LUGANO, Switzerland - 21° Celsius on the weekend - not only because of the weather is Lugano more suitable for its palms than for hockey right now. The town harbouring high expectations in hockey since HC Lugano began to collect trophies in the mid-80s, certainly wants more than it has seen recently.
After a good start with seven wins in ten games, the club from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland began to struggle under coach Ivano Zanatta, who has been working with HC Lugano since 2000. After a fourth consecutive loss, which was against the derby rival Ambri-Piotta of all teams, Kent Ruhnke was installed. Lugano had fallen down to ninth place at that time.
Ruhnke, a Canadian who won championships with SC Bern and the ZSC Lions (Zurich), and lead EHC Basel from the National League B to the National League A playoffs in 2006, had to bring back success. Despite his abilities as a great motivator, it was probably the worst decision in the club's history.
Since the mid-80s, when still-active patron Geo Mantegazza - a billionaire and the richest man in the canton of Ticino - made HC Lugano the first real professional hockey club in Switzerland, the brand HC Lugano has stood for skilled, offensive-based and entertaining hockey. The team has been a collection of skilled Swiss players supplemented by stars of European ice hockey - especially Scandinavians. Mikael Nylander, Igor Larionov, Kenta Johansson, Mats Naslund, Petteri Nummelin, Cristobal Huet and Ville Peltonen; they all played high level hockey in Lugano and most of them directly conquered spots in the NHL later.
Ruhnke on the other hand lets play a typical Canadian-style hockey, putting more effort in defensive and physical work. The players rebelled; they told the management and Ruhnke their displeasure about the coach change behind their backs. After only three wins in eight games, Ruhnke had to go as well. If even the championship-winning Ruhnke cannot bring success, who can? The black-and-whites went back to their roots and turned to their former magician: John Slettvoll.
The now 63-year-old Swede first came to Lugano in 1983, and was part of the club until 1996 with a short interruption in the 1992-1993 season. He led the club to its first-ever championship in 1986, and was a four-time champion coach with Lugano. He also reached the final round of the European Cup twice and joined the Swiss association as a coach. He grabbed the fourth place with the Swiss national team at the 1992 IIHF World Championship in Prague and Bratislava and bronze with the U20 national team in 1998. He later became coach of his home club Bjorkloven Umea in Sweden. After the relegation from Elitserien in 2001, he resigned.
"I needed a time-out," says John Slettvoll, he wanted to have time for other things and distance himself from the identity as a hockey coach. "Even though it's like a drug, but one time you have to stop and it's better to decide by yourself." He was not completely without hockey. He was a consultant for his first-ever club Tegs Umea, which was in the second-tier league Allsvenskan during two seasons, wrote a weekly column for a newspaper and was also a hockey commentator later on. After five years away from the bench, he had a one-week comeback with Italian club Bolzano Foxes but left the club, complaining that the environment was not professional enough.
During the ongoing season, Slettvoll was already in Switzerland and attended a game in Zurich, where his son lives. He talked with Beat Kaufmann, the former HC Lugano and recent EHC Basel manager, causing rumours about a new comeback. But Slettvoll was not interested. "I haven't done any effort to find a job, but when (Lugano president) Paolo Rossi called me on 7th January and convinced me that I'm their man, I agreed. I would have declined if it were another club than Lugano," the Swede says.
Lugano and they surprised everyone with Slettvoll's return on January 8. His wife must also have been surprised and had a "neutral attitude" to her husband's decision. She remained in Northern Sweden, where they own an apartment building and a new tenant is expected. "Maybe she will visit me in some weeks," Slettvoll adds.
The Swede began with a four-game winning streak, and has won five out of six games so far. Slettvoll took over the team on the tenth position, and now they are eighth, and more importantly in a playoff spot with seven games remaining. Anything but a qualification for the quarter-final would be considered a big embarrassment for a club of that talent level. The club had already had several national team players and added amongst others former Colorado and Montreal netminder David Aebischer and Anson Carter during the season. While former NHL star and World Champion Carter is having a decent season with 20 points in 30 games, his attitude was publicly critisised by Sandy Jeannin, the Swiss national team forward, who is captain and top scorer of HC Lugano.
For Slettvoll, many things have changed since the 90s. "The speed is higher, the players better and stronger. It's the same development as in Sweden," Slettvoll explains. Nevertheless, Lugano's most successful coach didn't need much time to adjust. "I was all my life in hockey as a player or coach, from 1960 to 2001. You don't forget what you have learnt." Diego Scandella, who has been assistant coach in Lugano for years, helps to get impressions of the opponents as Slettvoll has not followed Swiss ice hockey recently, even though he clarifies that the opponents have to adjust to Lugano's game and not Lugano to the opponent.
One thing has remained the same: the pressure to be a top team and to reach the playoffs. "If you have to be top and you're not, it's hard for the players. I had to free them from the pressure to reach the playoffs, to bring back pleasure and the feeling of security. We have to take game by game and at the end we will see if it's enough for the playoffs", Slettvoll says. "To think about the playoffs does not help but burden us." The new and former HC Lugano head coach focuses on the players, their potential and to oversee the overall picture. "We can just influence the next practice and thus the next game. My players cannot bring out more than their best, but they want to achieve something here."
By the end of February, we will know if Slettvoll's success story with Lugano will continue. Maybe with surprising playoffs in the Swiss National League A?Notebook:
- After signing former NHL players David Aebischer and Anson Carter, Lugano got two forwards from the north prior to the transfer deadline. Jonas Hoglund (Farjestad Karlstad, Sweden) joined last week, Toni Happola (Assat Pori, Finland) arrived yesterday. Hoglund, who didn't have his best season in Sweden, replaced Carter and scored four goals in his first three games. For the next five seasons, Lugano signed Canadian Hnat Domenichelli of archrival HC Ambri-Piotta. He is expected to get the Swiss passport being married to a Swiss and having lived there for several years.
- "I have never had so many injured players," complained Mike McParland, the head coach who suffered the 40th defeat in the 44th game with EHC Basel. Nine players including four imports were missing when they lost 1-6 against Kloten.
- Berne was announced to have the first clash against an NHL team, the New York Rangers, on September 30. Maybe Davos could be next as their former player and today's San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson tries to convince the management for a preseason camp in the Swiss mountains. His franchise player Joe Thornton practices in Davos each August since he played for HC Davos during the lockout season 2004-2005.
- Swiss clubs seem to be interested in Doug Shedden, the head coach of the Finnish national team and of Jokerit Helsinki. There were rumours in the Swiss media that HC Lugano, the ZSC Lions (Zurich) and EV Zug are in contact with him for next season.
- Former national team defender Philippe Marquis announced that he will end his career after more than 600 NLA games. The HC Fribourg-Gottéron player wants to leave ice hockey and work in his hometown for a watch manufacturer.
- Lausanne and Biel top the National League B but the former seems to be favourite with a high budget and attendance. Lausanne signed five new players (Steve Brulé, Nicolas Burdet, Lee Jinman, Pascal Lamprecht, Daniel Rufenacht), Biel just three (Robert Burakovsky, Jérémie Kamerzin, Marco Truttmann), most of them from competing teams who cannot reach the playoffs anymore. Last week, Lausanne also released its head coach Kevin Ryan after decent performances of his team and replaced him with Paulin Bordeleau, whose son Sébastien plays for SC Bern.