Russell, 45, won the coach of the year award, a further boost to a reputation polished by back-to-back promotions in IIHF competition as the Brits reached the Elite Pool. The move to Germany gave the Scot a chance to test himself in a new environment, tempting him away from the Glasgow Clan in Britain’s Elite League.
“I always had a goal to try to do something like this,” Russell said. “It started with an agent contacting me about some interest in Europe. To be honest, I was tempted to stay with Glasgow, but people kept coming back to me and I knew it was a big opportunity.
“This is something I’ve always wanted. I wanted to try to prove myself at every level, and to have the chance to go to another country. DEL2 is a good league and it’s a different style of hockey. I’ve been pretty fortunate with the success I’ve had in international hockey and I wanted to move that into a day-to-day club situation. I had an idea of the way I like to play, and I wanted the challenge of doing that with different guys.”
One of Russell’s greatest strengths as a coach is his ability to develop players, something that makes a big difference in the DEL2 where imports are scarce compared with the Elite Ice Hockey League back home.
“In Britain, you go to camp and you have 14 imports right away. In the DEL2 there are lots of younger guys, mostly German players, only four imports,” he said. “It was a very different environment. I had to step back, think about what I was doing and pare it back. And I was lucky, I had a lot of young guys there who wanted to come to the rink every day and work hard. We started with the basics and went step by step, building the team that we wanted.”
His Freiburg roster had an average age of 25-and-a-half – three years younger than the team in Glasgow – and that has an impact on how Russell, goaltending coach Jack Hartigan and Sports Manager Daniel Heinrizi go about building and improving the roster.
“Developing players is massive there, our players were getting better all through the season and there’s real competition for places,” Russell added. “It’s a good league for that, players can go up and down to the Oberliga, it’s competitive, players have to work hard to stay on the roster.”
Freiburg’s season began with Russell taking on an old friend – Corey Neilson, a long-serving member of the Team GB coaching staff in his second season behind the bench at Lausitzer Fuchse. On day one, Freiburg were outfoxed, going down 7-3 against an opponent that featured GB internationals Robert Farmer and Mike Hammond, but after that the teams followed rather different paths. While Freiburg climbed the table, Neilson’s team from Weisswasser in Eastern Germany was sucked into the relegation battle – an 11th-place finish would have meant a survival battle in post season had coronavirus not halted the season.
“Corey’s a good friend of mine, but he had a tough time this year,” Russell said. “People told me that last year his team was a bit like ours – he came in after they survived a play-out and got them moving up. I hope I don’t have the same problems that he’s had this season!
“But is shows how the DEL2 is a very competitive league. There’s only a few points between the top six and the bottom of the table, so it’s easy to fall into that.”
The final standings underline the point. Freiburg came third, three points behind leader Lowen Frankfurt. But just seven points separated sixth-placed Ravensburg from Lausitzer Fuchse in the relegation playoff spots. Russell’s next challenge will be to build on this season’s progress as soon as the coronavirus situation makes it possible for sport to return. He’s looking forward to getting back to Germany – and finally tasting a full post-season. In Great Britain, restrictions on arena availability mean the playoffs play second fiddle to the regular season championship, so this would have been the coach’s first experience of a best-of-seven series.
“I was looking forward to that, it would have been something new for me and it’s just unfortunate that we weren’t able to experience it,” Russell said. “Hopefully next year we’ll be able to do that.
“In Freiburg I felt at home, the people were great to me and my family and this is a really nice place to live. And Germany has a really good hockey set-up. Especially with all the uncertainty at the moment, I just want to get back out there and have another good season. I can’t wait for everything to get back to normal, to get over this virus situation, get back to the sport and see if we can do it again. I don’t know if we can repeat third place, but we’re going to try and keep getting better.”
Russell also hopes that Britain’s progress on the international stage will mean more opportunities for players and coaches to leave the UK and gain valuable experience overseas. And he was also impressed with the growing interest in the British game in the wider hockey world.
“I don’t think people at home always realise quite how big it was, getting GB to the Elite Pool and staying there,” he said. “When you start winning, people expect more and more success and maybe it’s taken for granted a little bit. When I came to Germany, it was a bit different. Every time I went to a new rink, people were asking me about it – they think it’s crazy, and I think it’s awesome that we’ve been noticed over here.
“And that’s helping to open it up a bit, especially for the players. We’ve seen a few coaches go to Germany – Paul Thompson and Corey before me – and I think people have been impressed with the national team in the last few years. I think a lot of people in Europe were impressed with how we got to Pool A and then super-impressed with what we did there.”
Sadly, the cancellation of this year’s World Championship means Russell and his team will have to wait another year to dine at the top table of international hockey again. Typically, though, he’s found an upside to the current situation, despite the frustration of waiting for sport to return to normal.
“Of course, it’s disappointing that we can’t play this year. But, saying that, it would have been even harder this time around. We’re in the same group as Belarus, who will host in 2021, so we would have to find a way to win two games. Now we might not have to do that, depending on where the next tournament is played. But you still just want to go again, it was such an amazing experience.
“In Pool A, we’ve nothing to lose – these are teams we shouldn’t be anywhere near and that’s the bottom line. But we went out and played our hockey. We had some hard nights because the opposition was so good. And then we had to find something superhuman in that last game [against France]. It was amazing and we learned so much.”
There are still plenty of ambitions for the future, with rumours of interest from teams in bigger leagues. However much Russell is enjoying life in Germany, though, he’s not forgotten his roots.
“At some point, I’ll definitely come home,” he said. “People don’t believe me when I say that I miss Glasgow. [Owner] Neil Black was unbelievable with me and it was a whole family there, guys like Gareth Chalmers and Dave McLeod. It was a great place to work.
“This was the first time I’d made a decision to leave while under contract, to use the exit clause. I know it made some people unhappy, but it felt like the right time.”