Ice Network

Shpilband's influence felt across skating world

Novi-based coach greatly responsible for elevating discipline of ice dance
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Igor Shpilband's impact on the sport of ice dance cannot be overstated. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2013-14 Person of the Year on May 15. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an icenetwork contributor.

There is probably no person in the skating world who has influenced the sport worldwide, and in the United States, as much as Igor Shpilband. Look at the numbers: He coached (or co-coached) 10 teams at the 2014 European Championships, eight at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games and eight at 2014 World Championships, and had the two best teams in the world from 2005-12. Therefore, he is my choice for icenetwork Person of the Year.

Born in Moscow, he finished second at the world junior championships in 1981 with partner Tatiana Gladkova, and the next season the team won the world junior title. They were coached by the legendary Lyudmila Pakhomova, who had won the first-ever ice dance gold medal at the Olympic Games, with Alexander Gorshkov in 1976.

Gladkova and Shpilband seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of the great Soviet ice dancers. Their training became greatly hindered, however, by the deteriorating health of Pakhomova, who had been diagnosed with leukemia. Shpilband and Gladkova never made it to either the European or world championships.

After Pakhomova died in 1986, Shpilband finished his competitive career.

"She became a legend during her lifetime," he said. "And I learned a lot from her while I was a skater."

Especially how a good coach should work.

In 1990, Shpilband and a group of other Soviet skaters were touring the U.S. with Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Shpilband and Veronika Pershina, a former Soviet pairs skater whom he later married, decided to defect and stay in the country. They left their hotel with nothing more than their video camera and their skates. 

Soon afterward, Shpilband got a coaching and choreographer position at the Detroit Skating Club. There, he teamed with British ice dance coach Elizabeth Coates, whose greatest strength was teaching compulsory dances. Their first top couple were U.S. dancers Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow, who had lived in Detroit before but had moved to train in Colorado.

"We had no idea who he was. We really only know that his name was Igor," Swallow told icenetwork in May 2011.

Although Shpilband's English was very limited, he choreographed two programs for the couple in early 1992.

They liked his work so much that they came back to Detroit to work with him permanently. In the summer of 1992, Shpilband created their free dance for the 1992-93 season.

The judges liked their attractive programs as well, and in January 1994 they went with him to the Olympics in Lillehammer, where they placed 15th. He continued working with them for four more years, during which time they twice placed sixth at worlds (1997, '98) and took seventh at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

In those years, most of the teams who came to Shpilband were young and inexperienced. With teams like Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, they arrived at his rink as juniors, and he, along with eventual coaching partner Marina Zoueva, formed them into what they became.

He had several world junior champions, including Jessica Joseph and Charles Butler (1998), Jamie Silverstein and Justin Pekarek (1999) and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto (2002).

From 2001 until June of 2012, Shpilband coordinated with Zoueva to form the most successful ice dance school in the world. They left Detroit in 2003 to start a new school at the Arctic Edge Arena in nearby Canton.

Success on the senior level came next. Students Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev topped the U.S. podium five years in a row (1999-2003). Their run was followed by that of Belbin and Agosto, who won five U.S. titles of their own (2004-08), four world medals and an Olympic silver medal in 2006. Another of his couples, Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe, medaled at the Canadian championships every year from 1997 to 2006.

Since 2010, Shpilband and Zoueva's longtime students, Davis and White, and Virtue and Moir, have been heads and shoulders above all other ice dance teams in the world, winning either gold or silver at every stop. (The only times one team has failed to win a competition is when it was outdone by the other.) Their rivalry has been one of the highlights in the sport for many years.

In 2011, the Canton dancers reached new heights: At the world championships in Moscow, Shpilband and Zoueva's teams won all three medals, with Davis and White winning gold, Virtue and Moir taking silver and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani grabbing bronze. It was fitting that the biggest highlight of their career came in their former home country.

Shpilband struck out on his own in 2012, setting up camp in nearby Novi. Although many of his former teams decided to stay with Zoueva, others, including Madison Chock and Evan Bates, followed the coach to his new digs. He quickly re-established himself as a leading figure in the sport, attracting teams like Italian world champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte and French couple Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat.

He is widely regarded as the best technical coach in the world. This is not by accident.

"Yes, I work hard. Whenever new ISU rules come out, I sit down on long evenings, sometime nights, and study them thoroughly," Shpilband said. "I talk to rule experts and discuss with them what the rules mean and what the judges want."

Péchalat shed some light on how Shpilband has managed to remain on top in an August 2013 icenetwork article.

"Igor has a very strict work ethic; he is a very disciplined worker and sees every tiny mistake right away," she said. "He knows very well where to put the elements in the program."

On the surface, that may seem like an easy thing to do, but it's not. It's no coincidence Shpilband's teams are among the best in the world year in and year out. The man's success, and that of his teams, can be directly attributed to his high level of expertise and unwavering commitment to his craft, and his sport.

As Cappellini told icenetwork in an article from July 2012, "He's just about the best you can find in the world."

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