Gennady Tsygurov, 1942-2016
Gennady Tsygurov, who passed away today of cancer at the age of 74, was not as well-known as some of his Soviet and Russian hockey coaching colleagues, at least not to fans outside his home country. Nonetheless, his was a career that deserves some recognition, especially as his coaching resume includes one major feat not accomplished by anyone before him. Read on…
Gennady Fyodorovich Tsygurov was born on April 15th, 1942, in Chelyabinsk, hard by the Ural Mountains on the very western edge of Siberia. He grew up watching his home town’s famous hockey club, known as Dzerzhinets Chelyabinsk until 1953, and as Avangard for a few seasons thereafter. Chelyabinsk was fertile ground for hockey players, as the city produced such early Soviet stars as forward Viktor Shuvalov, but it did suffer from a ailment common to the Soviet Championship’s “provincial” sides: Chelyabinsk tended to lose her promising young talent to the giant Moscow-based clubs. That is a theme to which we will return.
By the time he joined the Chelyabinsk club as a defenceman in 1959, the team had taken on its current name, Traktor, and it was in Traktor’s colours that Tsygurov spent all 18 seasons of his playing career. Traktor were a decent team most of the time, apart from four seasons spent relegated to the Soviet Championship’s second division in the mid- to late-1960s. In 1976-77, Tsygurov’s last season as a player, they broke through to finish third in the top division of the Championship, a rare enough accomplishment for a non-Moscow team (by my count, only five other squads from outside the capital managed it in the Soviet era, and none finished higher than second). As for Tsygurov himself, he was a defensive defenceman, scoring only 18 goals in 380 games in the top Soviet division (plus another 23 in 155 second division contests). It was as a coach that he would make his mark.
Immediately upon retiring as a player, Tsygurov took the coaching reins at Traktor, in charge of future Soviet national teamers such as Sergei Makarov, Vyacheslav Bykov, and goalie Sergei Mylnikov. However, the old problem of loss of talent remained; to Tsygurov’s dismay, all three of the above-mentioned players were snapped up by the Central Red Army club (or, in Mylnikov’s case, its farm team in Leningrad). In 1984 Tsygurov himself moved on to the Uritskogo Kazan, the team now known as Ak Bars. After three seasons in the Tatar capital, he returned to Traktor for a pair of campaigns, and got his first international experience as head coach of the USSR’s Under-18 team. Then, in 1990, he took the job that would make him famous.
HK Lada, from the auto-manufacturing hub of Tolyatti (or Togliatti — it is named after a former head of the Italian Communist Party) on the Volga River, had been founded in 1976, and when Tsygurov arrived in 1990, they had spent their entire existence in the Soviet second division. Their new coach solved that in all of one season, and Lada made their top-flight debut in 1991-92, the last year of the Soviet Championship; they finished a solid ninth in the 16-team league. The next year, the competition was reformed as the International Hockey League, and a playoff was introduced. Tsygurov’s team qualified for the post-season, and then defeated Khimik Voskresensk, SKA St. Petersburg, and Krylya Sovetov Moscow en route to the Final. That last hurdle proved too much; Lada were swept in three games by Dynamo Moscow, who won their fourth straight national championship.
In 1993-94, in a change of format, the championship was awarded on the basis of the regular season, and Tsygurov’s squad finally got its prize. Scoring 189 goals (second-most in the league, behind Dynamo’s 197), and giving up a league-best 82 in 46 games, Lada fought their way to the top of the table by New Year’s Day, and could not be caught. On March 14th, they defeated Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg 8-1 and clinched the title, the first-ever championship, Soviet or Russian, for a team from outside Moscow. Lada’s final record showed 33 victories and seven ties in the 46 games, putting them five points ahead of Dynamo at the end. Just to make sure there was no doubt, Tsygurov’s men then went on to capture the separate IHL Cup tournament, defeating Dynamo three games to two in the final.
Dynamo got some revenge in 1994-95, beating Lada three games to two in the championship final after yet another league format change. And then it was Tsygurov’s turn again; Lada returned to the status of champions in 1995-96, this time winning a 14-team championship group by two points over Dynamo (Lada’s GF-GA was a remarkable 122-50 over 26 games). 1995-96 would be, at least to date, Lada’s last championship, but the door for the non-Moscow teams had been thrown wide open. In 1996-97, as the Russian Superleague replaced the International Hockey League, Torpedo Yaroslavl took the title, defeating Lada in the final. Then in 1998 it was the turn of Ak Bars Kazan, followed by Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 1999. In 2000, Dynamo finally wrestled the trophy back to the capital, but it has stayed there only intermittently since.
By that time, Gennady Tsygurov had made his mark on the international scene as well. An occasional assistant to Viktor Tikhonov with the Russian national team, he had coached the country’s World Juniors entry in 1993 and 1994, winning a bronze medal at the latter (the 1993 tournament had ended with Russia in a disappointing sixth place). He was re-appointed to the World Juniors team for the 1999 tournament, and it was a triumphant return indeed; Artyom Chubarov’s overtime goal against Canada in the final gave Russia her first gold medal as an independent country.
Tsygurov was let go by Lada in November of 1999, after some disappointing results, and very quickly snapped up by Avangard Omsk. With Avangard, he nearly won himself a third national title, as his side fell to Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the 2002 final. From there Tsygurov became something of a journeyman; his mid-2000s resume includes stops in the Russian second division at Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (whom he got promoted to the top division), Kristall Saratov, and HK MVD Balashikha, followed by a 2005-06 return for a third stint in charge of Traktor Chelyabinsk. Tsygurov’s old alma mater was in the second division at the time as well; he dutifully got them back to the top flight that season. In 2007-08, the last season before the Russian Superleague became the KHL, he coached Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, then returned to Kristall Saratov for a spell, and then in 2011 — after a brief stint in the Kazakh League coaching Saryarka Karaganda — became, once again, the head coach of Lada Tolyatti.
Tsygurov kept his hand in internationally as well. From 2004 to 2008, he was in charge of Kazakhstan’s national team, guiding it through four World Championships, a successful qualification for the Torino Olympics, and the 2006 Winter Games themselves (Kazakhstan finished ninth out of 12, and has not qualified for an Olympics since).
The Lada job that he took in 2011 would be Gennady Tsygurov’s last head coaching position. His former championship team had fallen on hard times, punted out of the KHL due to inadequate facilities, and struggling along in the second-tier VHL (the league that had formerly been the second division of the Russian Superleague). Tsygurov’s coaching career came to a close in October of 2012, when Lada let him go; they have since returned to the KHL.
Tsygurov’s last years were, sad to say, marked by some tragedy. Not long after the diagnosis of his final illness in late 2014, he had to deal with the sudden death of his son, former NHLer Denis Tsygurov, in January of 2015 at the age of only 43, and thus with the task of looking after Denis’s young children. It is a mark of the esteem in which he was held that a number of his former teams and players, along with Russian Hockey Federation President Vladislav Tretyak, stepped forward to provide financial support both for his medical treatment in Switzerland and for the care of his grandchildren; Traktor, his hometown club, hired him on as a consultant for the 2015-16 season.
Gennady Tsygurov’s legacy to Russian hockey will likely always centre around that 1994 championship with Lada, the first time it had been won by someone other than the giants of Moscow. And indeed, it was a massive achievement, even if many of the big stars of the league had departed by that time for North America. However, there is another element of Tsygurov’s career that bears consideration, and that is the number of future coaches of repute who came under his tutelage during their playing careers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, during his first stint with Traktor, his charges included the late Valery Belousov (another giant of Chelyabinsk hockey), and future Russian national team coaches Vyacheslav Bykov and Oleg Znarok. On his championship Lada teams, we find longtime KHL coach Anatoly Yemelin (currently an assistant with Salavat Yulaev Ufa) and one of the league’s most promising up-and-comers in current Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk bench boss Andrei Razin. There are doubtless others whom I have missed.
As a final note, among Gennady Fyodorovich Tsygurov’s awards were the Soviet Union’s Badge of Honour and Badge for Services to Chelyabinsk Oblast, along with the titles of Master of Sport of the USSR, Honoured Coach of the USSR, and Honoured Coach of Russia. His passing will be marked by a moment of silence on Thursday before Russia faces Sweden in the opening game of the Channel One Cup in Moscow. Rest in Peace, Sir.
Further reading: If you wish to know more about Gennady Tsygurov, I heavily recommend this wide-ranging (and fairly heart-rending) interview from a year ago, as well as this excellent article (lavishly illustrated) from the also-excellent Chelyabinsk Hockey blog.