Failure in Sochi brought big changes to the Russian hockey team. Zinetula Bilyaletdinov and the whole coaching staff (except one guy) were sacked, as was the general manager. The Russian Federation of Hockey (FHR) didn’t stop there: they also changed the team’s PR man, Mikhail Zakharov. Stepping in for him was a controversial figure: Sport-Express’ Igor Larin.
Choosing a member of the press to run media relations is already questionable (it’s like hiring a pilot to be an airline operator), but Larin’s candidacy seemed a bad idea from day one.
The opinion towards Larin among hockey diehards is predominantly negative due to his unpopular opinions (seemingly intentionally so) and his troll-ish, provocative writing style. He’s certainly an entertaining writer, but how much of an entertainer should a team’s spokesman be?
As expected, Larin has been learning the ins and outs of the job the hard way.
Larin, also host of KHL-TV’s show Probros (“The Icing”), kicked off his work with the Russian national team by publishing a release asking the media to avoid “distracting” questions, such as current happenings in the NHL (i.e. potential reinforcements for Team Russia from eliminated teams) and players missing from the roster for various reasons. The memo concluded by stating that the team “counts on [the media's] support.”
That didn’t sit well with some of the country’s sports journalists. Konstantin Vybornov, who made a name for himself working at the country’s highest-ranked TV network, Channel One, and now works within Russian Basketball Federation, wrote in his LiveJournal, “it seems like a censorship is established in Russian hockey.” Vybornov mocked the release saying that, while it asks for media’s support, it doesn’t ask for their opinion.
One game into the tournament, the team’s PR made its first blunder, detailing the nature of Andrei Loktionov’s injury in a tweet (since deleted). Loktionov is a free agent this summer. Specifics about injuries of players without a contract are usually kept confidential, and Coach Oleg Znarok explicitly stated that he wouldn’t discuss Loktionov’s ailment.
Larin didn’t stop there. During a press conference with Alex Ovechkin mid-tournament, he interrupted the interview to rant about the media’s concentration on certain personalities instead of the team. He was especially enraged when one member of the press asked Ovi about Evgeni Malkin, whose Pens had just been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs:
Colleagues, I’m asking Sasha to give me five seconds and I’m asking that of you too. It’s a matter of moderation. We have a team of 25 people, while all your questions are about Evgeni Malkin and stuff like that. Please notice what a great story we had in the last game when Egor Yakovlev scored his first goal, did you see who picked up the puck for him? It was the captain. We also had a great story with the assists when Alexander, for example, didn’t get the credit for the assist he didn’t run to the refs and was incredibly tactful. We have a team of 25 players while we’re fixated on Malkin. That’s why we had a statement that we have 25 people who won four games out of four. Let’s talk about young guys, too.
When Larin was done, Ovi jokingly asked, “So, can I leave now?”
Sergei Gimaev, who co-hosts Probros, expressed his unhappiness with the team’s PR during the broadcast of a group stage game between Russia and Belarus:
Russian journalists complain that after the new head of PR started working it’s become very difficult to get an interview with national team players, and that’s while coaching staff and [GM] Andrei Safronov are willing to communicate.
You can’t reach the players. I think FHR needs to work something out here. There are a lot of Russian media here. What should they write about? About Minsk and people who live here?
Coming back to Moscow after the tournament ended, Larin continued his trolling trip. As he went on air on Rain TV, he railed against a reporter from the network who questioned the tournament’s importance. The segment culminated in Larin characterizing the reporter, Maria Komandnaya (who wasn’t even at the studio at the time) as “telling the most charming, the most wonderful nonsense.”
That didn’t sit well with Komandnaya, who took revenge via Twitter, calling Larin “magical, unbelievable, universal idiot.”
We’ll see if Larin hangs on to his job. If he does, the World Championships are like ten times more fun to watch.