ZURICH – The top eight teams in the 2012 IIHF World Championship all had domestic coaches. From the bottom eight teams, seven had foreign coaches. A coincidence? Hardly. History shows that quality long-term programs are built by home-grown leaders.
The top eight teams in the 2012 IIHF World Championship were Russia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Finland, Canada, Sweden, USA and Norway. Out of these teams, only Slovakia had a coach who is, technically, not from that country. Vladimir Vujtek is of course Czech but we take the liberty, for the purpose of tilting the research to our benefit, to consider him as a local.
But we have legitimate reasons. Czech and Slovak hockey are rooted in the same Czechoslovak tradition. The mentality and language are almost the same and, when active, Vujtek played for the Slovak club Dukla Trencin. It would be wrong to call Vujtek a foreigner in Slovakia.
From the bottom eight teams at the 2012 Worlds; France, Latvia, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Belarus, Italy and Kazakhstan, only the Kazakhs (Andrei Shayanov) had a home-grown coach.
For full fairness, it must be added that France’s David Henderson and Italy’s Rick Cornacchia, although both Canadians originally, are citizens of their new countries and have spent considerable time in Europe, especially Henderson who has served French hockey since the mid-70s as a player and coach.
But with some exceptions here and there, the tendency is clear. The best national team programs have domestic coaches, while the lesser, or emerging, hockey nations often recruit foreigners to run their national teams.
But the issue is of course not as simple as saying: “If you appoint a domestic coach you will be successful, but if you take a foreigner you will lose.”
To describe the full complexity of the issue, we can take a look at how the Soviet hockey program started after World War II. When Anatoli Tarasov and Arkadi Chernyshyov began drafting their master plan in the 40s and early 50s, they studied all available Canadian hockey literature and took every opportunity to watch Canadians play, including taking in NHL games during the six-team era.
But at one point they had to make the decision; to copy the Canadian game or to create something Soviet/Russian specific. Tarasov came to the conclusion that a copy will never be better than the original.
He determined some fundamentals on which Soviet/Russian ice hockey would be based. Since bandy (“hockey with a ball” in Russian) was the major winter team sport in the country, he would adopt the three most important basics from that game and take it to what Russians in the beginning called “hockey with a puck” or “Canadian hockey”. These fundamentals were: 1. Skating, 2. Passing, 3. Team concept.
Tarasov became convinced that only by creating something new, his players would be able to compete with the other established hockey countries, many of whom had played the game in some form since the early 1900s.
He wanted his players to perform in a way which reflected “the artistic and creative soul of the Russians”, a style with Russian-specific elements and he called it “our hockey”.
The rest is hockey history. The first time the Soviet Union showed up at a World Championship (1954) and at the Olympics (1956) they won. Less than 20 years after their international debut, the CCCP team was the equal of the best Canadian squad from the NHL in the historic 1972 Summit Series.
(Of course, since the Soviet hockey program was sanctioned by the highest political authorities, Tarasov, Chernyshyov and other Soviet hockey coaches got basically all the support they needed; time, money, infrastructure. But that’s a topic for another day.)
So what can emerging hockey nations learn from this? First and foremost, you need to have passion for the game and an idea in what direction you want to go with it. The ideological discussion must focus on national characteristics – how do we want our hockey to be played? What are we good at? What fits to our mentality, national characteristics and physical preconditions?
Once this ideological platform is decided upon, only coaches who are from this environment can fully bring out those intangible qualities from a group of players. History, from all team sports, shows that.
Why bringing in foreign coaches to national teams seldom works, depends on many factors. The most basic and under-appreciated factor is language. In 95 per cent of all cases the imported coach speaks a foreign language and already at this point there is a barrier.
But the most crucial factor is that the new coach very often lacks the necessary knowledge about the hockey tradition in the country he comes to, he is not familiar with the mentality and national characteristics of his new players who often come from a totally different ethnic and cultural environment than the coach.
As there very often is demand and expectation from the people at the national association for a “quick fix”, time is very seldom given to the new coach to become familiar with all those intangible factors. There is in most cases nothing wrong with the new coach, but he is usually put into a situation where it’s next to impossible to succeed.
Sweden was one of the very first national associations who experienced this clash in the early ‘70s. When legendary coach Arne Strömberg left the national team in 1971 after ten years at the helm of Tre Kronor, the Swedish association hired Canadian Billy Harris. The three-time Stanley Cup winner with Toronto was of course a very capable hockey man, but both the Swedes and Harris underestimated the challenges.
Language, tradition, style of the game, coaching techniques, new ways of relating to the players, these were all factors which became too much to overcome. After only one season, which included disappointments at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo and the World Championship in the same year, Harris and Tre Kronor decided to part ways.
So it is not so much the nationality itself which becomes an obstacle, but rather the lack of understanding of the preconditions and characteristics of a country’s hockey tradition.
A very good example of how a foreign national can have success is Ralph Krueger’s 13 years with the Swiss national team. Krueger, of course, is Canadian. But these are factors that made this relationship work and flourish:
- Krueger is of German origin, and before he came to Switzerland in 1997 he had spent 17 years is the country of his ancestors and later Austria, playing and coaching.
- In the process he learned the central-European hockey tradition and mentality and he perfected his German language skills.
- So when Krueger was appointed by the Swiss association in 1997, he was virtually a naturalized European who not only had identified the characteristics and needs of the Swiss programs, but he addressed his new players in their language.
So there is a substantial difference between the foundation that Krueger had coming in to Switzerland in 1997, compared to the preconditions of Billy Harris in 1971 in Sweden or to Glen Hanlon who was thrust into Slovak system after the national team’s strong 4th place finish at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
Again, there was nothing wrong with the skilled and merited Hanlon. But it was a marriage that didn’t have any prerequisites to work. Slovakia finished 12th in Germany 2010 and 10th at home in Bratislava a year later before the foreign coach, with a limited knowledge of what Slovak hockey stood for, was let go. With Vladimir Vujtek behind the Slovak bench, the team finished second in Helsinki.
Of course, a national team does need more than just a coach from the same country. The coach has to have the right qualities and he needs to have the opportunity to develop through the system. National hockey bodies need to have good coaching programs, and clubs at the top level need to put faith in domestic coaches.
Eventually, the best or the most apt from a pool of domestic coaches should be appointed as the national team coach.
A very good example of a developing hockey program which has started to have trust in its own capabilities and personnel is Norway. Apart from doing all the right things behind the international scenes (developing a national high-performance program, developing young coaches, making the domestic clubs and league stronger, improving the infrastructure), the national team has had one coach in the last eleven years.
Roy Johansen is as Norwegian as cooked cod and he has transformed the national team program from being good on Division I level to quarter-final competitive in the top pool of the IIHF World Championship. From being ranked 21st in the World in 2004, Norway is now 8th in the IIHF World Ranking, a Norwegian all-time high in the modern era.
Johansen would of course have had no chance if the youth system didn’t provide him with skilled labor to work with. But his and the association’s long-term approach, patience and the head coach’s ability to understand and bring out the best of the special characteristics and qualities of his players, have vastly contributed to Norway’s unprecedented rise through the ranks.
Patrick Thoresen, who as the first Norwegian was selected to a World Championship All Star Team, at the 2012 tournament, had this to say about the coach:
“Roy has a big part in hockey’s recent development in Norway,“ said Thoresen who plays in the KHL. “He follows a plan that he believes in and he has the ability to have the whole group go into the same direction.”
“Apart from being good at developing the physical part with young players, Roy has made us believe that we can compete against all teams. Earlier, ahead of games against any of the top teams, we knew we had no chance.”
Consider this: In the 23 years before Roy Johansen was appointed in 2001, Norway’s national team was led by a foreigner in 21 of those. For 17 of those years, the head coach was from Sweden.
Ask any Norwegian; Norway is not Sweden. It’s close, but still different. Copying your neighbor, albeit a very good one, will never take you to the top. Learn and bring over certain elements is a good start. But a program can only improve dramatically if it’s based on national conditions and where national characteristics are fully used to your advantage.
And only a domestic coach can fully exploit those.