ZAGREB – There are many different ways to define success in the world of professional hockey. For many, the opportunity to compete for titles in the NHL or top European leagues, and the chance to win medals at the Olympics and World Championship is the ultimate goal. Others simply hope for the chance to forge a career in a premier league.
But for someone like Ted Sator, the calling is a bit different. In his 27 years of professional coaching, Sator has become one of the hockey world’s premier globetrotters, landing numerous jobs in the NHL and coaching around Europe. In recent years, he has focused on helping teams in secondary hockey countries grow their programs. Over his career, he has earned the reputation of being an excellent but stern and demanding teacher who specializes in building character on fledgling teams and helping to turn around struggling programs.
In North America, Sator was the head coach of the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres. He was an assistant coach for the Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, Hartford Whalers (now Carolina Hurricanes) and Vancouver Canucks. A powerful voice in USA Hockey, the New York native has also been an assistant coach for Team USA as well as serving on the federation’s executive board.
While in Europe, Sator’s coaching travels have taken him throughout Sweden and Finland, where he compiled nine seasons of combined experience between Elitserien, SM-liiga and Swedish minor leagues. He won a pair of championships in the Italian league, including an undefeated season in his first campaign.
More recently, he served as the head coach of the Slovenian national team in 2007, helping the team fight its way back from relegation to the top level. Travelling to Hungary, he took on the head coaching post for the Hungarian national team as well as serving as bench boss of Hungary’s entry in the Austrian-based Erste Bank Eishockey Liga, Alba Volan Szekesfehervar.
Meanwhile, Sator has accepted a new challenge besides coaching the Hungarian national team. Croatian EBEL team KHL Medvescak Zagreb has hired him as the bench boss. Last year, in its first campaign in the EBEL, Medvescak was one of Europe’s most pleasant surprises. The underdog team earned a playoff spot and, in a stunning upset, defeated the top-seeded Graz 99ers, four games to two in the quarterfinals. In the semis, eventual champions Red Bull Salzburg finally took out the Croatian team in five games.
What is it that attracts Sator to secondary hockey countries such as Italy, Slovenia Hungary and Croatia? He sees it as a chance to make a positive impact and to work with players who are receptive to taking instruction. As an alumnus of Bowling Green University who went on to earn a M.Ed. degree, a passion for teaching is in his blood.
“It was a pleasure to work with the national team players [in Slovenia and Hungary]. They are eager to learn and devoted to improving both as individual players and a team. Also, I appreciate the chance to travel to places that have so much history and culture,” said Sator.
Wherever he has gone, Sator has not only tried to instill his own knowledge of the game, he has made an effort to understand the on-ice and off-ice cultures of the countries in which he has worked. For example, while coaching in Sweden, he made a point of learning to speak Swedish and communicating with the players in their native language, even though most spoke English well. The rules even applied to import players.
“When he coached me with Rögle, Ted always spoke Swedish to me around the rink and the locker room,” recalls Dave Poulin, a longtime NHL player and the current assistant director of player personnel for the Toronto Maple Leafs. “The only time Ted ever addressed something to me in English was when he was angry.”
In accepting the coaching post in Medvescak, Sator acknowledged that his main goal is to help the club take the next steps in its development. There is always a danger of a setback for a team that overachieved the previous season, and Sator’s intent is to instill the type of work ethic and discipline that will keep the club moving forward.
“There is an established hockey tradition in Zagreb, and the team has a responsibility to all the people that support our team. We all take that seriously. We’ve got a good group of players and some experienced leaders on the team. I’m looking forward to the season, especially in working with some of the young players,” said Sator.
In order to succeed in the EBEL, teams need a strong nucleus of established veteran import players supplemented by homegrown talent. The Bears’ roster will once again have a heavy contingent of North American players, but Sator, as always, expects all of his players to conform to the hockey culture around them – not the other way around.
“Ted is a demanding coach. He expects his players to come ready to play every night, keep their feet moving and play an intelligent and disciplined game. He doesn’t put up with excuses. But he’s also fair. His teams are well-prepared to play, and his players get the opportunity to earn their keep. That’s all players can really ask for,” said Poulin.
And they’re doing well. Medvescak Zagreb is currently in fourth place in the ten-team league.