The Chinese Challenge
Former Griffins head coach Curt Fraser is a man on a mission: to develop hockey players for the host country of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Story by Mark Newman
Curt Fraser already had a ton of experience when he was hired to become the eighth head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins before the 2008-09 AHL season.
He was the first head coach in the history of the Atlanta Thrashers, who joined the NHL in 1999. He also had been an assistant coach with the New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues, and he had twice taken the Orlando Solar Bears to the IHL’s Turner Cup Finals.
Fraser, who would eventually become the longest-tenured head coach in Griffins history (lasting four full seasons before returning to the NHL as an assistant with the Dallas Stars), also served as the head coach of the Belarus National Team for two seasons immediately before coming to Grand Rapids.
But nothing has compared to his experience of the past year. Fraser is currently the head coach of the Kunlun Red Star in the Kontinental Hockey League, guiding the fortunes of the Beijing-based team that features a large collection of players with various degrees of Chinese heritage.
Fraser’s past year has been an eye-opening experience, to say the least. From a hockey perspective, it’s worlds away from the game in North America, but it’s the culture shock that can throw any foreigner for a loop.
“It’s a real challenge to negotiate through everyday obstacles,” Fraser said. “It’s a huge adjustment.”
From the shift in time zones to everyday conversation to functioning within the confines of a Communist country, Fraser said it’s nearly impossible to convey the confounding but continually exciting experience of coaching in a country where hockey was largely unknown only a decade ago.
Coming to China, it seems, is an experience that would test the mettle of even the most seasoned hockey player.
“China is very different, so most players start slow after they come here,” Fraser said. “You begin with a 15-hour plane ride, plus a 13- or 14-hour time change, and when you finally get here, it takes you weeks to get yourself acclimatized.
“As a coach, I’d say it’s a lot easier, but as a player, it’s a tough adjustment with the time change alone. Then add the fact that everything over here is not like it is in North America and it’s going to be a big change for most players.
“Every day is a challenge, from the housing to the food to life in general. It’s not like opening your front door and walking down Main Street. Everything is totally different. Guys have done a great job of finding little places to eat and buy groceries.
“I must say that the people here are very nice. You just have to get used to things being different. When you get up in the morning, instead of bacon and eggs, you might have eggs and chow mein. Fortunately, we’ve got a really good bunch of players and they’ve adjusted.”
Even the game of hockey is different overseas.
“The ice surface is a whole lot different. First off, it’s bigger. Plus the ice conditions are not as good as North America. When you arrive in the summertime, it’s 110 degrees. Players also have to get used to the different style of hockey that is played in the KHL."
Fraser said the caliber of play in the KHL, which emphasizes speed and skill, probably fits somewhere between the NHL and AHL.
“It’s a really good league,” he said. “You’ve got to study the players and it’s not easy. A lot of them are Russian kids that you’ve never seen or heard of. So you’ve got to do your homework.
“Every team seems to have four really good lines. Everybody can skate. They’re all skilled and they’re all fast. It’s a very competitive league. There are some high-end teams and then there are a whole lot of teams that are bunched together. Even the bottom teams are still really good. It’s a strong league that’s difficult to compete in.”
The KHL is even more challenging for the Kunlun team because it is the only team in China. Except for teams from Belarus, Finland, Latvia and Kazakhstan, the rest of the 24-team league is based in Russia.
“Once you get yourself into shape and condition, then you have to deal with the travel,” he said. “Our flight to Moscow is 10-1/2 hours with a five-hour time change and you have to make that trip five times during the season while playing hockey. It’s very difficult to deal with.”
Fraser, who joined the Chinese team late in the 2018-19 KHL season with only 12 games remaining on the schedule, said it took his team some time to find its footing this season after a 4-7-1 start. By the end of October, the Red Star had strung together a five-game winning streak to move into the middle of the pack.
“It took us a while to get going because of the travel and all of the moving from city to city,” said Fraser, who noted that his team had played in both Shenzhen and Beijing. “Once we finally got home to the Shougang Arena (in Beijing), things started to fall into place. Everyone’s performing pretty well.”
It also helped that Fraser made some moves with his defense.
“When we started the season, our big problem was puck movement. Our defense wasn’t very good at helping us get out of our end,” he said. “Then we added Griffin Reinhart, Ryan Sproul and Denis Osipov. When those three guys arrived, all of a sudden we could move the puck a little bit better because we have good forwards and the team started playing well.”
Fraser knew Sproul from his days with the Griffins.
“I saw Sproul at the prospects camp in Traverse City,” Fraser said. “He joined the Griffins after I was in Grand Rapids, but I knew how highly ranked he was coming out of juniors. He came here early in the season and he’s been a great addition to our team.”
Sproul became the second ex-Griffins player on the Kunlun roster. The Red Star had earlier signed Jake Chelios, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios, who played 64 games with the Griffins in 2018-19. The younger Chelios also played five games with the Red Wings last season.
“Jake has been fantastic,” he said. “I’ve known the Chelios family for a long time, with Chris working in Grand Rapids when I was there and his son roomed with my son at Michigan State, so they got to know each other pretty well.
“He’s been terrific right from the start, so now we have two former Griffins who are playing very well for us.”
Fraser has nothing but fond memories of his time coaching in Grand Rapids. His four-year run with the Griffins saw him compile a cumulative 146-130-18-22 record (.525), ranking first in franchise history in both regular season games coached (316) and wins (146).
His most successful campaign was his debut season of 2008-09 when he led Grand Rapids to an impressive 43-25-6-6 regular season mark – a 28-point improvement in the standings from the prior season. The Griffins also enjoyed their first-ever playoff upset, a six-game toppling of Hamilton in the North Division Semifinals.
“(Former Griffins general manager) Bob McNamara brought me to Grand Rapids and from the first day, it was great,” he said. “I had no idea how nice Michigan was. I had spent time in downtown Detroit as a player and later as a coach, but I had never experienced anything outside the city.
“So when I got to Grand Rapids, I saw that it was a fantastic place to live. Van Andel Arena was awesome. David Van Andel and Dan DeVos were always first-class owners and they had a great staff, from assistant coach Jim Paek to equipment manager Brad Thompson to trainer Rob Snitzer to the whole office staff.
“Grand Rapids has the perfect setup for an American Hockey League team and it’s the perfect place to develop players.”
Fraser said he felt doubly lucky because he was able to work in the Red Wings organization and nurture the young talent that would help the team build its unprecedented 25-year playoff streak.
In his first season, he worked with Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Jonathan Ericsson and Jimmy Howard – all of whom are still with the Red Wings more than a decade later. Later, he would help mentor such future NHL stars as Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist.
“The Detroit Red Wings were the top team in the league and they were the best at drafting and developing players. It was amazing for a guy like me coming in there to see how Kenny Holland and Jim Nill ran things and how they got these guys to go from Grand Rapids to play for the Detroit Red Wings.
“It was one good player after another. They all had something special. You knew they were going to be good. They just needed time to grow into their roles. So it was fun to be a part of that process.”
The Griffins did not qualify for the playoffs his last three years, largely due to injuries suffered in Detroit and the ensuing callups that would deplete the lineup in Grand Rapids.
“During my first year, the Red Wings were still riding the high waves and everything was going along pretty smoothly,” he said. “My second year, Detroit started losing players to injury and that’s when our guys were getting called up constantly and it made things tough on the Griffins. For the next three years, we had a constant flow of players going up and down.”
Fraser found solace in the success that the Red Wings continued to enjoy during his time in Grand Rapids.
“It was always a bonus to win in Grand Rapids, but I knew the priority was to make sure the Red Wings were doing well,” he said. “For me, it was the perfect situation. I was surrounded by a great group of people. I had everything there to be successful. The Red Wings kept winning for a long, long time and we were very fortunate to supply them with high-end talented kids who played well for them.”
Fraser said the Red Wings-Griffins relationship is the perfect model for success.
“It offers everything that a player would need to grow and develop,” he said. “Plus when I was there, the bonus was we had guys like Steve Yzerman, Mark Howe, Chris Osgood, and Kirk Maltby coming to the games. We had Chris Chelios on the ice working with the players. It was amazing to have such an incredible group to surround our players.
“I used to have Gordie Howe read the starting lineup for the players. It was amazing and it was a lot of fun.”
Fraser took great satisfaction in seeing the Griffins win the Calder Cup the year after he departed for Dallas.
“I felt like we had put in the foundation for success that just carried on and when they won the Cup, I thought it was awesome,” he said. “I couldn’t have been happier for all the guys because they put in a lot of hard work to finally reach their goal and now a lot of them are playing in the NHL, so it’s good stuff.”
Culture clashes aside, Fraser is enjoying himself in China. He is thankful that he has the support of a very experienced coaching staff.
His assistants include Steve Kasper, a former coach of the Boston Bruins (1995-97) who was a Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as a player during a 13-year NHL career; Alexei Kovalev, the former Russian right winger who amassed 1,029 points during a 16-year NHL career; and Dusty Imoo, a Canadian-Japanese netminder in his playing days who had been the goaltending development coach with the Los Angeles Kings before joining the Red Star this past summer.
“We’ve got a great staff and a good mix of players,” Fraser said. “Everything’s been working out really well for us and it’s been fun for everyone to come to the rink every day.”
Fraser is a man on a mission. Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, which means he has only two more years to do what he can to help develop the talent necessary for the host country to field a respectable team – a tall order, to be sure.
Four years ago, when China first fielded a team in the KHL, the Kunlun Red Star had a single player with roots to the homeland – Zach Yuen, a Vancouver-born defenseman whose parents immigrated to Canada from China but whose resume showed only three games above the ECHL level.
Today, thanks to the efforts of general manager Scotty MacPherson, who has scoured the world for players of Chinese descent, the pool of players with the potential to one day play in the Olympics has grown to 68, including 10 currently playing for the Red Star.
“In four years, it’s improved a lot, but in saying that we still have miles to go in terms of bringing these kids up to the level they need to be to compete in the World Championships,” he said. “We have great kids who are working hard to improve every day.”
What role Fraser will play, if any, with the actual Olympic team is yet to be determined, but he is savoring his responsibility with mentoring players of various talent levels, an effort that somewhat mirrors the role he had in Belarus in 2006-08.
“When I went to Belarus, I needed two translators for my assistant coaches because most of the kids only spoke Russian,” he said. “I even tried to learn a little Russian, but somehow I was able to negotiate my way through the language barrier. My time in Belarus was a fantastic experience and it certainly helped prepare me for this.”
Over the years, the Kunlun organization has brought in several hockey illuminati – Wayne Gretzky, Phil Esposito and Mike Keenan all have paid visits of various lengths to China – but Fraser has largely been left to his own devices to develop the necessary talent pool for hockey to grow there.
“Obviously we want to play well and win something in the KHL, but a big part of our mission is developing kids in China for the future of hockey and the Olympics here,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have a really good owner in Billy Ngok, and while the staff is still learning how to operate a professional hockey team in the best way, they’re getting there.”
With barely two years to go before the Beijing Games, Fraser knows the clock is ticking. He is savoring the experience nonetheless, seeing his time in China as a golden opportunity – even if gold in the Olympics is a pipedream.
“It’s been a whole different experience. The culture, the players, the travel – everything is amazing,” he said. “Every day is a challenge, but it’s been awesome. It’s been fun.”