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Canadian Curt Fraser coaching Belarus at IIHF World Hockey Championship

The Canadian Press
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The Hockey News
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Canadian Curt Fraser coaching Belarus at IIHF World Hockey Championship

The Canadian Press
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The Eastern European country had a best-ever sixth-place finish at the tournament last year under Hanlon and will have trouble repeating the feat in Russia.

Fraser, a former NHL coach and player, is now in charge and estimates his team is missing eight players here, including young Montreal Canadiens forwards Mikhail Grabovsky and Andrei Kostitsyn who are still in the AHL playoffs with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Other potential players are injured.

The team has had trouble playing against stronger opponents, as it will do again Friday against Canada (8:15 a.m. ET).

"Their confidence is very fragile," Fraser said after practice Thursday. "They see an NHL team, the Americans, standing across the ice. Or the Czechs. They get a little (nervous).

"They're better as the game goes."

It's all part of the learning curve for some of the country's younger players.

Fraser has spent quite a bit of time over the past few months in Minsk getting to know the country, its hockey league and its players.

He's also kept company with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who plays hockey recreationally. The country's interior minister, Vladimir Naumov, is the president of its hockey federation and hired Fraser.

The 48-year-old was the first ever coach of the Atlanta Thrashers and played in the NHL with Vancouver, Chicago and the Minnesota North Stars.

Fraser has spent a lifetime involved in hockey and has been impressed with the attitude he's encountered from those around the game in Belarus.

"The kids are eager to learn, they're like sponges out here," he said. "They want to get better. They've never played in systems before.

"I've tried to speed them up a lot, more North American practices."

Former NHLer Vladimir Tsyplakov is one of his assistant coaches and helps with translation along with assistant Eduard Zankovets. Sean Simpson, who has helped coach many Canadian teams in the past, is also on Fraser's staff.

They do things by committee but Fraser does encounter difficulties. For example, he's yet to find a Russian equivalent for the word "resilient."

"Language can be a bit of an issue when you're trying to change things," said Fraser. "There's a lot of words that don't translate."

Still, it seems to have been an experience he's thoroughly enjoyed.

The biggest downside for Fraser has been the amount of time he's had to spend away from his wife and three boys over the past couple months. They live back in St. Louis, where he last held an NHL job as an assistant on Mike Kitchen's staff. Canadian coach Andy Murray replaced Kitchen as head coach of the Blues last December.

Fraser credits Hanlon, coach of the Washington Capitals, for turning the Belarus program around. Hanlon joined Belarus during the NHL lockout and coached them again at last year's world championship in Latvia.

"Glen started paving the way," said Fraser. "He got everything going. He implemented some real good systems of play and a little more structure to their game.

"I'm just keeping it pushing along and trying to work on it getting better."

He needs some better fortune from the available player pool, though, before they can start thinking about winning medals at this event.

Too many players are missing from the lineup in Moscow.

"We need every Belarusian - all the top players to be able to compete," said Fraser.

The country boasts a growing number of young hockey players that should start cracking the national roster by the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.

Fraser feels good about where hockey is headed in Belarus.

"You can't believe how much they love the team there," said Fraser. "They're really, really trying to get the program going."

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Canadian Curt Fraser coaching Belarus at IIHF World Hockey Championship