COLOGNE – Slovakia’s head coach Glen Hanlon stands in the tunnel that leads from the rink to the dressing room area, leaning on his stick, talking to reporters, with no apparent rush to go anywhere. He knows how the World Championships work, he’s in his sixth tournament. However, it's his first with Slovakia.
Exactly a year ago, almost to the day, then-Belarus coach Hanlon welcomed the international press to Minsk for the 2014 World Championship that the country had just been awarded. He had just signed a contract to coach both the national team and Dynamo Minsk, but a poor KHL season start stripped him of both jobs.
“I think you become almost a mercenary in the business and you have to quickly change your allegiances to a new country, especially when it’s a national program. Maybe it’s a positive thing? I’ve already rehearsed the “Welcome to Minsk” speech, I’ll use it next year in Bratislava,” he jokes.
Early this year, he started talking with the Slovak federation about joining their program, he says.
“I spoke with Slovakia in the Olympics, about next year. Jan Filc had the option to stay if he wanted to, but he stepped down in March so my taking over happened very quickly,” he says.
“I had an idea about what to do next year and in a perfect world, I could have observed the team and players first. Now we relied a lot on our staff and previous World Championships, which is fine,” he says.
Slovakia finished 2nd in 2000, and won the world championship in 2002, but hasn’t finished higher than sixth in the last five tournaments, and not higher that tenth since 2007. The Olympics put Slovakia back on the hockey map, at least for a while. At this tournament, the expectations shouldn't be based on the Olympic fourth-place finish, though.
It’s a different team, and Slovakia - who’ve had only four players taken in the last two NHL entry drafts - doesn’t have the deepest of talent pool.
“As every coach dreams, I wish we’d have the players from the Olympics, or, for this tournament, all the players from the KHL, but the players we have here have made a strong commitment to me, and have provided me with some great moments. I’m not missing anybody that’s not here,” he says.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure, either. We have ten kids in their first World Championship, and I think they’ve responded very well. If things don’t go well, nobody’s going to blame Richard Panik who played junior hockey this season, or Tomas Tartar who’s 19 years old. Like all young kids they’re happy, the tournament is amazing, it’s a fun time. Whatever they get is a bonus,” Hanlon adds.
At first look, Glen Hanlon may not have seemed like an obvious choice to lead the free-wheeling and skilled Slovaks. But he says neither the coach nor the team have had problems adapting to each other’s styles.
“Slovak hockey is about transition game. It’s about speed and being just on the edge of defence and offence. As soon as the puck changes hands, we’re gone,” he says, emphasizing his words with a quick swipe of his hand.
“My philosophy in my first year with Belarus was more static, but it’s changed a lot. That said, I still believe that when we don’t have the puck, it’s 100 percent team play. Everybody in the right position, five in each zone. If the puck’s in the defensive zone, I want five guys there, nobody’s going to be waiting at the red line,” he says.
On Tuesday, Hanlon’s Slovakia played Belarus, a team whose players and coaches he knows well. When the Belarusian players, on their way to the ice, see Hanlon, all of them shake hands with him, with grins on their faces.
“I know them as people, but I can’t say that I know exactly how they’re going to play. I’ve watched their tapes,” he said.
It was also an important game - like all games in this year’s tournament - with big points on the line. A loss would have put Slovakia in the hot seat in the last preliminary round game against Kazakhstan.
"I don’t like coaching against friends," Hanlon says.
"There are always consequences with losing, but in the NHL, if you lose the fourth game of the season, you still have 78 games to go. Here, when you lose one, your life has been altered dramatically. It’s not fun coaching against friends, trust me," he adds.
Last night, he left the arena with three points, with good friend, his former assistant Eduard Zankovets, left with nothing.
“We wanted to win, too, but after the game, after a couple of hours after the game, I realized that he deserved to win. It wasn’t easy for him to coach in Belarus, but he did such a great job there. He's the best coach in Belarusian hockey history. The Slovak national team is lucky to have him,” says Zankovets.
Sounds like while Glen Hanlon won’t be welcoming people to Minsk at the 2014 World Championship, he’s always welcome there.
Then again, who knows. Maybe he will be behind the Belarus bench come then. Coaching is a funny business.