Cereda’s second life in European club hockey
by Chapin Landvogt|05 SEP 2019
Luca Cereda behind the bench during HC Ambri-Piotta’s Champions Hockey League debut against Red Bull Munich.
photo: Ulrich Gamel / GEPA pictures
He’s a man of several faces. 

Charming, calm, reflective, and polite outside of the rink. 

Passionate, intense, energetic, and a bundle full of emotion behind the bench.

Luca Cereda is a coach who takes his work very seriously. He has turned a once promising player career frowned upon by a bad twist of fate into a promising coaching career that has enjoyed a rather sharp upward swing the past few years.

A former Toronto Maple Leaf’s first round draft pick, Cereda is the man now setting the tone for all of Swiss club HC Ambri-Piotta’s ice hockey ambitions. After years of guiding the team’s youth program, and some time with Switzerland’s junior program, much of which saw the Ambri-Piotta pro team battling against relegation, Cereda took over the top team’s bench three seasons ago and hasn’t looked back since.

All he’s done in that time is get the club back into both the National League’s playoffs and international competition. For the first time since the late ‘90s, Ambri-Piotta is now a part of international competition as a participant in the Champions Hockey League – a monumental piece of progress for one of Europe’s most fascinating traditional clubs, located in a mountain village of just a few hundred souls.

In light of the team’s recent success and the exciting challenges ahead, IIHF.com chatted with the cordial and rather young coach, a man who enjoys cult status among one of Europe’s bastions of hockey passion.

By qualifying to participate in the Champions Hockey League for the new season, HC Ambri-Piotta is returning to European club hockey 20 years after being the back-to-back Continental Cup champs and winning the European Super Cup against Metallurg Magnitogorsk when you were a rookie player on the team. How important is the CHL for the club, the community, and for you as a coach?

It is incredibly important. It’s a huge step. We’re just a little mountain village. The opportunity to play on the European stage is an incredible honour. We believe this can have a long-term effect on us as a club and will expose future generations to what is out there in the hockey world. 

For me and my staff, this will be a wonderful challenge and experience. It will demand a lot of us, but we would want nothing less than that. We feel we’re very lucky and proud to be a part of it all.

After many years of fighting off relegation in league play, Ambri-Piotta made it back to the playoffs in 2019 season. How important was this for the club and the region?

Well, as a club, we decided two years ago to switch up our strategy. We knew we wanted to move away from simply putting together a team with the hope of avoiding the play-outs, often despite having some big-name players, and move towards a more homogenous and organic growth, looking to work in more of what we have here in the region along with other astute acquisitions. And hard work had to be a key to any success.

Last year, we finally began to reap what we we’re sowing. Sure, we were ecstatic to make the playoffs and take a major step upwards in our development, but we naturally have to remain humble and work even harder to prevent taking any steps backwards. We’ve only just begun. We know we’re going to have to battle every day. We’re battling for our sporting existence. So, the team has to come to the rink every day, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. We’ve got goals and we’re going to have to work for them. We want to get better and that’ll be the only tried and proven way.

What do you think will be the key to juggling the duties and rigors of the CHL and the other competitions in Switzerland?

This is of course a huge challenge and a new one for our program. There’s much we’ll have to do to have the boys optimally ready for what they’re going to have to face. There are even more game days than usual and things will be even more intense in everything we do in preparation. We’ll be taking every precaution necessary to make sure the team gets the necessary regeneration. We know that the boys will have to be balanced and keep a good track of their minds and bodies, from an emotional aspect as well.

Naturally, for the coaching staff, this may be the greatest challenge this season and we’re doing everything to be on top of things right from the get-go.

Two “Dominiks” played a big role for you team last year. Dominik Kubalik was your top scorer and is now heading off to try his luck in the NHL... Your thoughts on that?

Ultimately, it’s a business and every player has to create his own path. Kubalik is going to try his luck in the NHL and he’s been an important part of our program in recent years. We believe in him and wish him all the best. Ultimately, his success will also reflect on what steps he took here with us in the National League, where he’s done a good bit of his professional development.

But this is one of the challenges every team at the club level, at least throughout Europe, has to face. Every spring and summer brings around another round of transactions and yes, players come and go. This is a reality you learn to deal with. You wish the outgoing players all the best and you welcome the new players and concentrate on making them a part of the team and organization as quickly as possible. 

We now have a new team and are concentrating on the here and now. We’re all looking to take the next step and that comes through honest, hard work.

However, Dominic Zwerger, an Austrian with Swiss junior background, remains in the team and has been a big contributor in recent years. What role does he play in your plans?

Dominic is a young player. He joined our club two years ago and has done what we’ve asked of him. No doubt about it, he has a special sense of creating offence and we feel that he has a bright future. He’s on an upward curve in his career and has developed into one of our key contributors among the top-six forwards.

To be clear, to get to where he’s gotten, he’s had to work very hard - and he has. There are plenty of other players who he had to beat out to get the offensive minutes he gets. He’s not at the end of his development and still has some things to improve on. But he’s done very well to get where he’s at and he’s capable of improving. We are hoping he takes an even bigger step this season.

As a coach, how have you been approaching the Champions Hockey League? What do you think of your first-round opponents?

It’s the end of the summer, but we’ve been preparing like we would as if we’re heading into the playoffs. If we’re going to be successful in this competition, there’s no time to lose. 

Red Bull Munich is coached by a coaching legend, Don Jackson. There’s no disputing what he’s achieved and his team has been to four DEL finals in a row. And of course, it was the vice champion of the CHL last season. I was very much looking forward to facing him and his team, to see how they approach such a game. But this first CHL weekend was a real tough one, because we also faced the next opponent just two days later in Sweden. Farjestad is a big number in the European hockey scene and the team has been good in recent SHL seasons.

We’ll then host both of those teams in Switzerland before we face Banska Bystrica from Slovakia. We will see them twice in mid-October and sure, on paper, it looks like those could be some must-win contests. But we will take one game at a time and we definitely want to play a puck-control game. We want a lot of puck possession and we want to control as much of the flow of the game as possible. We want to take away as much space from the opponent as possible and make quick transitions forward.

In any case, we understand that we are the underdogs and we’ll embrace that. We’re going to battle and we’re to look to be the hardest working team in our group. We owe that to ourselves - and to our fans, who are very excited about CHL action.

You were a Toronto Maple Leaf’s first-round pick in the 1999 NHL Draft. What was that experience like?

The experience was super. Back then, in Switzerland, we didn’t really know or understand much about just how big and important the talent draft is for the NHL. It proved to be a highlight of my career being drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs and ultimately, I profited quite a bit both on and off the ice from my experience within that organization. The whole thing, from draft day to my time playing in the minors, was a wonderful experience that helped turn me into the person I am today. It’s something I’m still truly thankful about.

Within two seasons, you had developed heart issues that ultimately ended your playing days by the 2006/07 season. How difficult was this for you personally?

It was naturally a life-changing experience. I was over with Toronto preparing for a season when the standard physical led to the diagnosis of a heart problem. I ended up needing an operation in which the doctor’s put in a cardiac valve from a donor. It would have been too dangerous to continue playing without this operation. I knew I had to give it a try, because I wasn’t ready to stop playing. So, I went into the operation and the situation full of hope and determination. By my mid-20s, tests showed that my heart problems were going to accompany me for a good while and it was time to end my active playing career.

You know, things come as they come. I believe everything happens for a reason. Who knows where I’d be now and what I might have experienced or achieved as a player had I not had this problem and everything it has entailed? But one thing’s for sure; there’s certainly no telling if I’d ever be here today as the coach of Ambri-Piotta if things had gone differently. This is what my path in life has led me too.

But you quickly turned your love for the sport into a career as a coach. With the exception of a half a season with Chiasso and then a whole season with the farm team, the Ticino Rockets, you’ve been coaching for Ambri-Piotta since 2008/09. Did you immediately know this was the route you wanted to go after ending your playing career?

No, being a coach was not an immediate goal or dream of mine. I had many other things on my mind and under the circumstances that forced me to end my playing career, I wasn’t yet ready for what has become my second career. Once I did decide to join up as a coach, I just entered into it looking to have fun. It was just something to try and at the beginning, I didn’t enter the fray with any ambitions. But then I really started enjoying it. I didn’t enter into things with big goals, but it grew on me and was something I became more passionate about.

I conducted my work with the U20 with a lot of vigour and excitement. I enjoyed seeing young people develop and progress, battling their way up to make their dreams come true. I enjoyed my years with the national team program and all the work involved there. Working with men at a lower level before taking over for Ambri-Piotta in the National League taught me a lot. I can’t say being a National League coach was my goal the whole time, but now I’m here and loving it. I love coming to the rink. And now I’m so excited about all the challenges that are still to come.

What were some of your experiences with those back-to-back Continental Cup championships?

Oh, those are some very wonderful memories. They were amazing. I don’t really remember all that much as a player, but more as a member of the team and what we experienced together. It was so exciting playing these new and often very different opponents, testing our metal against these different styles.

But I also remember the bus rides and the trips, seeing the different countries and areas. I remember playing games on the road and seeing our loyal fans in the stands. There were times that a good 1,000 of them were there to see us play on the road. Heck, we saw a similar turnout last week at our road games.

No doubt about it though, those years in the Continental Cup were special times. I learned a lot and as a team, we just grew together and became stronger and stronger. We faced every challenge to come along and ended up on top!

What was it like to defeat a team like Russian giant Metallurg Magnitogorsk?

You know, I remember being at the restaurant in the rink before we played them. Some personnel were there and some fans as well, but we were having lunch with the team. Where you sat, you could look out on the ice surface. While we were having lunch, Magnitogorsk hit the ice for practice. We just sat there watching them and thinking, “My goodness, these guys are really good. And they’re big. And they’re mobile. And they’re fast.” It was pretty intimidating. We knew we had our work cut out for us.

But our coaches had us ready and we knew we didn’t have anything to lose. So, we were going to give it our best and play shift for shift, period for period, and see what we could make of this thing. That’s what we did and that’s how we won. It was an amazing victory and something, well, that we were just so happy about. We had written some history and that’s something you don’t easily forget.

Ambri-Piotta, the club, has been a big part of your life. What does this club mean to you personally?

I can sum that up with one word, namely “Emotion”. You know, already a child, my parents were die-hard fans of the club. I grew up as a fan. So now I’m officially the head coach, but deep down inside, I’m still a fan. The connection is very big and as you mentioned, I’ve spent a big portion of my life with this club. It’s played a bigger role in my life than many can say about their favourite team in anything. I’m very thankful for everything this club has done and offered me along the way. Very thankful.

You’re turning just 38 this weekend and yet you’re already the head coach of a National League team, one of the most respected leagues on the planet. What goals and dreams do you have looking forward?

To be honest, I don’t really have a lot of goals and dreams at this point. Not with respect to looking into my future. Not at this point. I do a lot of thinking and invest a lot of time, energy, and concentration into what I’m doing in the here and now. I have to work on a day-to-day basis and I’m constantly planning for what comes next, as in the next practice, trip, game, etc. Especially now while juggling the NL and CHL.

With all these thoughts and with so much to get ready for, I can’t really afford to look too far into the future or dream too much. I just don’t really have time for that. I’d get myself into trouble.

But there is something that I think would be a dream and it is something I’m actively working on now. I’d like to bring more of our own prospects into the team. I’d like to see more talent in the region be developed and make its way into this program and this team. That’s something I’m working on and very much believe in. That would give me great satisfaction to see us grow in this aspect and we turn into a team that will one day play for the championship. 

Hopefully on a yearly basis.