The Riha riddle

KHL leader St. Petersburg releases coach, hires Jukka Jalonen

28.11.2012
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Puzzled coach: Milan Riha was released in St. Petersburg after leading his team to the top position with six wins in seven games. Photo: Alexei Danichev / RIA Novosti

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Hockey is a results business, and players and coaches alike understand that they stand or fall by the numbers on the scoreboard. The sums are usually simple – win games, and keep going; lose games, and expect the ax to fall.

Except, apparently, in St. Petersburg, where SKA has fired head coach Milos Riha after a run of six wins from seven games took the team to the top of the KHL standings to replace him with Jukka Jalonen, who remains at the same time head coach of the Finnish national team until the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Stockholm and Helsinki.

By any standards, sacking a coach who has taken a team to the top of the league is an unusual decision. And when that coach has a track record of success at his previous clubs in Russia, it’s even more baffling. Yet that is precisely the fate which has befallen experienced Czech chief Milos Riha and his assistant Andrei Potaichuk at SKA St. Petersburg.

The pair was informed their services were no longer required just half an hour after SKA’s 4-3 win over Vityaz Chekhov – a result which took the team to the top of the KHL table and made it six wins from seven in November. But why?

Official statements from the club were hardly conclusive: general manager Alexei Kasatonov was quoted by Lenta.ru saying that Riha’s team should have achieved more with the budget and roster on offer, and in essence, suggested that top of the league was least that SKA’s wealthy backers from Russian energy giant Gazprom should expect for their money.

When challenged about the wisdom of firing the head coach on the back of such a good run, Kasatonov told Sovietski Sport: “Results are results, but problems remain problems.” He added that the final decision had been made after the Vityaz game – in which SKA battled back from 2-0 – but was not a sudden whim.

No case for the defence?

Kasatonov’s argument seems to be backed up by some of Riha’s own comments in the aftermath of his abrupt dismissal, and reinforces the view that the SKA job is possibly the hottest seat in Russian hockey.

“I knew that SKA would fire me,” he told Sovietski Sport. “Every day I heard from the directors that I wasn’t doing a good enough job, after each game, after each training session.”

The fear from above seemed to be that SKA, although winning games and scoring freely – a tally of 109 goals going into Wednesday’s game at Donbass is 18 more than Dynamo Moscow, the league’s second highest scorer – lacked the defensive fortitude to successfully close out the play-offs.

The organization could point to the previous two campaigns. In 2011 SKA threw away a 3-0 series lead over Atlant Mytishi in 2011, with Riha catching the eye of his future employer by reviving his team and taking the Moscow Region side to the grand final.

One year later, with Riha behind the bench, SKA was hot favourite to beat Dynamo, only to slump to a 4-0 series sweep, succumbing with a whimper in Moscow and ending the season on a 6-1 defeat.

Riha, however, disagrees: “We always have to play for results. And if a team has weaknesses in defence, it needs to balance that on the offence. Even so, I put an accent on every player on the ice doing his job in defence.”

That didn’t stop SKA conceding 72 goals in 28 games, with only Avangard (74 in 30) having a comparable record among the leading clubs. As for the failure against Dynamo, Riha is adamant that his team had the better of three of those four games, but was denied by a controversial refereeing call in game one and inspired goaltending in games two and three.  However, if that Dynamo debacle sealed Riha’s fate, it remains unclear why he continued in his post at the start of the current campaign.

The NHL connection?

One theory is that his changes to the roster have not won approval with the club’s management. That goal-hungry offence is built around the powerful line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Viktor Tikhonov and Ilya Kovalchuk.

However, two of those could be whisked back to the NHL at short notice if the labour dispute is resolved, with goalie Sergei Bobrovski joining them on the first trans-Atlantic flight out of Pulkovo. That puts immediate pressure on SKA’s attacking options. Worse still, after his departure was announced, Riha was said to have fallen out with Kovalchuk – the kind of rift that would shatter locker room harmony and disrupt any side.

Again, Riha has been resolute in his defence against that claim: “It’s all nonsense! Someone on the internet wants to create a fight between us. We worked together at Khimik Voskresensk seven years ago, and we didn’t quarrel then either. I’ve got a great relationship with Ilya and I regard him as a fine fellow.”

Furthermore, Riha told journalists, he spoke face-to-face with Kovalchuk when taking his leave of the SKA players. “I went and asked him to his face: ‘Ilya, is there any problem between us?’ He said ‘No, they’re writing about it on the Internet, but it’s rubbish.’ And we shook hands.”

Fan fury?

Riha’s appointment after the end of the 2010-11 season was far from popular with the Petersburg public. Not only had he masterminded a dismal end to SKA’s play-off campaign, he was also closely associated with Spartak Moscow – a club widely detested in the city by both football and hockey fans, who feel it epitomizes all of the crude arrogance ‘mercenary’ Moscow shows towards Russia’s self-appointed cultural capital.

His early months beside River Neva were characterized by angry protests from supporters groups who wanted a different leader – but gradually those faded as the team produced good results in the regular season to top the Western Conference.

A few thumping wins over Spartak did his cause no harm – an 8-1 win in Moscow last November was following by a 10-2 home demolition, which flattened most of Riha’s critics. One year on, news of Riha’s dismissal was widely seen as a shock – although members of the SKA fansite “Armeitsy s Nevy” found time to celebrate “this long-awaited news”.

Jalonen is next

A further theory is that SKA has long had its eye on a replacement for Riha, and is only now ready to unveil its preferred new chief. Many names were suggested by the Russian media in the last few days like Vyacheslav Bykov, Bengt-Åke Gustafsson, Jukka Jalonen and Raimo Summanen.

In the end it was World Championship-winning Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen, who made the race. He has reportedly been offered a €2 million contract until the end of next season.

Jalonen remains at the same time head coach of the Finnish national team until the end of the season. SKA St. Petersburg found an agreement with the Finnish Ice Hockey Association on Wednesday.

Jalonen will continue to coach the Finnish national team during the international breaks in December and February, and he will join the Finnish national team for the World Championship preparation in April once the play-offs end for SKA.

It was already announced earlier that Jalonen would leave the Finnish national team after the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship to take a new challenge, which he found now. Next season Erkka Westerlund will be back as the Finnish national coach.

As for Riha, he told reporters he’s planning to spend some time with his family in Pardubice, and will wait and see what the future holds. But, far from insisting that SKA had got it all wrong, he added that he would never burn his bridges, and would be willing to consider a return to Petersburg in the future.

ANDY POTTS

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