SOFIA – They are well known and respected on the hockey stage and in the NHL. Both have proved their great hockey minds winning big championships.
One led Canada to a world title in 1994, ending a 33-year drought. The other one became the first rookie coach to win a Stanley Cup in 1986 with one of the most emblematic teams in the sport, the Montreal Canadiens.
Hockey fans in Bulgaria haven’t had many opportunities to see coaches of such calibre in action lately. But for their delight, this week, George Kingston and Jean Perron are showing their knowledge and passion for the game in the capital of Sofia during the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division II Group B.
72-year-old Kingston is coaching the Mexican national team and Jean Perron, 63, is in his second stint with Israel. The two Canadians “faced” each other Friday in a very intriguing game that went to overtime.
Daniel Mazour scored the first goal of the game on power play after 11 minutes, but later in the period Mexico scored goals by Julian Ramirez and Adrian Cervantes just 2:38 apart.
At the end of the second period Eliezer Sherbatov put Israel ahead again with a shorthander, but 49 seconds later Mexico used the man-advantage with Alexander Guttierez tying the score.
In the last period Mexico had just two shots on goal , but one was for the lead – Roberto Chabat made it 4-3 with ten minutes left in regulation time.
So far those two nations have played only twice in World Championships in the men’s senior category and Israel won both times: 7-1 (2001) and 3-1 (2007). This time it was another win (5-4), but in the most dramatic fashion.
Mazour scored at 2:40 before the end of regulation time and sent the game to overtime. The extra period started with a power play for Israel and Sherbatov realized the sudden-death goal at 1:16.
Before this match-up both teams won a game – Mexico against host Bulgaria (8-5) and Israel against South Africa (6-2) – and now they assured their places in Division II for next year.
Mexico made the debut in 2000 and since 2006 the country has regularly participated in Division II.
Israel even gained promotion to Division I in 2005, but was down to Division III last year. Now with Perron back as head coach the signs are positive again.
“Back in 2005 I took the Israel’s men team and we won the Division II in Belgrade. I worked with the juniors and the seniors for three years. Not full-time, just for the tournaments. We had a plan, but the federation didn’t want to follow it, so I said: I’m not part of this. Now there is a new president, new staff, and the motivation is much better,” Perron explains.
“It will take few years before we compete in Division I for good, because there is just one rink in Israel. When I first joined the federation, there were only 97 registered members and now this number it is up to 200. If we have one new rink coming every five years it will help a lot. The only rink right now is too far away in Mettula. It’s a three-hour drive from Tel Aviv. This is why the guys don’t practise often. They play only 15 games a season. You can’t get better this way. We have to bring those guys to North America during the holidays. We used to do this – the Israeli juniors played games in Los Angeles, in Miami, in Chicago. We wanted to give them more ice time, more games, and the kids were becoming better.”
Perron was a NHL head coach for four seasons – three with the Montreal Canadiens (1985-88) and one with the Quebec Nordiques (1988-89). His achievement – winning the Stanley Cup in his rookie season – was duplicated only by Dan Bylsma in 2009 with Pittsburgh Penguins. In 1987 Perron was the head coach for the NHL All-Stars in the “Rendezvous” (two games against the mighty Soviet Union team, coached by Viktor Tikhonov) and assistant to Mike Keenan at the fourth edition of the Canada Cup, which finished with the most exciting final series of all time. Canada won versus the USSR 2-1 (5:6 OT, 6:5 OT, 6:5).
After such highs in his career, how does Perron look at his job working in the lower international levels?
“As a coach you always want to win,” Perron says. “I remember my first press conference, when I was announced as a head coach of the Canadiens. The media asked me about my objective for the year. I said I want to win the Stanley Cup. And my president took me aside and said: Jean this is our goal as a team, but never mention it openly, because you’ll see the pressure that you’ll have. I was a winner back when I coached University hockey. A loss upsets me.
“Even today – we played a great team like Belgium, but the defeat for me is unacceptable. And you can’t win by yourself. You need good people, strong people around you. You have to surround your parts properly, your coaches, to surround the young players with good veterans. You need also chances, the stars have to be aligned to be successful,” says Jean Perron.
It’s interesting that Perron and George Kingston worked together as associate coaches with Team Canada in the 1984 Olympic Games under Dave King as head coach. Ten years later in Lillehammer Kingston was the director of hockey operation for the Canadian team that went all the way to the final game against Sweden, which was decided by Peter Forsberg’s famous penalty shot.
After ten weeks the alignment of the stars was better. Kingston was the head coach of Canada’s team for the IIHF World Championship in Italy. In the semi-finals the Canadians routed Sweden 6-0 and in the final they won against Finland 2-1 with Luc Robitaille scoring the decisive penalty shot.
Kingston was the first coach of the expansion NHL team San Jose Sharks (1991-93). He was also an assistant coach in the NHL for the Calgary Flames, Minnesota North Stars, Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers. Kingston had two periods working for the Norwegian Ice Hockey Association (1989-91, 2007-10) and was a head coach for Germany in 1998 Olympic Games, 1996 World Cup and 1995-98 World Championships. How did he find himself in Mexico after such an illustrious career?
“You don’t really think about Mexico as an ice hockey nation, right? But many years ago the President of the Mexican Ice Hockey Federation, Joaquin de la Garma, had met me in Gothenburg and asked me: ‘Would you Canadians come out and help us with our hockey?’ I said when I’m free and don’t have any obligations, sure I’ll be happy to help,” Kingston says.
“I had an agreement with Norway till the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics. After that I had an option to continue to work with the women’s team, but I took a position at the NHL Coaches’ Association. I wanted to help the coaches in NHL to have a better pension and medical plans. I have been a coach in NHL for 12 years and when you get fired the benefits are difficult to get. In the U.S. it’s really important to have medical benefits, because there is no universal health care and pensions are something you have to really negotiate for. We now have pension for the head equipment manager, the head trainer, the physiotherapist, the assistant coaches and the head coaches, so I think my work has been helpful for the future coaches,” explains Kingston.
It was his passion for hockey and helping others that brought him south of the border to Mexico.
“I love the opportunity to work as a coach, whether it is in the NHL or helping in Mexico. This is the third year that I’m working with their U18, U20 and senior team,” Kingston says.
“They have a long way to go, but they are very serious about wanting to become better hockey players. I love hockey and I want to see the game grow. It’s important to help other countries. And it’s nice to see the progress they have made. Mexico has few very good young players.”
In this men’s team there are only seven players that are older than 24 years. Defenceman Miguel Colas is just 17. Colas had five points and took the prize for the best player from the Mexican U18 team that also played in Sofia in March. Mexico won against Bulgaria, Chinese Taipei and South Africa and finished in third place in Division III Group A.
Richard Albrecht was voted best goaltender of the tournament. Colas also played for the U20 team in Division II Group B. And two other players from this team are also in the senior squad – Carlos Gomez (born 1992) and Francisco Padilla (1993).
Under the supervision of a great coach like Kingston they can continue to blossom. And if you wonder whether it’s expensive to hire a specialist like him, here is the answer: “I’m a volunteer. I hope to see my expenses covered. How cheap is that? I have been in hockey development all my life. I first started to do IIHF clinics, I believe, in 1972. And then almost year-by-year I was doing coaching clinics till 2004. Dave King and I have done it many times. We felt that was something important to be asked, but it was also important to help other nations.”
NOTE: The last game of the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B will be Belgium-China (18:00 CET) and it will determine the winner of the tournament. Belgium is leading so far with a perfect record: 4 games, 4 wins, 41-6 goals. China (3-0-0-1, 9 points, 23-13) unexpectedly lost to Bulgaria on Friday (6-3) and has to win against Belgium in regulation time to take the first place and the promotion to the next year’s World Championship Division II Group A. Any other result means that Belgium will be promoted.