ZURICH – Defending Swiss league champions ZSC Lions Zurich will have a new face behind the bench in 2012. After spending time as a television analyst on TSN, veteran head coach Marc Crawford has jumped the pond and landed in Switzerland, signing a two-year deal with the Lions.
A former bench boss for the Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche, the Vancouver Canucks, the Los Angeles Kings, and the Dallas Stars, in 1995 Crawford became the youngest coach to win the Jack Adams Trophy (NHL Coach of the Year) with Quebec and won the Stanley Cup the following year when the franchise moved to Colorado.
With several national team members on ZSC, Crawford figures to have a strong group with which to defend the Swiss league championship. IIHF.com caught up with the coach to talk about his new job and the switch to European club hockey.
You’ve moved from the TSN broadcast panel back into coaching this year, how does it feel to be back behind the bench again?
It feels great, it really does, I really enjoyed the broadcast, it was educational and it was something new for me. But I felt this was a great opportunity for me to continue to grow as a coach and as a person. That’s what it’s about, you want to rise to new challenges and this is a great challenge for me, to come to a country and to a hockey team where most of the team is Swiss-born and Swiss-educated, it forces you to learn a different way and I’m thrilled about the opportunity.
As a television analyst you’re looking at the game from a different perspective than you would as a coach. Do you feel this has in any way benefited you when you return to coaching?
I think so, as an analyst you really separate yourself from the emotion of the game. One of the things I noticed was how often you see coaches get upset during games. Certainly hockey is an emotional game, but I realized that oftentimes if a coach gets upset it’s counterproductive. So hopefully I can take this and apply it, though it should be interesting when I get reintroduced to the pressure cooker atmosphere of a game.
How did the Zurich job come up?
I coached in the Spengler Cup last Christmas, and as my wife and I were leaving after spending a couple of days in Zurich she asked me if I would ever consider coaching in Switzerland. I didn’t know at the time because I was first looking to get back into the NHL, but then I started to think about it.
Watching teams like Kloten at the Spengler Cup I noticed the high level of play, and began making contacts here. In mid-June after going through the interview process with Montreal and Washington this opportunity came up and I realized it was a great chance to coach at a high level and improve my coaching in a beautiful place with a great hockey market.
Overseas options then started coming up, I was approached by a couple of Russian teams and then Zurich, but it was the Zurich offer that really captivated my interest as I had visited here before.
Crawford with (from right) Eric Lindros, Wayne Gretzky, and Joe Nieuwendyk at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano (and is that Ron MacLean in the background?).
You have coached some very offensively talented teams in the past, while Swiss hockey players tend to carry a reputation for strong defensive play. How do you go about developing an identity for this team?
It’s funny that you ask that question because that has been something that has come up with our club in the preseason. One of the things that we’re training to get the players to do is to be more flexible, be that type of relentless team that is aggressive offensively.
People that score traditionally have it in their character that they want to score, want the puck and are willing to go anywhere to get it and score. That’s a big part of the identity we want for our players on the ice, and in both ends too because if you go after the puck defensively then you’ll have the puck more and if you do it offensively then there should be a payoff on the score sheet.
Now you are coaching Zurich, are you taking the same approach to coaching as you would if you were coaching an NHL team?
I’ve taken the approach of not being a dictator. I have strong opinions but I want to be open enough that I can also understand the methodology that has been employed in the past. It’s not hugely different because (former ZSC coach) Bob Hartley was a North American style of coach so my ways aren’t that foreign to the team.
What are some of the challenges you’re encountered coming into the job?
This is probably the most thoughtful, intelligent team that I’ve dealt with. This can be somewhat of a challenge, hockey is a very reactionary sport where you have to make quick decisions and be instinctive and quick. Obviously language is a problem, the players speak very good English but I want to be able to understand them better and have better communication.
What are your impressions about Swiss hockey?
There is very much a similarity between this league and the NHL in that there is la lot of parity in both leagues. Any given night a top team can get beaten by a team that’s low in the standing, and you have to have a hard working effort to win. I’ve been very impressed with the skill level and professionalism of the players on all the teams, and I’m anxious to see how everything unfolds as the season goes on.
Tell me a bit about the differences in training camp structure between Europe and North America.
I think the biggest difference is the length of time here, in the NHL you have evaluation at the start, you come in you try out for the team and eventually you get the numbers down to your working group. From there you evaluate how they play and then you set up how they’re going to play. I think it’s very similar here, there are smaller numbers but you still have to first get a sense of how they play as a team then you set your course. Right now we’re still in the evaluation period but in the last two weeks we’ll determine how we play and how we want to play.
You’re taking over a team with a lot of experience playing on international-sized ice rinks, as a coach do you make any adjustments for a team that plays on the bigger ice?
There’s been a number of things I’ve learned on the fly here when it comes to the bigger ice. Puck support is everything on a North American ice surface, but here boy is it ever important. The patterns on how you work breakouts, regroups, counters, these patterns you run aren’t as effective here because you have a bit more ice to get through. So I’ve had to adjust the timing, the routes for the players, but in a lot of ways they adjust themselves having played on this ice throughout their careers, and that’s where the learning curve comes for me.
I’m learning more what’s effective here, and that’s even more true when it comes to special teams. But in the end of the day that game is still similar, hard work carries the day and this team has the right attitude.
Have you had much contact with fans? Surprised at the popularity of the sport in Switzerland?
Our first game was in Ingolstadt in Germany. I knew there were a lot of fans because there were people driving by our bus and honking their horns. The guys told me that those were our fans and that they came out to all the games, but I didn’t know there were so many of them!
I love how the fans get involved it’s almost like a football atmosphere where the support is so consistent, that’s really enjoyable. A lot of times where I used to coach there isn’t much trouble for me to be heard on the benches, but with the emotion in the building that’s always there, energy that’s usually only reserved for the playoff rounds in North American hockey, I’m gonna have to be a bit louder (laughs).
You brought along Rob Cookson as an assistant coach and Andy Moog to coach the goaltenders, what does each coach bring to the table and why did you ask them to join you in Zurich?
I asked Rob initially to join, he had a wealth of experience with team Canada including working with the Olympic team as far back as 1992. He’s been very involved at the international events, Olympics and world championships, and his understanding of international hockey was a perfect fit as his coaching style complements mine. Andy wanted to get involved again, and Zurich players were excited about getting a top level coach and All Star who won three Stanley Cups and played in six as a goaltender.
Having coached in Nagano, the first Olympics to allow NHL players to participate, did you feel that this really benefited the sport in terms of raising its profile around the world?
While we don’t rival football yet, the Olympics is a great catalyst because it’s the only chance to get the best against the best every time. It helps promote the sport even in Canada as it would in Australia, or in Latvia or Slovenia where they want to see a Kopitar or an Ozolinsh playing in the Olympics just as much as they would want to see Lemieux or Gretzky play.
And I hope the players always go, they have said so that they love the Olympic experience, they love staying in the athletes’ village, they want to march in the ceremonies and interact with the different athletes. I saw how much even the superstar athletes were appreciative of everything and while we didn’t win I wouldn’t give up that experience for anything in the world, it was definitely one of my favourite hockey moments.
As a hockey guy do you want to see NHL players playing in Sochi? How important is it for the game to have the best on best competition at the Olympics?
Very important, I would be so surprised if the NHL didn’t go. It’s so positive for anyone in sports, the inconvenience of closing the season for two weeks is minimal based on what the worldwide gain is. And that’s what it is, because the world is so small right now it really is a benefit for all countries to see these teams playing with national pride on the table in the best venue which is the Olympics.