From Russia with (Tough) Love

Jimmy MagahernAugust 9, 2018
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Former Soviet star Boris Dorozhenko leads one of the nation’s hottest kids’ hockey camps on a 54-year-old ice rink in Phoenix. So where are the Coyotes’ scouts?

To the kids lucky enough to attend Boris Dorozhenko’s Next Generation Hockey camp at Arcadia Ice Arena in Phoenix, it’s easy to see why the hulking Ukrainian-born coach, with his heavy accent, fiery temper and tousled mane, could be called the Gordon Ramsay of hockey.

“You’ll see him out there leading a drill, and he’ll start screaming and yelling at these kids if they do it wrong,” says rink owner Jim Rogers. “He gets that from his ‘Red Machine’ days,” referencing the years Dorozhenko played center for the former Soviet Union’s national ice hockey team before immigrating to Mexico (where he helped build a national hockey program) and then to Scottsdale in 2007. “Eventually, the kids actually start getting it. Out of fear, I guess!”

Todd Erickson, a California doctor whose 13-year-old son Ethan is attending the clinic for the fourth time, admits Dorozhenko’s gruff style can take a little getting used to. “With Ethan, he knows that’s just how Boris is, and he doesn’t take it too personally,” Erickson says. “His friend got called ‘stupid kid,’ and I think all the other kids joke about it now. But yeah, he can be kind of intense.”

That intensity is beginning to reap rewards for his pupils: National Hockey League players Brendan Lemieux, Austin Carroll (both Arizonans), Jake DeBrusk, Jake Virtanen and Tyson Barrie are among Dorozhenko’s graduates, and several former NHL stars have enrolled their sons in his classes. It’s made his twice-annual programs at Arcadia some of the most in-demand kids’ sports camps in the nation.

“He sells out every year,” says Rogers. Parents from all over the world rush to enroll their budding all-stars (girls included) in the now 10-year-old program, which runs around $600 a week or $1,600 a month.

A big part of that demand owes to the breakout success of Scottsdale’s Auston Matthews, a Dorozhenko protégé who was chosen first in the 2016 NHL draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs and scored a record-setting four goals in his first game. Overnight, reporters from ESPN and Sports Illustrated descended on the Valley to discover how a kid from a Sun Belt golf mecca came to rule the ice – leading them directly to the mentor Matthews lauded as his beloved Uncle Boris.

“Definitely the credibility is growing, and I believe that Auston Matthews is a big part of this, because he was a pioneer of this system,” Dorozhenko says. Matthews’ parents were so impressed with Dorozhenko after 7-year-old Auston attended the coach’s first Phoenix skating camp in 2005 that they persuaded Dorozhenko to relocate from Mexico, even putting him up in Auston’s grandparents’ house for two years while they helped him with his citizenship papers.

“He trusted in me, his parents trusted in me, and now… there’s a lot of interest from other people who want to repeat the same journey,” Dorozhenko says. That includes his own 11-year-old son, Zakhar, who keeps an autographed poster of Matthews on his bedroom wall. (Dorozhenko, 49, and his Russian wife, Anastasiya, also have a 6-year-old son and an infant daughter.) “I had the defenseman for the Chicago Blackhawks, Duncan Keith, bring his kids in and sign them up.”

The Dorozhenkos enjoy a family outing in 2013; Photo courtesy Boris DorozhenkoTaking a break between classes, Dorozhenko’s temper is on full display. “Guys, can you please stop playing with that ball!” he hollers at a pair of students bouncing an exercise ball. But so, too, on display is his passion for teaching hockey, which he contends American instructors are doing wrong.

“Every 10 minutes they’re switching activities,” he says, slapping his hands for emphasis. “It’s like, ‘Power skating – 10 minutes! Shooting – 10 minutes!’ … With my program, there’s many repetitions. Kids will do one exercise the first day. The next day, same exercise. By the third day, some will complain, ‘Every day, we’re doing the same thing.’ … If they want to rush through everything, they can watch videos on YouTube.”

Ethan Erickson attests that Dorozhenko’s drills, which focus on creating core balance and mastering skates rather than gameplay, are demanding. “It gets you really tired by the end of the day, but you know you accomplished something.”

One exercise has the players repeatedly bouncing up on their skates from a seated position; another has them running in skates while stomping on the ice, which has left some arena operators griping about overworking their Zambonis.

Rogers says some parents balked at Dorozhenko’s methods, which can seem extreme, even to tiger parents. “But it works. It gets kids out of their comfort zones.” They tend to warm up to Dorozhenko once they get to know him personally, which appears to be wife Anastasiya’s role: Her Facebook page is filled with cuddly family photos and smiling portraits on the ice with students.

“He’s definitely got that Eastern European approach,” says Erickson’s wife Erine, also a physician. “But we actually like that intensity. I mean, to be frank, it’s not exactly a kinder, gentler sport. It wouldn’t help the kids to have the kind of coach who gives out participation trophies.”

His style is finding imitators. Dorozhenko has caught hockey teachers sitting in the stands, making notes. “I’ll see videos of other instructors trying to repeat my process, but they’re usually not getting it,” he says, with a slight smile. “If they ask me to help, I’ll share my experience. I have no secrets.” He’s led camps in Chicago, Minnesota, Europe and Asia, but rejects suggestions to franchise his system. “That’s too much about business,” he scoffs. “I’d rather do a book, or an app, if people want to learn my system.”

Rogers laments that Phoenicians are failing to take advantage of the star-making hockey coach in their midst – including the Arizona Coyotes, whose recruiters, he says, rarely venture out of Scottsdale’s Ice Den.

For his part, Dorozhenko appears happy to continue teaching his style of Eastern European hockey to desert kids.

“Finding good players in Europe is just a matter of selection,” he says. “Nobody teaching hockey was very much interested in Arizona… But I like the challenge. I feel it’s like my role to help create some stars, create some good hockey players here.”

Dorozhenko is the latest example of a harsh Eastern European coach whose tough style is balanced by sweet results:

Béla Károlyi
Bulgarian Gymnastics Legend
Star pupils: Nadia Comaăneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug
Accomplishments: Coached nine Olympic champions, 15 world champions, 16 European medalists and six U.S. national champions.
Taskmaster calling card: Known for his strict dietary guidelines and for taunting gymnasts with shaming insults.

Nikolay Karpol
Polish-Born Women’s Volleyball Coach
Star pupils: Ekaterina Gamova, Elena Godina
Accomplishments: Coached Russian teams to Olympic victories five times, winning gold medals in 1980 and 1988 and silver medals in 1992, 2000 and 2004.
Taskmaster calling card: Nicknamed “The Howling Bear” for his habit of berating players throughout matches.

Oleg Romantsev
The Winningest Russian Football (Soccer) Head Coach
Star pupils: Igor Shalimov, Dmitri Radchenko, Valery Karpin
Accomplishments: Led Spartak Moscow to nine league titles; led Russians to seven victories in 2002 World Cup.
Taskmaster calling card: Notorious for his harsh “sbori” (training camp), which one former Spartak player compared to a “Special Forces regime.”

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