BRATISLAVA – After flirting with relegation last year, Belarus is going into its 13th World Championship with high hopes and a new national team coach aiming to leave a long-lasting legacy.
"If we raise the bar really high, then eight place would be the realistic goal for us in my opinion," says Finnish head coach Kari Heikkilä on Belarus' chances during the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. "But for that we also need a bit of luck, while the others need a bit of bad luck."
In the blazing Bratislava sunshine in the backdrop of the Ondrej Nepela Arena, Heikkilä speaks to the IIHF.com during Belarus' final preparations ahead of their departure to Helsinki. A year ago, it was right here in the Slovak capital that Belarus during their final game of the 2011 World Championship was only a defeat away from going down a division. In the end they mustered up a 14th spot, a big let-down which meant the end of the road for the tenure of national team coach Eduard Zankovets.
Heikkilä was chosen as the man to turn the tide of Belarus's recent falling fortunes. The polyglot 52-year-old - who speaks Finnish, Swedish, English, Italian and Russian - started off his coaching career in Sweden in 1994, before moving to Finland where he won the SM-Liiga title with Kärpät Oulu in 2003-04 and was highly regarded for his work in the KHL at Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and then most recently at Metallurg Magnitogorsk. When the chance arose to cut his teeth as a national team head coach, Heikkilä jumped at the chance, signed a three-year deal and relocated to Minsk in September last year.
"It has been a new situation for me as I have only been coaching club teams for the past 17 years," Heikkilä says. "In the beginning it was more like an office job for me, something I never have had much experience of. I was able to think about my work in peace and quiet, had a lot of time watching games and practices, and I was also able to spent a month in North America, meeting the Belarusian players and watch different levels of hockey over there."
The Finn follows the footsteps of previous national team coaches from abroad such as North Americans Glen Hanlon and Curt Fraser who both - often with a defensive approach to the game - steered Belarus to success during the World Championships earlier this century. Hanlon guided them to sixth place in Riga 2006, and Fraser ninth in Quebec City/Halifax in 2009. Heikkilä prefers to let bygones be bygones and instead look ahead and try put his own mark on the team.
"I cannot tell you what has been happening in the past, and I haven't analysed it too much," he says. "What we are working on here is to try and develop with the team. I am running my own system and style of play. Active defensive play and good attacking game, but we are not attacking on the expense of defence or vice versa, but it is that kind of total ice hockey that I want us to play actively all the time with or without the puck," he says.
So far during the exhibitions games preceding the 2012 World Championship, Heikkilä has been pleased with longer glimpses of play, especially in a penalty shootout loss against Finland and two tight games against Sweden with the same outcome, all played in April. The arrival of centre Mikhail Grabovski of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod forward Alexei Ugarov have added a bit of much-needed firepower to the roster. Meanwhile there are still chances of further reinforcements from across the Atlantic as the Kostitsyn brothers, Andrei and Sergei of the Nashville Predators, are currently on the losing side against the Phoenix Coyotes in the Stanley Cup play-offs.
"The top, top players are few and far in between to choose from in Belarus. So far we have played a lot of games with players who on their own teams often play in the fourth lines, which for them often means less power play, less of an attacking role. With Grabovski and Ugarov having arrived, these are players who are in our first line which has given us more attacking power," says Heikkilä.
But Heikkilä also strongly emphasises the need for a new generation of players to come through, with an eye for the qualifying to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games and 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships held on home ice in Minsk.
"We must now also get younger guys on the team and give them a chance. Especially on the defensive side there has been a lack of players coming through, and with the death of Ruslan Salei, we lost a leader," he says. "But if this team can live and play together for a year or two, these leaders will emerge."
Admitting to have been missing every-day work routines and feeling he had time to spare, Heikkilä tied himself further to Belarusian hockey when signing a one-year deal with KHL team Dynamo Minsk at the end of April. An agreement that should benefit the development of hockey in Belarus, and offer Heikkilä an even better insight to bringing Belarusian hockey forward with many of the players on his current World Championship roster playing for Dynamo Minsk, the second most-attended European hockey team for the first time, averaging 14,193 spectators last season.
"Last year there seemed to have been a bit too many foreigners in the Dynamo Minsk team that weren't necessarily top quality," he says. "We don't have to get those players as we already have them in Belarus. If you bring a player from the outside he has to offer something extra to the team. I want the regular roles in the team to be offered to Belarusian players instead of someone from the outside."
Heikkilä is the third Finnish head coach to be in charge over a top division nation after Juhani Tamminen and Heikki Leime had both previously coached France. And he would welcome more coaching ideas coming into Belarus from the outside, which could benefit the development of the game, using his own home country as an example:
"I would wish that there would be more foreign coaches coming in in the Belarusian league and into their junior development. Normally, now you have the same coaches coaching doing the same things like they've always been done. The way I see it is that you need to update things, bring in new ideas to break the daily routines. They are doing a good job, but it would be good also to stimulate the game and bring in some new thinking from abroad," he says.
"In Finland we have had many examples of this over the years. In the past it was Gustav Bubnik and Len Lunde in the 1960s and ‘70s who brought something new to the game. Later we had Vladimir Yurzinov, who improved skill levels and increased the practice level while Curt Lindström brought with him self-confidence and a psychological side of coaching which won Finland its first World Championship in 1995. These influences from the outside moved Finnish hockey forward and that is something I would like to see more of in Belarusian hockey," says Heikkilä.
But first up for Heikkilä is a treat as he is making his World Championship debut as head coach against Finland in Helsinki. There were two exhibition games between the two teams in Finland recently. Belarus’ 5-0 loss in Rauma was quickly followed up by a concentrated effort and fine goaltending from veteran Andrei Mezin in Tampere as Finland won 2-1 in a penalty shootout.
"Finland is the defending champion and plays on home ice. It's the top nation and it's on paper, topping the ranking. But I think the two games we played against them at the end of April, gave our boys belief and self-confidence as we got to play our own game, which made the players realise that there is a chance for a surprise."