ZURICH – HC Davos will have what their coach Arno Del Curto call “the highlight in the history of the club” when the reigning Swiss champion takes on the Chicago Blackhawks tonight.
Del Curto is known as an energetic and headstrong coach. He stands behind the bench in a sweater or a track suit – never in a suit, in the NHL fashion that has reached other Swiss clubs.
To describe Davos’s mastermind, the bench boss since 1997, is difficult. You have to know him. Experience him.
He’s so in love with his daily work with the players that he even turned down an offer last week to become Ralph Krueger’s successor behind the national team bench.
Here’s a try to bring over Del Curto’s flair – some quotes from interviews with Radio Grischa and with the newspaper Tages-Anzeiger.
You’re known to be addicted to hockey. Did you have any vacation during the summer?
After the season I watched NHL games but that’s like holidays – and an annual ritual – for me. I just enjoy watching it without being so emotional like during our own games. Otherwise, I forgot what hockey is during summer and didn’t even talk about it. The season is so long that it feels good not to think about hockey for some weeks.
What has changed during your 14 years in Davos?
The game has become quicker, more intense and tougher. Swiss players are working hard to bridge the gap to the big nations. When I compare to the situation 15 or 20 years ago, it’s like a different world. There are more practices, players are bigger, and we work more on skills. If I could, I would produce 20 Ovechkins – when you look at his skill level – but the kids have to start practising at a high level earlier.
What was your most important time of your coaching career before Davos?
I could learn something with every club but I think my most important time was with the U20 national team where I could try things with the young players and where we played against the world’s best nations. All this I could take to my first season in Davos.
Your career as a player ended with a foot injury at 21. How did you decide to become a coach?
First I thought about a comeback but after two years I realized that it wouldn’t happen. Then I had to choose between music and hockey. I chose hockey because I could never have played on the stage together with Led Zeppelin, for that I was too unknown. I played guitar in a rock band.
Then I took over a junior team of Wallisellen, I had no clue about how to coach, about systems, power play, or box play, but somehow I could motivate the players and they had fun. I thought it could become a rags-to-riches career because I reached what I wanted despite a lack of knowledge at that time.
Did you have a team you dreamt to coach at that time?
At that time it was ZSC and that dream was fulfilled, but I was still learning at that time. It was the only time I was fired and I’m still grateful for that because afterwards I became the U20 national team coach. It went very quickly and suddenly I had to coach the team, which had learnt to play defensively, in an exhibition game against Team USA prior to the World Juniors. They were so fast that I asked myself what we were doing there. We lost 14-1.
Then we had a similar game against Finland. In the night after that game I told myself that we have to change everything. We played more offensively, I had to motivate them better, to teach them passion. We got relegated but the games against the big nations were close, not lopsided like before. I knew I was on the right path. So I was really lucky to be fired in Zurich, otherwise I’d still let play Swedish hockey.
How do you motivate yourself after so many years with the same teams?
Usain Bolt runs 100 metres in 9.58 seconds, and then he’d like to run 9.57. I want to do the same with my team, and then 9.50, and then under nine, and then 8.30. Everything becomes quicker, more intense, with the legs, arms and head. And that’s my motivation, that’s fun for me. But until I’ll have reached 8.30, I’ll already be six feet under.
You seem to be never satisfied. Is that the key to your success?
I’m often asked that. It’s difficult to say. It’s just like it is, automatically.
If you were a player, which type of player would you be?
A skilled, intelligent player, like Ovechkin. A centre like I was during my career as a player. A goal getter with offensive and defensive instincts. And a very quick player. And maybe 5 centimetres taller, more muscles, less fat.
Did you only learn by doing or did you also attend courses?
I did all the courses in Switzerland, then spent some months in Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Canada. It’s a different culture and it taught me a lot. Then I became friends with Alpo Suhonen and we philosophized about hockey very often.
You are known for your close relationship to players. How much of a friend can you be as a coach?
According to coaching or management courses, not at all. But it works for me. I’m a friend of the players but when the chips are down, all I want to see is a good performance. It’s not difficult at all. Probably they can see it in my eyes when they have to be careful with me.
With Andres Ambühl, Michel Riesen and Petr Sykora, you lost 100 goals. What’s the effect on the team of those three players gone?
We have young players who could score goals. We have now Daniel Widing who can score goals. Peter Guggisberg made another step, he could score 20 or 30 more goals. He’s so quick and skilled that he could be a first-liner in any NHL team, he just needs an uncompromising will to win. And hopefully the defencemen will score more goals. Players who have been with me for 14 years like Reto von Arx or Sandro Rizzi must score more. We must compensate the losses as a team, that’s the only way. Ambühl, for example, came to us as a junior, as an 18-year-old he scored 10 points, one year later 20 points and so on.
You said the last championship was the most beautiful for you.
Every championship was special but this one was more special. At the end it was our mental strength that was the key. We played 21 playoff games in 44 days, that’s a phenomenal performance. When the final series switched to Kloten, I decided to change the goalkeeper just 30 minutes before the game.
Before the last game I went home to everybody and said: ‘We won’t give up! Only the championship counts! We don’t want an honourable defeat.’ At the end we won. It’s easier when you already know how to win championships, otherwise you’re thinking too much.
Did you also watch how the ZSC Lions played in the Champions Hockey League?
Yes, they played extremely well. I would like to play in the CHL too with my team, to try something new and maybe to also succeed there, to show how close Swiss hockey is to the best European nations.
However, now you can let your team play against Chicago.
It’s the biggest achievement a player could have in Switzerland, to play against an NHL team, that’s just great. But we have to fight hard. We don’t want to lose 10-1.
Did you also dream of the NHL as a boy?
No, that was another world for us at that time.
When did you begin to get to know this world better?
In the 1990s I went over to North America to scout some players. I saw my first NHL game in the playoffs in 1996, Colorado vs. Chicago. I’ve been a Blackhawks fan ever since.
So you will coach your team against your favourite NHL team.
Yes, but it doesn’t matter. The only thing that counts is that we play against an NHL team. That says it all. The best players of the world are there.
What’s the main difference between hockey in North America and in Switzerland?
In Switzerland you don’t learn how to take checks. They avoid checks, they do wrong things and they get injured easily. Last week we had two cases like that, one time it was our player, one time from the opposing team.
During the lockout in 2004-2005, you had three NHL players in your team with Joe Thornton, Rick Nash and Niklas Hagman. How was it for you?
It was a unique experience. Nash was just 20 years old. He was shy outside the rink but you couldn’t stop him on skates. There hasn’t been a player in Switzerland with goal getter qualities like him. And with Joe Thornton I’m still in contact. He practises with us every summer. In June, he got married in Davos. Hagman was a great artist and a funny guy in the locker room.
And now you have NHL players as the opposing team.
It will be a unique event and a highlight in the history of HC Davos.
SC Bern lost to the New York Rangers last year, 8-1. What are your chances in that game?
We are not Bern. However, the NHL clubs have the best players of the world. There’s only one way: go in and give your best.
Did you change anything in the preparation to the game?
No, we never change anything. If you change something, you show fear.