BUDAPEST – At the noble age of 66 some people decide to work less and to be closer to home. Not so Bernd Haake. The German coach is full of ambition after becoming head coach of the Lithuanian national team last September. His first real test will be the Olympic Qualification tournament in Budapest.
It was anything but a quiet summer at the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Association in Vilnius. The national team just came off a disappointing performance at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B and the atmosphere in and around the national team was anything but rosy.
President Peter Nauseda resigned after the tournament but found himself re-elected a few months later. Strengthened by the vote of confidence, one of Nauseda’s first tasks was to appoint a new head coach. He didn’t have to search for long, as Bernd Haake came forward as soon as he was made aware of the vacancy.
“He is a very professional and experienced coach, and our team needs this,” Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation Secretary Tomas Budrauskas commented. “Additionally we have good hopes that he can bring some German discipline to our team.”
Two things make Haake’s appointment unique. First of all it’s the first Western European coach for Lithuania. Secondly Haake will not receive a salary but will work on a voluntary basis, with just his transportation costs covered.
Haake might not be a well-known name to many, yet he has been actively coaching for nearly four decades. He mainly worked within Germany where he was a long-time assistant coach at Kölner Haie and Iserlohn Roosters but also picked up international experience with jobs in Canada, Norway, the United States and Italy.
“When I learned about the opportunity to work here I was immediately fascinated by the challenge,” Haake said when explaining his choice to come to Lithuania. “I’ve seen several recent games of the team on video and think this team can do better. But with players spread out over nine different countries it will be difficult to gel them into one solid squad. I’m confident I can achieve this and help Lithuania further.”
With just seven indoor rinks available, Haake realizes it won’t be easy to grow hockey and make it more popular in a country dominated by basketball. The domestic top team Energija Elektrenai no longer plays in the stronger Latvian league, and the other club teams are facing the difficulty of keeping their heads up in economical bad weather.
“However, unlike other countries, we do have the availability of ice time all year long, which is something we need to exploit in the summer months,” said Haake from a positive point of view.
In preparation for the second stage of the Olympic Qualifying games in Budapest, Haake’s optimism was tested thoroughly. First there was an announcement made by the Federation Secretary about New Jersey Devils forward Dainius Zubrus being part of the preliminary roster.
Lithuania’s only NHL player, who was present in the room during the announcement, was unaware of this though and immediately questioned his participation. In the end the insurance costs proved too much for Zubrus to join the team he hasn’t represented since 2005.
Another blow for Haake was the fact that several of his top players decided not to be available for this tournament and instead will stay with their club teams. Among this group are veterans Mindaugas Kieras, Darius Pliskauskas as well as the Kumeliauskas brothers, Donatas and Tadas. However, they did re-assure Haake they will be available for the upcoming World Championship Division I Group B in Ukraine in April.
That tournament will be an important milestone for Haake. The German head coach will use the Olympic Qualifier as a preparation for the World Championship.
“When selecting the squad we had the future of Lithuanian hockey in mind,” Haake said. “We want to be well prepared for the World Championship and thus the tournament in Hungary is a perfect moment for some players to see if they can bring to the table what’s needed to be successful in April.”
Haake is convinced that Lithuania won’t be pushovers in Budapest either. “We will put up a fight in every game and battle for every single point. We have to be realistic in the fact that we have a rejuvenated team in Budapest and surely we will miss our top players, but you can be sure that no opponent will have an easy game against us.”
The Lithuanian roster in Budapest will count 10 players who are aged 23 or below including budding Lithuanian hockey star Daniel Bogdziul. The 18-year old forward, who plays for Ilves Tampere’s youth team in Finland, made a name for himself last season when he managed to score in three different World Championships for his country: U18, U20 and men’s.