CALGARY – It’s been a long time since Calgary’s Saddledome hosted the 1988 Olympic Winter Games. For Switzerland’s new U20 national coach Manuele Celio, coming to the World Juniors will be a déjà vu.Looking back at the first days of the Saddledome’s history, Celio was almost a junior himself.
With Switzerland then struggling to cope with the top nations in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Celio debuted for the U20 national team in 1985 at the U20 World Championship B-Pool in Sapporo, Japan, winning all games and scoring eight goals and 15 points.
One year later, Switzerland played with the top nations and the Ticino native travelled to Canada for the World Juniors that was played in several Ontarian cities with Hamilton as the main venue.
“We didn’t play all games in the big arena in Hamilton, but also had some games in other cities like Niagara Falls. The significance of the event wasn’t as high as it is nowadays. The round-robin tournament format was also not as exciting as today’s,” Celio remembers.
“It was also much different for us players. At that time no Swiss player went to Canada with the dream of playing in the NHL one day simply because no Swiss had made it at that time. We could even not follow the NHL on TV. It was like a different world. But it was great to be part of it as a player. Today it’s different with players like Mark Streit or Nino Niederreiter, who set an example for the young generation. There’s a totally different approach towards hockey today.”
The Swiss lost to all top nations that year, but defeated archrival West Germany 7-1 to remain in the top pool. And despite heavy losses, Celio collected seven scoring points in as many games and scored two goals.
At that time he probably didn’t predict that he would go back to Canada only two years later to play his first-ever senior tournament at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, followed by Albertville 1992 and eight World Championships.
“I remember the Saddledome from 1988. The atmosphere was great,” says Celio, who scored a goal in Switzerland’s eighth-place finish in the 12-team tournament.
“To play against such nations as a 21-year-old was great. It was without NHL participation at that time, but as the NHL wasn’t that open in the ‘80s, some of the best players in the world were there. It was a distinctive moment of my hockey career. I was there recently for a site visit and also saw the new sports complex with the practice facility now completed. The infrastructure is great.”
For the 45-year-old it will be the first U20 World Championship as a head coach. After ending his playing career, Celio immediately switched to coaching, first with youth teams in the ZSC Lions Zurich organization, later with the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation.
He was an assistant coach with the men’s and U20 national teams and was coaching the U18 national team for the last three years. From a coaching perspective, he feels he’s more than ready for this step.
“There’s not much I need to change. Of course the game is more intense, but when it comes to coaching and managing a team it’s not an extreme difference,” Celio explains. “The biggest difference will be the arenas, spectators and media coverage.”
While Celio will be assisted by Alex Reinhard and Sergio Soguel, Switzerland’s men’s national team coach Sean Simpson will also join the staff as an advisor and analyze his team and the opponents from the tribune.
After a fourth-place finish in 2010 and a fifth place run last year, Celio hopes to repeat the results that are seen as positive in the Alpine country of seven million inhabitants. But Celio remains down to earth.
“Our goal is always to stay in the top division, but we can do more. We have a group of players that allows us to dream,” he says. “With Slovakia and Latvia we have two opponents in our group we can possibly defeat, but often one game can decide. We may not underestimate them, but I’m positive that we can reach the final round again.”
The Swiss team will be highlighted by Sven Bärtschi, who’s no unknown to hockey fans in Calgary as the Flames’ first-round pick in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft.
Bärtschi attended the pre-season camp in September before he was sent back to the Portland Winterhawks, the WHL team he joined in 2010.
“I’ve been working with Sven for four years and he will for sure have an important role on our team with his offensive skills,” Celio says about his star. “He’s used to play on small ice rinks. As a Calgary draft pick he’ll get lots of attention. I hope the hype won’t be a disadvantage for him.”
Meanwhile the New York Islanders’ number-four pick of 2010, Nino Niederreiter, will likely miss the World Juniors after coming back from a concussion.
“The door is open for Niederreiter, but we understand that the NHL takes priority,” Celio says about “El Nino”. “We would be prepared to add him if the Islanders should release him, and having to integrate him would be a luxury task for us.”
Celio went to the training camp in Red Deer with a roster of 28 players including eight from Canadian junior leagues. Five skaters were cut three days before the event. Celio already did some scouting before the World Juniors especially when it comes to players in North America.
“I went over to Canada to see some players. The level in the Canadian Hockey League is good, but I rate our National League A higher than the CHL. We will have a good mix of players from CHL teams, players who already made the National League A and players who haven’t made that step yet, but who can be role players in our team.”
The scores in the exhibition games against the United States and Canada, however, didn’t look encouraging – 7-3 and 7-1 respectively. But for Celio this was good training for his players to get adjusted.
“We wanted to play against such opponents so we knew from the beginning the level that expects us here. We also wanted to adjust to the small ice rink and to focus on the power play and box play with the different end zones,” Celio explains.
The tournament begins on Boxing Day for the Swiss against another high-calibre opponent, reigning U20 World Champion Russia.
“We hope that we can surprise in our first game,” Celio remains optimistic. “Russia is a very good team, but they might not be ready in the beginning, and they might underestimate Switzerland.”