QUEBEC – Outside of the Philadelphia Flyers and their fans, no one is hoping for a Montreal Canadiens playoff exit more than Belarus head coach Curt Fraser.
Fraser has been eagerly eyeing the opportunity to add three top forwards in the Canadiens’ Andrei Kostitsyn, Sergei Kostitsyn and Mikhail Grabovski to the Belarus mix at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
“I think every person in Belarus (is) a huge supporter of the Montreal Canadiens,” a diplomatic Fraser said on Saturday as the Canadiens faced elimination against the Flyers.
“But if there is any chance of us getting these three kids, this is going to be our best opportunity … which we believe will really help us.”
Fraser, 50, an ex-NHLer with the Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks and Minnesota North Stars and the first-ever head coach of the Atlanta Thrashers, is entering his second year as coach of Team Belarus.
Belarus has been reaping the benefits of an investment in hockey. Since the Kostitsyns’ rise to fame just a few years ago, producing good hockey players has taken on a new dimension for Belarus.
Apart from the Canadiens trio, Mikhail Stefanovich, 18, who plays for the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, is expected to go as a high draft pick in this year’s NHL entry draft.
“I think the coaches and the schools are doing an excellent job of developing young talent,” said Fraser, who holds dual Canadian and American citizenship.
A testament to the growth in hockey popularity in Belarus is the country’s bid for the 2014 World Championship.
“It’s kind of an untouched resource … there’s a lot of good, young talent being developed in Belarus right now and a lot of talent you’re going to see in the NHL in the future.”
And while the shift in Belarus is still in its infancy, the stakes are high for the team this year in Quebec City after showing promise just two years ago.
“We are looking for good things from this tournament this year and the team knows that and is giving it everything they have,” Fraser said.
Fraser, who was prompted to go to Belarus by former Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon, has the former netminder by his side in Quebec City as an assistant.
Hanlon worked extensively with Belarus before his NHL duties became too much to juggle both jobs and Fraser took on the task.
“It’s been a fantastic experience for me and my family and a very good way to improve your coaching skills playing on the big ice surface and playing a different style of game,” Fraser said.
After his team scored five goals against Sweden on Saturday, Fraser realizes the impact the addition the three Habs forwards and Colorado Avalanche defenceman Ruslan Salei will have on the club.
Grabovski and the Kostitsyns purchased gloves for the entire team and coaching staff before the tournament began in a show of support.
“They were all lined up in the stalls as we came in, so it’s a very nice gesture to support their teammates here,” Fraser said.
Fraser underlined that all three players want to win a Stanley Cup first, but if not, Belarus would be thrilled to have them.
“Hopefully we’ll have a chance to see those kids play in the next short little while,” Fraser said.