MINSK, Belarus – 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 seasons is eligible for citizenship.
“I got to keep my Canadian citizenship, so there wasn’t really any downside,” said Lalande, who began the tournament as a backup but has played too well for Hanlon not to start him.
“At first it just made the travelling a lot easier in Russia, I didn’t need a visa and saved a couple pages in my Canadian passport. But when Glen was named the head coach, we had a couple conversations together. He made it clear from the start that he wanted me to be a part of this.”
“Whether I’d play or not he didn’t know, but he’s been very supportive. I owe everything to him for this chance.”
Lalande and Platt each praised the local players for accepting them while also noting there’s a comfort level in having each other and an English-speaking coach around for this run.
But Hanlon, who previously coached the Slovak national team, learned from his season with Jokerit in Finland that having Canadians on his team isn’t easy.
“Being an import coach you want to go out of your way so that the Canadians are respected,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is look like you’re favouring them.”
“So you want them to work for everything that they get, and I try to keep my space from them. I don’t want to give anybody any reason to think that these players are going to get special treatment from me.”
No special treatment, but this experience has been special for Platt and Lalande, even though they’re not playing for their home country. Platt, who played 46 NHL games for the Columbus Blue Jackets and Anaheim Ducks, won a gold medal for Canada at the under-18 world championships in 2003.
Platt hasn’t represented Canada since and has moved on.
“Not putting on the Canadian jersey now is just a chapter that sits in the past in my career,” the 28-year-old said. “I was very fortunate to wear the Canadian jersey and win a gold medal at the under-18 level, and now this is a realistic goal to be playing with Belarus and to be competing at this level. It’s really fun when we’re successful.”
Belarus was plenty successful in the preliminary round, going 4-3 to finish third in its group, ahead of Finland, Switzerland and Latvia and set up a quarter-final game against Sweden on Thursday night.
Even if Sweden ends Belarus’s run, the host team’s performance won’t be forgotten any time soon. When a victory over Latvia clinched a spot in the quarter-finals, Platt called it a “very rare opportunity for Belarusian ice hockey” that his teammates capitalized on.
Lalande couldn’t come up with words to describe his emotions.
“We did it for ourselves because we believed,” Lalande said, crediting fans who made a real impact on the team. “I think all of the Minsk and the whole country’s behind us right now. … We’re playing for us and we’re playing for them and it’s a tremendous feeling to be able to win in this fashion for them.”
That’s Hanlon’s priority, too. More than six years after being fired by the Capitals on U.S. Thanksgiving Day, he has no plans to return to coaching in the NHL and has invested a lot of time and energy on European hockey.
Hanlon still keeps track of what’s going on in North America and watches games because he’s interested, but now the 57-year-old also checks on scores from leagues around Europe. He’s still a Canadian citizen, but the prospect of playing his native country doesn’t mean anything to him anymore.
“What’s special for me is winning for Belarus,” Hanlon said. “That’s what’s special.”
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