ZURICH – After missing out on the quarter-finals twice in a row, the Swiss national team performed far beyond expectations at the past IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Stockholm, taking home the silver medals. Ice Times spoke with head coach Sean Simpson about this year’s surprise team.
The disappointment about the lost gold medal was big on the final day. How do you feel with some distance and looking back at the whole World Championship campaign?
It was normal to be disappointed after losing the gold medal game. Every player or coach is going to be disappointed after losing the game but even a few hours later you realize what Switzerland has done. We won nine games in a row and played in the world final, that’s something Swiss fans have been dreaming for many years.
What does the first silver medal in 78 years mean for Switzerland and Swiss ice hockey?
It means a lot. We’ve been proving in the last years that we’re on a good level. We’ve been in the quarter-final game a couple of times and this time we were able to win it and go even one step further to the final. We showed in the last year that we’re a good team and now we really broke through. It helps the whole hockey and the recognition of hockey in Switzerland. The popularity has risen even though it was big before. We aroused the interest of a nation and that’s always a special feeling for a group of coaches and players. It will help but on the other hand we have to be mature and keep our feet on the ground. We cannot expect to have it happen every year but we will try.
One key to success was the great start with nine straight wins. Did it help your team to play the top-three seeded teams in the beginning?
Obviously we won so I have to say yes but before the tournament it was a pretty tough start to play these three teams. If you win a game or two it’s always a good start. In the last three years we played other teams first. To play the top-three teams at the beginning was a good measuring stick and we didn’t expect to win all three.
It was your fourth World Championship with the Swiss national team. Was the feeling with the team much different for you in this successful campaign than in the past years?
My approach wasn’t different. I still had the same approach and philosophy. The difference between winning and losing at the Worlds is very small. We had a good start, we had a good group of guys and got it rolling in the right direction. It’s just one game, one period that can send you in another direction. It’s just a two-week tournament. Momentum is a big key to success in the tournament. I didn’t feel a big need to change the philosophy although I realized there was big disappointment in Switzerland in the last two years. But I always believed in my philosophy.
Will the success make your work in the future easier? One could think that everybody must perfectly buy into your system after it has worked out so well in Stockholm.
Absolutely not. We need to be very mature with what we’ve done. Everybody has to work every year to reach the next level. We have to be better next year if we want to reach our goals. Our goals shouldn’t change. Our goal is the quarter-finals and it’s not easy to reach. It’s not an automatic goal, it’s tough to reach. I won’t change my work ethic, I will give 100 per cent.
You’re the coach behind two of the biggest success stories for Swiss ice hockey. What is the secret behind and how would you compare this team with the ZSC Lions Zurich team that won the Champions Hockey League and the Victoria Cup in 2009?
I think the teams were both very good teams with very good players and a very good staff and a good organisation that’s professionally run. That’s where those teams were similar and also the momentum thing was similar. Nobody expected the ZSC Lions to win the Champions Hockey League. We came as underdogs and won. Same thing happened this year in the Worlds. When a team believes in what they do, good things can happen.
You’re well known for adjusting the game plan to each opponent. You and your staff must have spent lots of hours working with videos.
I didn’t sit there and go through hours of tape. We really use our coaching staff. Colin Muller is outstanding with videos, Patrick Fischer too, our video guy Benoît Pont as well. We can talk before the game what we need from this opponent. We have to minimize our time, we cannot sit there for two or three hours. So I can’t take credit for the video work. I really relied on my assistants.
What have been the biggest changes in Swiss ice hockey since you started coaching in Switzerland almost 20 years ago?
A lot stayed the same in Switzerland but the hockey is getting better. The money that was invested in the youth program like 20, 30 years ago paid off. The league is strong, the national team has become stronger and has now won a medal. Another proof is also our presence in the NHL. Five or ten years ago we didn’t have the presence we had now. I think that’s proving we’re really making strides. But every other country is working as hard as we are. It’s a constant battle to keep the level. Everybody in Swiss hockey – club coaches, junior coaches – has to work to make it even better.
While goaltending and defence have seldom been a weak point in the past, the offence was unusually successful this year. Normally the Swiss national team is among the lower ranked teams in stats like shooting and power play efficiency, this time it was one of the strengths. What are the reasons for this sudden change?
I’ve been trying to play like that for three years but we had to find a way to have success with this system. Just because I played with more forechecking it doesn’t mean we played less defence. This time we had a great mix and finally the Swiss players went to the net and paid the price to score goals like they score in the NHL. We scored many goals from the blue paint and that was new for us. We brought in bigger forwards. It all worked this year really well finally. Maybe if it wouldn’t have worked this year I would have been let go and now it worked and I’m proud every day to be the national coach.
With the results and the euphoria, also the expectations may rise. How would you estimate the chance of winning a medal in the next few years?
I think we shouldn’t even go there. We should go back to the quarter-final qualification goal. If we’re lucky enough in Sochi or in Minsk then we see where we go from there. We have to keep our feet on the ground and not be arrogant just because we broke through now.
You next big event will be the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. You might have up to two goalkeepers, five defencemen and four forwards in the NHL to select from. Will it be a big challenge for you to integrate them into your team compared to the past when most players came from the Swiss league?
We’ll see. I have a very good silver-medal winning team in Switzerland with two NHL guys. It’ll be a very competitive battle – a healthy competitive battle for Sochi. The team set precedence for Swiss ice hockey and I hope there will be even more focus on the national team. It will be very interesting to see the players’ attitude.
After so many years in Switzerland, will you get the Swiss passport soon?
I think I have enough years and months in Switzerland that I can apply in fall and then I will see how it works. I live here all the time. I’m proud to be Swiss but also to be Canadian and British.