualification, you have to gain a lawyer’s qualification to be a lawyer and the same can be said if you want to become a coach. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. I knew that I needed this qualification in order to speak on the same level with coaches, while bearing in mind that different situations can arise in life.

GR: Are you prepared to be the SKA head coach in the future?

RR: As this situation has shown, never say never. Our philosophy is to win in any situation. Our results depend on our systematic approach, not only on me or someone else. We will do everything together in order to win.

GR: So are you prepared to become the SKA head coach or not?

RR: You want me to say yes or no, but I can’t do this. All I can say is this: never say never.

Courtesy of SKA

Courtesy of SKA

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