Top 10 new millennium coaches

Babcock, Gustafsson, Bykov... who’s the best?

24.07.2010
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Babcock, Gustafsson and Bykov have one thing in common: international success in the new millennium. Photos: HHOF-IIHF Images

It’s 2010, and we’re not living on Mars or wearing silver jumpsuits (yet, anyway). We do, however, have a better sense of which coaches have delivered the most value at elite-level international hockey tournaments since 2000.

Canada’s attention to detail has paid big dividends: two Olympic golds, a World Cup, and three world titles, with appearances in every World Championship final in non-Olympic years since 2003. But the scholars of European hockey have managed to keep the “best coach derby” competitive.

Check out this unofficial ranking of the top 10 international coaches of the new millennium.

1. Mike Babcock (Canada)

The 2000s have been very good to this plainspoken, hard-working tactician from Saskatchewan. Even if Mike Babcock’s club teams hadn’t made three Stanley Cup runs (2003 finalist with Anaheim, 2008 champion with Detroit, 2009 finalist with Detroit), the 47-year-old still would have left an indelible imprint on the international landscape.

Ironically, Babcock wasn’t even supposed to be the head coach for his first senior title at the 2004 IIHF World Championship. That honour was intended for Joel Quenneville, who had to withdraw on the eve of the tournament due to illness. Yet Babcock didn’t miss a beat when he was promoted from assistant coach status. His Dany Heatley-led squad marched to gold, with just one round-robin loss to the host Czechs.

Babcock forever sealed his place in Canadian hockey history when Team Canada captured Olympic gold on home ice in Vancouver in February. He made the decision to stick with Roberto Luongo over Martin Brodeur in goal after the latter struggled mightily in a 5-3 loss to the Americans. He also juggled the lines as necessary, putting together a combo of Jonathan Toews, Mike Richards, and Rick Nash that both stopped offensive superstar Alexander Ovechkin and generated two goals in the crucial 7-3 quarterfinal crushing of Russia.

When Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal for Canada in overtime versus the USA on February 28, Babcock became the first coach ever to join the IIHF’s Triple Gold Club (Olympic gold, World Championship gold, Stanley Cup ring). No wonder he takes top spot in our ranking.

2. Vyacheslav Bykov (Russia)

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Vyacheslav Bykov played centre for Russia’s powerful second line between fleet-footed wingers Valeri Kamensky and Andrei Khomutov, overshadowed only by the famous “KLM Line” with Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov. In the new millennium, as a coach, Bykov has become a central figure in the revival of Russia’s international reputation.

Currently the KHL bench boss of Salavat Yulayev Ufa, Bykov is credited with being the first post-Soviet coach to get both domestically based and NHL-based Russian stars on the same page. Granted, he’s had his disappointments since taking over the national team reins in 2007, including finishing third on home ice in Moscow at that year’s Worlds – not to mention the quarterfinal debacle against Canada at the 2010 Olympics.

But since 2000, this Chelyabinsk product is also the only coach, besides the Czech Republic’s Josef Augusta, to have led his nation to consecutive world titles (2008, 2009). Russia has always medalled under Bykov’s leadership, and sits first overall at present in the IIHF World Ranking.

3. Andy Murray (Canada)

As the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues, Andy Murray never had much playoff success. But when he’s stepped behind Canada’s bench at the IIHF World Championship, he’s proved unstoppable. One of the brightest minds in international hockey, the Manitoba native guided Canada to gold in Finland 2003 and Russia 2007. The latter accomplishment was particularly impressive, as the Canadians amassed nine straight wins on Moscow ice. At the 2010 IIHF World Championship in Germany, Murray was retained by fifth-place Switzerland as a consultant.

4. Josef Augusta (Czech Republic)

In the 1970s, international hockey fans knew Josef Augusta as the skilled left wing who paired with future IIHF Hall of Famer Vladimir Martinec on a top scoring line for Czechoslovakia. That duo continued its success behind the bench for the Czech Republic during the magical World Championship run of 1999 to 2001.

Each year, the Czechs took gold with Augusta holding the reins, advised by Martinec. The formula stayed the same: a relentless commitment to suffocating team defence, opportunistic scoring, and a roster featuring a sprinkling of NHL stars plus a heavy dose of Czech Extraliga veterans. Only after a disappointing quarterfinal loss to Russia at the 2002 Worlds would Augusta step aside.

5. Bengt-Åke Gustafsson (Sweden)

Bengt-Åke Gustafsson’s sophomore stint with Tre Kronor was also his most memorable. In 2006, the former star of the Washington Capitals and Austria’s VEU Feldkirch did something no other coach had ever done before: win Olympic gold and World Championship gold in the same calendar year.

Gustafsson courted controversy at times with his tactics and comments to the press in Turin, particularly when Sweden slumped in a 3-0 loss to Slovakia and consequently drew lightly regarded Switzerland for the quarterfinals. But when the Swedes edged Finland 3-2 in the Olympic gold medal game, all was forgiven and forgotten. At the Worlds in Latvia, Gustafsson’s team showed grit (a 5-4 semi-final win over Canada marred by Mika Hannula’s cross-check to Sidney Crosby’s head) and defensive tenacity (a 4-0 gold-medal obliteration of the Czechs) en route to making history.

Even though the only other two IIHF medals “Gus” got as Tre Kronor’s coach were bronze (2009, 2010), he’ll never be forgotten thanks to 2006.

6. Vladimir Ruzicka (Czech Republic)

Call him “The Reluctant Hero”. Although Vladimir Ruzicka has shone whenever he’s been called into service behind the Czech national team bench, the former NHL forward has never seemed particularly comfortable with the role. When Ivan Hlinka tragically died in a car accident on the eve of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, Ruzicka stepped in and coached the Czechs to the semi-finals, where they lost to eventual champion Canada in overtime. “Rosie”, who won gold as a player at the 1985 Worlds and 1998 Olympics, scored his first championship as a coach in Austria 2005, where his Tomas Vokoun-backstopped team blanked the star-laden Canadians 3-0 in the final.

After stepping away for three seasons in favour of Alois Hadamczik, Ruzicka achieved his latest stunning coup at this year’s World Championship in Germany. The Czechs surprised everyone by edging powerhouse Russia in the final. But for reasons best understood by the Czech federation and Ruzicka himself, they will part ways. And Hadamczik will be in charge again for Slovakia 2011.

7. Pat Quinn (Canada)


Although it appears Pat Quinn’s NHL coaching career has ended sans Stanley Cup – he twice made the finals with Philadelphia (1980) and Vancouver (1994) – he loomed large in the resurgence of Canadian hockey that famously began at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. The big Irishman kept Canada motivated, and simplified its game plan after the disastrous 5-2 opening loss to Sweden. Ultimately, the Canadians would wipe out a 50-year gold medal drought under his leadership.

Canada’s performance under Quinn at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey was even more impressive. The team never even trailed an opponent during its march to the title, which culminated with a 3-2 victory over underdog Finland. Although Quinn couldn’t press the magic buttons at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, where Canada suffered three 2-0 losses to Switzerland, Finland, and Russia, he had already forged an impressive legacy.

8. Jan Filc (Slovakia)

Being first always counts for something, and Jan Filc will always be remembered for leading Slovakia to the top of the hockey mountain for the first time.

Scholarly in his demeanour (he holds a doctor’s degree in physical education), the former Nitra goaltender taught his players to believe in themselves at the 2000 IIHF World Championship in St. Petersburg. While the host Russians disappointed with their 11th-place finish, Slovakia, which had only joined the elite division in 1996, surprised everyone by battling to the finals versus the Czechs. There, they wound up with the country’s first international medal, a silver.

Yet even better things lay ahead at the 2002 Worlds in Sweden. Deploying a talent-rich roster that included Miroslav Satan, Peter Bondra, and Zigmund Palffy, Filc took Slovakia all the way to its historic first gold with one-goal elimination victories over Canada, Sweden, and Russia.

Filc made a comeback as Slovakia’s coach at the 2009 Worlds in Switzerland, but the magic and the talent just weren’t there this time, and a 10th-place result ensued.

9. Erkka Westerlund (Finland)

One of international hockey’s most soft-spoken coaches is also among the most intelligent. True, Erkka Westerlund couldn’t take Finland all the way to the promised land with his statistics-driven, analytical approach to the game between 2005 and 2007. But the 53-year-old Pernaja native, who holds a Master’s degree from the University of Jyväskylä, did famously lead Finland to the 2006 Olympic final, and most observers agree that his team was the best on balance in Turin despite falling to the Swedes in the end. Westerlund also coached Finland to bronze at the ‘06 Worlds in Latvia and got a silver versus Canada the following year in Moscow.

10. Hardy Nilsson (Sweden)

Sweden is a fixture among World Championship medallists, more consistent than any other nation since the IIHF introduced the playoff system back in 1992. Since 2000, it’s won seven medals at this tournament, and four of them came between 2001 and 2004 (two bronze, two silver) under the leadership of “Hard Hardy” Nilsson. Unfortunately, the former Skellefteå forward’s innovative approach toward the game (remember “Big Ice Hockey?”) has remained underappreciated due to his national team’s dramatic quarterfinal flameouts at the 2002 Olympics (4-3 versus Belarus) and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey (6-1 versus the Czechs).

LUCAS AYKROYD

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