INNSBRUCK – Slovenia's national men’s team will be amongst the twelve that will play in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, the first time that this nation has qualified for the Games.
It is an almost unbelievable achievement; the country has just one professional team, and only 148 registered senior players. But these facts and other hurdles did not dissuade head coach Matjaz Kopitar or his squad, as they finished in front of higher-ranked teams like Denmark and Belarus during the qualification stage in Vojens to book their Sochi tickets.
IIHF.com caught up with the Slovene head coach in Innsbruck earlier this month during the country's only pre-Olympic tournament to talk about the team’s goals in 2014.
What is the schedule before the Olympics?
“We will gather on 4th February and we are leaving for Sochi the day after. This is actually a new experience for us, because we depend on the Olympic Committee and do not organize anything ourselves. We will be a part of the entire Olympic team. We will play a friendly game against Austria on 8th February, but would like to play at least one more game on 10th or/and 11th.”
“The big teams will prepare at the pre-tournaments in December and January, smaller ones like Norway, Switzerland and Latvia already agreed on playing among themselves, so we are in a bit of trouble. We are talking to Canadians and Finns, but nothing is agreed yet. It will be difficult.”
The Slovene team has a rare opportunity to play with all their best players. Anze Kopitar (Matjaz’s son) and Jan Mursak will both play in Sochi. But you will play in the same group against Russia, Slovakia and the USA.
“Indeed, we must be delighted that we will play in Sochi. But that does not mean we will be there on holidays. We will be optimally prepared, Anze and Jan, who was also in Innsbruck, will join us, and also some other players that were not in Austria. I think we can put together a competitive team, but we must not expect too much. We will give our best at every game, but our opponents will have high ambitions. We have to be realistic.”
If we think of Vojens once more, when did you start believing that you can make your dream come true and play in Olympics?
“I think, if we did not go there with the idea that we can do it, we would never win. All of us were convinced that this is really feasible. My boys were in great shape, it was in the middle of the season and we had a lot of desire. I always say that when we play against the best teams, we have to give 110% and we also need some luck. We had luck, but we deserved it. It might sound a little pretentious, but in every moment I believed we could do it.”
The other highlight of the season will be the World Championship Division Group A in South Korea. Is it, as some say, really more important than Olympics?
“The Olympics are a great reward for all of us. But both competitions are very important. The World Championship is very important for the continuation of hockey in Slovenia. If we will play in the elite group again in the next season, some young players will become the leaders in the team and the team will finally expand. We need more than ten great players, because if one or two get injured or are not in shape, as it happened in Stockholm, everything can fall apart. So, both competitions are very important and we will take them seriously.”
The miracle in Vojens was a milestone for this team. Will this season be the next, since some older players will probably finish their career in the national team?
“Some of the older players have problems finding clubs to play for and might finish their careers earlier than expected. However, we hope that the large drop-out rate after the Olympics will not happen. We know that we do not have a large base of players, so I hope that young guys will develop as soon as possible. Some older guys will say their goodbyes as far as national team is concerned, but I do not know when. When it happens, I hope we will have a replacement.”
There have been some issues in Slovenian hockey. What can be done in the near future?
“The whole Slovenian sport is in a very poor condition at the moment. Everything starts and ends with money. Although, I think there are possibilities to improve things. I wish we had two strong teams that would play in the Austrian EBEL League and be competitive. Many Slovenian players that play abroad are not satisfied with their clubs or positions, and so would be happy to play at home for less money. But that means the conditions should be much better than are now.”
Did successes of Anze Kopitar, Jan Mursak and the national team contribute to a new base of young players in Slovenia?
“Certainly. In every club there are many new players. But the problem begins when they are old enough to start playing on the senior level. They don't have a vision for the future. When I was a young player, we all wanted to play for Jesenice or Olimpija. Now there is no perspective in these teams. We have good coaches in junior teams, all the clubs are successful, but players that don't go abroad don't have possibilities to progress at home.”
Is there, in your opinion, a possibility to have a team that would play in KHL and to what extent does that even make sense?
“As far as Slovenian players are concerned, it would be reasonable, if Slovenian players played for that team. But that means we would have to bring the best players back home. It would not make sense, if it was similar to what we see in Zagreb. Croatian hockey does not gain anything from Medvescak playing in KHL at this moment. They have 19 Canadians, a Dane, a Slovak and a Slovene with a Croatian passport.”
“I think it would make sense if there were at least ten top Slovene players, five young Slovenes and five good foreigners in the team. We can see that Medvescak is doing well in its first season in KHL, but we don't know how long it will last.”
What are you doing before the games when the players are preparing in the locker room?
“That is actually the hardest time for the coach. I always leave the players alone. Sometimes I go on a bike or do some other physical activity, I try to somehow fill that two-hour time. But I don’t have any special ritual.”
What makes you different from other coaches?
“I do not know. Some say I am very authoritative, but as I already said in 2010, when I took over the team, there is no dictatorship in my team. My boys are professionals, and I don't have any problems with them. My job is to prepare them for the game, present them with all the strengths and the weaknesses of the opposing team and make a plan of our game. That is all.”
Does a coach has to be a psychologist too?
“Definitely. Some players are more susceptible than others. I think there is a lot of psychology - both team psychology and individual psychology. I think my advantage is that I have known all these players since they were really young. There are no secrets.”
As you said, the players are all professionals. They know how they should act so it benefits all. Is that because of your authority?
“I'm not very strict. These guys are grownups and they know me. I never make a scene if someone is late. We all know when the bus leaves and no one is ever late."
Our problem is we are always too early. Everybody comes ten minutes to early! This is not because of my rigor, but because of their respect for the team. They have their own rules and penalties for being late or for disobedience. I do not need to be strict, I've never needed to punish anyone. And new players quickly adapt to this system. Penalties are small but effective.”
Do you still have your "game book"?
"Of course, this is the motivation for the players and the common thread for the tournaments to come. Now it will be written for the Olympic Games. It is always necessary to come up with new things so that the guys do not fall asleep. They need to think only about one thing - playing the best they can."