BUCHAREST, Romania - He is the first NHL player in Romanian ice hockey. Cam Severson turned down a coaching position at a top junior team to continue his playing career at Steaua in Bucharest.
The Saskatchewan-born forward has not only been Steaua's star player, but also doubled as their head coach and is set to play an integral part in promoting the game in the Romanian capital. Here the former Anaheim and Columbus player tells iihf.com about his experiences in what has been an eventful first season in Romania.
When the season started, you had retired from playing and to begin a coaching career. What made you decide to hang up your skates?
I was sick of being stepped on. Last summer, my agent tried to find deals for me. I had played for Linz in Austria, and they wanted to re-sign me, but they lost sponsorship money. A lot of promises had been made, but at end of the season, things had changed.
I was really lucky to have played in the NHL and nobody can take that away from me, but I was fed up with people telling me things that weren't true and lying to my face. So I retired at the beginning of the season, and would have been the assistant coach of the Spokane Chiefs (WHL), which was a big honour, to go straight from playing to coaching top junior players.
But instead you continued your playing career in Romania. What happened?
I still had playing in me. I what might happen when I’m sitting behind the desk knowing that I still could be playing? When this offer from Steaua first came, I said to my agent, 'Romania, what are you talking about? Are you for real?' Initially I thought that I should see what else was out there, but they kept contacting my agent. My agent talked to Cristian (Cîrlan, President of Steaua’s ice hockey section) about his ideas on building hockey.
It was very appealing to be the first Canadian here and try to develop hockey in Romania. So I went to the office head coach of Spokane and told him the story. He said, 'If you don't take this offer from Steaua, I am going to fire you anyway!' If he could do what I had been offered he said he still would be playing. So I got in touch with Cristian and the rest is history.
What were your first impressions of Romania and Bucharest?
It caught me off guard. I googled it and Bucharest looked really nice. When I got here I was immediately stuck in traffic. It's a huge city, there are people everywhere and when I looked at the buildings I thought to myself, 'wow'. It was overwhelming. Then they took me to a pretty run down arena. There’s not a lot of fans, so you kind of think, where did my career go? I've played in the NHL, DEL and in Austria and now I’m here.
Describe your role with Steaua. How does it differ from previous teams?
I came to Romania to build something. I knew the league wasn't at the highest level, but I felt this offer was a lot more stable. From day one it has been a three to five year plan to develop ice hockey in Bucharest. For a player to know that he could play for another three to five years is appealing. When I played for Straubing in Germany, I had a great first year. The next year, I had one goal and no assists in my first eleven games and they were all over me. The next thing I knew I was out of there. They pay you a lot of money, but if you don't perform you're finished. In North America, I was a grinder, a third or fourth-line guy who fought a lot and played a physical game, and then all of a sudden I was in Germany.
I got to play in the first line and got an offensive role. It was great, but if you don't score you're finished. In Germany and Austria I was just another import, here I have to perform well on the ice, but also with Cristian when it comes to marketing, meeting sponsors, finding investors so that was why I came here.
How were you welcomed by your new teammates?
They went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. Here is a guy who has played in the NHL and they were a bit shy around me. But I went out of my way to show them that I am just a normal guy and to be a part of the team.
You arrived as a player and finished the season as player-coach. How did that happen?
One thing led to another. I was soon named assistant coach to help the head coach, but as time went on they approached me to be the head coach. I initially said no, but we talked about it, and then decided to give it a try.
I do have a coaching mentality, but in terms of running a semi-professional hockey team, it's been a challenge to see if I could coach one day. It's been very hard to focus on coaching and playing. I am looked upon in the team to win games, but also to try to run a decent team. So I've been quite busy since I was officially made head coach.
What has been your impression on the level of the game in Romania?
I was surprised. I honestly thought I was coming here to play with guys who couldn't even stand on skates, because as a Canadian, you hear nothing about Romania. But the skill level and the level of the league were better than I thought. Some of the guys are pretty good players. We have some very good and legendary Steaua players like Cătălin Geru and Ioan Timaru.
What’s the biggest difference between a Romanian and a Canadian player?
It comes down to coaching. They haven't had the coaching that a Canadian has had. But as far as their individual skills, they skate well, the handle the puck well, but the systems just haven't been taught the right way. As a coach I take for granted a lot of the things that these guys have never been taught.
I have five to seven different drills to run through during practice and I realize I have to be more thorough and explain. But they're like sponges, they want to learn, never mind the 16-17 year olds, but also the guys that are 36-37.
What is the most important lesson you have learned from your rookie season in Romanian ice hockey?
I've realized how spoilt we often are as players. In North America, Austria and Germany we're pampered and treated like kings. Coming here you'll have to understand that it's not going to be as smooth as you are used to. I am learning the business of hockey, and as a player you normally have no clue of what is going on behind the scenes. It has prepared me for life after hockey, which is amazing for a player.
What about life in Romania outside of ice hockey. How have you adapted to life in Bucharest?
Living in Romania is a completely different world. The good thing is that the people here are unbelievable, they are so nice. I've had many times this year when I've ran into complete strangers who have helped me. People go out of their way just to be nice. The English in this city is unbelievable.
But then there’s the Romanian way of driving. I've played in Los Angeles and that is very bad traffic, but Bucharest it's just something else, no rules, nothing. My wife didn't make any attempt to get behind the wheel for about a month and a half. It's been an adventure, but I don't drive too much. I go to the arena and I go to the mall. My wife and my two year old daughter were here for three months, but have recently returned home. It's hard to be away from your family but the coaching has kept me busy.
Tell us more about Steaua's plans for the future and trying to promote ice hockey in Bucharest?
We want to build a new arena and make this is a very professional team. But we're owned by the military which don't need to make money, so there is no marketing at the moment. Nobody knows that there is ice hockey here. There are a few thousand Canadians living in Bucharest, and I've ran into twenty of them during the course of the season. They ask me what am I doing here, and I say I am here to play hockey. ‘There's a hockey team here?’ they say.
The Romanian government is building six rinks in Romania. Bucharest is a big city and it's on the up and developing. I think the opportunity is there on a business standpoint, and with the new arena, if it would be built, it would go with the snap of the finger and ice hockey will be the big show in town.
This season Steaua won the Romanian Cup, but missed the playoffs. What are Steaua's goals for next season?
We want to bring in high level imports and we want a professional coach. And as a player, let's win the Romanian championship. But that's all talk and there are lots of steps to be taken for us to get there. This year we never had a chance. Sport Club and HC Csíkszereda were better than us, but we won the Romanian Cup, which was a very positive start. Next season we will be after the top teams, aim for the MOL-league play-offs and the Romanian championship. It's going to be exciting.
What about your own plans for next season?
I am here for the long run, but things have to go in a positive way. We need sponsorship and we need investors. We have lots of dreams and lots of plans, but things have to start happening. We have spent all this season working on this and we have found the right people. Now we just have to move forward. And if I see that things are going the right way, then I am here. That's it and that's as honest as I can be.