Chased from China by virus, first Thrashers coach looks to return

It was around the middle of January when Curt Fraser got the idea that it would be a good time to get out of China.

What an odd place it was for a hockey coach to find himself, in Beijing working behind the bench of the Kunlun Red Star of the Kontinental Hockey League. Fraser's career seemed to court oddities. He was the first coach of Atlanta's Thrashers (long since moved to Winnipeg). After he was fired by the Thrashers in 2002, he had bounced between some assistant NHL jobs, a stint with the minor league Grand Rapids Griffins, a couple of years coaching the Belarusian national team and now this – translating hockey into Mandarin.

By mid-January, with the Kontinental season winding down, there was this viral menace in Wuhan, China, gaining speed. It was time to get while the getting was good.

First, Fraser’s team retreated to Moscow – the KHL plays at a level below the NHL with largely a Russian collection of teams, with the addition of single teams in Belarus, Finland, Latvia, Kazakhstan, and China. They played a series of road games and then scattered for their various homelands when the league eventually suspended play. For Fraser, that meant going back to Dallas, where he has kept a home since his days as a Stars assistant.

And he was feeling quite grateful when he got there.

“We had been checked twice as a team for the coronavirus and everybody was fine, all green lights,” Fraser, 62, said this week from home. “We did our tour through Russia playing games, and at the end, guys went home, and so far, everybody is in great health. For a team that hung around in China for five or six months, I think we’re all pretty lucky.”

The first Thrashers coach has become the Rick Steves of hockey, a fearless world traveler. Europe, China, Atlanta – he’s explored all the frontiers of the game.

The China offer came along at the close of the Red Star’s 2018-19 season. “I guess I did something right because they wanted me back,” Fraser said. “I figured, let’s try it again – different side of the world, see the KHL, which I was excited about. It was awesome. It was really good, right up until this happened and things went south.”

Besides all the difficulties of selling hockey in China as well as incorporating the occasional Chinese player into a league occupied by some experienced, tough Russians, western Europeans and North Americans, Fraser would be faced with some crushing travel. Beijing is not close to anywhere in the hockey-playing world. It’s 3,600 miles to Moscow, around which most of the competition is based. And nearly 4,000 miles to the farthest road stop, Jokerit, Finland. There was no such thing as the quick road trip, as the Red Star would leave for weeks-long journeys.

“There’s nothing easy about coaching or playing in China. It’s a challenge,” Fraser said.

As for the league itself, Fraser said: “It’s been a real neat experience. The players seem to enjoy seeing a different part of the world. And playing in the KHL has been really, really good for players. Most of them are not NHL-level players, and instead of playing in the American (Hockey) League or the East Coast Hockey League or in Germany or in Finland, they come here. It’s not the NHL, but it’s better than the American League. It’s good hockey, and they get a chance to play and get compensated pretty well. It’s another avenue for them to play and enjoy their career.”

So, one wonders, was it harder to start a hockey team in Atlanta or China?

“In Beijing, every year they got rid of the coach, changed all the players and started over again,” Fraser said of the team that joined the KHL in 2016. “What I’ve been trying to do is keep a core group and build on it like you would here in North America. Hopefully we can do that. I don’t think there are going to be any shortcuts or quick fixes competing with the KHL’s top teams until you start building a solid group.

“In Atlanta, it was very difficult coming in there because the players you got then were all hard-working kids who were third,- fourth-, fifth-line players in the NHL, and it was hard for them to compete. Here it’s kind of the same. You got to establish a foundation and build it up. But a lot of things come with China that didn’t come with Atlanta. It’s going to be hard.”

Into his fourth season with the Thrashers, the team stumbling through a difficult December, winning only two of 11 games, Fraser was fired on the day after Christmas 2002.

He packed no hard feelings when he left Atlanta for parts far and wide.

“I haven’t a complaint in the world, it was a great experience,” he said of his Thrashers years. “It was a challenge every day, but it was awesome. The people were great; I loved the city. Beijing is a nice city, the people are nice, too, and hopefully we can get things going in the right direction.”

The Red Star was fifth in the six-team Chernyshev Division, with a 26-36 record, when this season was halted. Fraser’s “normal” just may be different from everyone else’s in professional hockey. But his idea of a return to normalcy would be training camp in China come late July.

Fraser said he’s prepared to return if that league resumes. There certainly is no going back to the Thrashers.