Chelyabinsk tractor | The surprising Russian challenge of Benoît Groulx

For almost a year, Benoît Groulx has been thinking. To his own career, of course, but also to the profession of coach as such. And without anyone really expecting it – including him – it is in Russia that he will put the fruits of his thinking into practice.

The Chelyabinsk Traktor, in the KHL, announced Monday that they had hired the 56-year-old Quebecer, who has directed more than 1,400 season games in the QMJHL and the American League (AHL) over the past two decades. Groulx preferred the Traktor offer to that of an AHL team. Furthermore, this Gatineau native was not considered for the position of head coach of the Ottawa Senators in the NHL – “I didn’t get a call,” he says.

By talking with him, we quickly understand that his decision, although surprising, was not taken by default, and especially not on a whim.

“Every time I spoke to the leaders (of the team), I got closer to them,” says on the line the man who claims to leave with “the knife between his teeth”, excited at the idea of going to lead a “talented team” that aspires to great honors. Traktor lost in the semi-final of the Gagarin Cup a few weeks ago, after defeating powerful Moscow Dinamo in the previous round.

The organization first approached Groulx last October, but he declined the invitation – we will come back to that. Last month, when his future employer came back, he was in a better position to listen to the offer made to him.

He then contacted nine people who had already played in the KHL, as players or coaches. “Everyone, without exception, told me that they loved it and that it would be a great challenge,” assures Groulx. It’s a very good league. When everyone tells you that, you listen even more to the team that’s talking to you. So we discussed their way of seeing things, why they wanted to have me, etc. I made my decision last Saturday. I told them it was the best place for me, that I wanted to take on this challenge. »

The geopolitical context was “part of his thinking,” he says. The choice to work in a country at war comes with an inevitable burden. By invading Ukraine two years ago, Russia essentially alienated the Western world.

“I’m not a politician,” says Groulx. It doesn’t stop me from thinking and knowing what’s going on. But the best Russian players play in the NHL, and plenty of Canadian and American players play in Russia. I’m no different from these guys. I’m here to play a sport, to coach, to surpass myself. »


If Benoît Groulx finally said yes to the Traktor, it was because he felt he had done his homework.

He was in Switzerland last fall at the time of the first approach. “My head was not going coach in the KHL at that time, he recalls. When you make this jump, you have to prepare yourself adequately, from a personal point of view, but also from a hockey point of view. I wouldn’t have had the time I needed to feel in my element: getting to know the league, watching videos, etc. I would have been in an emergency, and that didn’t appeal to me. »

A little context: in June 2023, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Benoît Groulx agreed, “to a relatively common agreement,” as he wrote The Press at the time, to end his mandate as head coach of the Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning’s farm club. In seven years under his leadership, the team maintained a record of 256-152-71, in addition to being the springboard for future key players in the organization – Yanni Gourde, Anthony Cirelli and Ross Colton, in particular.

Over the past year, therefore, Groulx did recruiting work for the Lightning in the New York area, where he remained. But he also thought about his future.

Above all, he wanted to work for “a club that interests (him)”. So, if he was in Mark Streit’s country in October, it was quite simply to… “discover Swiss hockey”. The same approach also brought him to Germany.

“If I want to know, I have to go see,” he said to himself. His trip allowed him to “meet lots of CEOs and coaches” with whom he “discussed European hockey”. He also “walked around” in the NHL and AHL. This with the same goal, that of “deepening one’s knowledge” and introducing oneself to new “ways of doing things”.

“As my grandmother said: I had time in my pocket, so I used it. »

“It allowed me to meet lots of people and think about lots of things,” he continues. I have maybe five, seven, ten years left coach ? I do not know. It was my chance, at 55, to recharge my batteries, to make a reset ; to look elsewhere, what is ahead, what the coaching ask today. Communication and the message are essential things. That year allowed me to work on those things, just to be a better coach. »

Galvanized by this new energy, he began to concretely consider his next job. An AHL team asked him to become its head coach. Then the Traktor came back into the picture. This time he was ready to listen.

“The American League is a very good league, and I might go back there one day,” he concludes. But I won’t go to Russia when I’m 60. The challenge has come to fruition. I am eager to coach. »


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