Fifth place is not the stuff of which stories and legends are made. But for Slavomir Lener, the Czech Republic’s director of the national team program and player development, it was a step forward for his U20 squad at the World Juniors.
The 56-year-old, whose long international coaching résumé is highlighted by gold medals at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and 1996 IIHF World Championship, is keenly aware that no Czech team has won World Junior gold since the back-to-back titles of 2000 and 2001 under bench boss Jaroslav Holik.
But backstopped by the heroics of Petr Mrazek, who was named Best Goalkeeper and earned a tournament all-star berth, the Czechs secured their best finish since 2008 (also fifth) by beating neighbouring Slovakia in their last game.
With a tiny bit more puck luck, they could even have played for a medal: Grigori Zheldakov had to score the 2-1 overtime winner to lift Russia over the Czechs in the quarter-finals. So slowly things are getting better, even though the last time this Central European hockey power claimed some U20 hardware was 2005 (bronze).
Lener worked as an assistant coach for the Calgary Flames (1992-1995) and Florida Panthers (1999-2002), as well as taking the reins with notable European clubs like Sweden’s Luleå and Linköping, Germany’s DEG Düsseldorf, and the Czech Republic’s Sparta Prague. All that experience has taught him the value of thinking outside the box.
IIHF.com’s Lucas Aykroyd caught up with Lener during a break in the action at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship in Calgary.
Why is the Czech program in a better position than it was two or three years ago?
Well, it’s not just this tournament. I don’t want to single out one tournament, but talking about the whole program since I’ve come on board, the Czech Republic totally changed its philosophy two years ago. We’ve structured our national team programs much better. We played many more games against the top six countries, like Russia, Sweden, Finland, the U.S., and Canada. We’ve tried to play as many of those games as possible. All our teams – U16, U17, U18, and even U19 right now – have got a good schedule. That’s the first step.
The second step is that we professionalized all those coaches who coach those teams. They are professional coaches, working for the federation. When I came to the federation two years ago, we had two pro people looking after hockey. Now we’ve got 11. It’s still not too many, but it’s five times more than before.
Also, this year, we started having academies, similar to what they have in Sweden with hockey gymnasiums. We started with 16 clubs having academies. They all have professional coaches. We put more stress on off-ice training, individual training in the mornings. The combination of school and hockey is working well. This is a big step forward for us.
Do you feel like all the steps you’re taking will make it easier for you to retain young players in the Czech Republic instead of seeing them join the North American junior ranks?
Obviously, we need to be competitive. It’s tough to say where to start. Should we start working with kids who are five or six years old, or should we start with 18-year-olds? We have to touch on all the areas. We felt those national team programs from 16 to 20 are the most important, because it’s about promotion as well. As long as we’re still competitive, we can play against Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada, and the States. At the same time, we’re working on our programs. We’ve started on a new program – how to begin in hockey when you’re five or six, how to utilize the ice more. Smaller groups, more practices, stuff like that. It’s all coming together in the big picture.
A third step I should mention is that we’ve totally changed our education program for coaches. We used to have like Licence A, B, and C, where A is the top licence. We are leaning more into on-ice stuff, because there’s been so much theory that coaches didn’t gain much from or care about. So we have already arranged with Charles University in Prague to totally change what they are learning and what they’re supposed to do. It’s going to be tough studying. They’re going to study 1000 hours to get their licence, which is quite a bit.
Raimo Helminen is behind Finland’s bench this year. How do you feel about getting retired players involved in coaching internationally?
My goal is to attract as many former great hockey players to our program as possible. So you look at guys like Jiri Fischer, who joined our U20 coaching staff. I’ve got Robert Reichel coaching the U16 team. He’s even a hero right here in Calgary. Actually, with every level, I’d like to have at least one name – but not just a famous name, educated too. So I push these guys to study, to get their licences done, to work and develop their knowledge. Together with them, I try to bring in young guys who have the energy and passion to get better. That’s my philosophy.
The goaltending always seems to be a strength for the Czechs. You’ve had a great tradition in recent years with stars like Dominik Hasek and Tomas Vokoun, and this year Petr Mrazek has shone for your U20 team.
He’s been tremendous. And the success we’ve had before, either with the big team at the ‘98 Olympics with Hasek or winning the World Championship with Vokoun, we’ve always had a good goalie.
But when it comes to goalie education, to be honest, this is really an area where we have a lot of arguments. We have such specific, distinct goalies. In Sweden and Finland, I think it’s much easier, because those countries listen and are patient. They say, “This is the way we’re going to do things,” and they go and do it. In the Czech Republic, you’ve got different ideas in different cities. There are different styles of goaltending. So this is the area I haven’t really settled on. What I have done is to bring in a new goalie coaching committee, and they’re starting to co-operate together. We’re going to get some ideas into our system. But still, there are a lot of discussions about which way we should go.
Is Hasek somebody you might end up working with?
At this point, not really, no. But obviously he’s in my picture, and if he’s got any interest, then the door is open.
- The second part of the interview will be posted later this week.
- Find here a video with Slavomir Lener about Czech hockey development produced in 2011.