TILBURG, Netherlands - All over the world they can be found. Where an ice rink is built, there is to be a Canadian coach nearby. Coaches are becoming one of Canada’s top export products.
Last year’s World Championship Division I was no different. Of the twelve nations at the Division I level, half had a Canadian coach on the bench. Several players test their fortune as a coach after their playing career is over. The ones that don’t end up in the NHL sometimes find themselves on locations they would never have thought of a decade ago.
Mark Pederson is a perfect example.
The former first round Montreal draft pick and U20 gold medallist had colourful career that saw him play in Austria, Sweden and Germany before returning to North America where he stepped into a coaching role in the East Coast Hockey League.
“I probably could have continued playing a year or two in Europe but I went back to North America to get my name on the map as a coach and now I’m back in Europe as a coach. It’s kind of a 180.”
Five years after retiring, he accepted a job in The Netherlands and made his official World Championship debut behind the bench as the coach of Serbia’s national team.
The Serbs were looking for a coach that could lead the newly promoted team and got help from former national team player Alex Andjelic who was a skills coach at the Toronto Marlies and head of youth development in Tilburg. The 42-year old Canadian did not have to think long before accepting the challenge that was offered.
For Pederson it was not just about adding another chapter to his coaching resume, but also taking a step into the unknown. “I googled Serbia to get a basic idea about the country. I knew that the country was decimated by war but that was about it,” said Pederson.
Opposed to the elite nations, preparing for a big tournament is quite a struggle for smaller hockey countries and creativity and patience are key for coaches.
Pederson: “We had guys who played just eight games and had not played for weeks. Before the tournament we had a training camp and a pair of exhibition games.”
Although time was limited, Pederson was pleasantly surprised with his group of players. “We focused on the basics. Touching on one and then moving to another. They are good kids, very competitive. They want to learn and have a good hockey sense. The aim was to get better every day to become a better team and more importantly to become better individuals.”
Surely their Division I adventure was a learning experience, perhaps a bit too big. They were shut out by gold medal winners Austria and bronze medallists Japan (13-0, 5-0) before finally getting on the scoreboard against Ukraine (15-2). Three losses in their first three games provided a reality check for Serbia but nobody had expected an upset against the top three teams.
The next two games were closer and showed improvement. With their enthusiastic, never-say-die mentality Serbia won the sympathy of the crowd. Against Lithuania observers expected the team to collapse after falling behind 6-0. But Pederson’s men stormed out in the final period and scored four times in five minutes before running out of energy and losing 10-4.
Despite relegating back to Division II, Serbia did get a hard-earned point after taking the game against the Dutch to overtime. Mark Pederson enjoyed his spell and gave praise to his players. “The guys were great. They kept on working hard despite some big losses in the first few games,” he said. “They remained upbeat and seized the days they could spend thinking only about hockey, a luxury that is not common to them.”
The lack of hockey tradition in Serbia was something else that was new to the Canadian. “In some situations things are not perfect. The guys here did not have a lot of sticks, nor a large budget so we went into the tournament with a shortage of sticks.”
Pederson improvised and got sticks from the hockey team in Tilburg. “Austria, for example, had six guys for these kinds of jobs but when you have a small staff you have to take things in your own hands. The players were delighted. They accepted the value of things that they had.”
Next season, Pederson will stay as the head coach of the Tilburg Trappers, where he led the team to the Dutch league finals last season.
“To coach at an IIHF championship is a good learning experience for any coach. The scale is bigger, you’re on a time schedule and have a lot of games in a relatively short time.”
He has also now become more accustomed to the European game. “Coaching here is different than in North America,” Pederson says. “During my spell in Bakersfield I had 50 to 60 players during the season because of call-ups, injuries or trades. In Europe you keep what you have. You can’t trade and not much movement happens. You can work with the squad you have at the start of the season.”
Pederson admits there are pros and cons to be found on both sides of the Atlantic
“It’s two totally different concepts. I like the European way better if given a decent budget but the North American way when getting good assistant coaches who can do the paper work for me. Coaching in the ECHL is probably the most difficult thing to do for any coach in the world. You’ve got a salary cap, no scouting staff, not many assistants and a lot of different players throughout the season. That was a very useful learning experience for me.”
“The one thing I like about Europe is that Sunday’s are free. It is a family day and banks are closed. Contrary to North America there is this one day where you can sit back and sit with your family and friends.” Unfortunately for him, his wife and kids stayed in Montana. “Luckily I’ve got a pretty understanding wife but by working in Europe you pay the toll for sure. Coaching is enjoyable but also a lot of work, especially in the mind.”
The summer months provide some time to recharge the batteries before the start of the season. Pederson will have to be creative again since his team is on a tight budget after several sponsors dropped out. Another successful season along with his European and World Championship enriched resume could possibly trigger interest from back home, closer to his family. Having successfully completed the circle before, Pederson is not afraid to take on challenges when the opportunity is there.