Hockey is life
by Henrik Manninen|16 OCT 2020
Celebrating his 80th birthday today and still going strong as a coach. Having met and worked with many legends in the game, Alex Andjelic reveals his part in the Miracle on Ice as well as building up Dutch hockey. All for the love of the game.
photo: Robert Bos
With celebrating his 80th birthday today, Aleksandar “Alex” Andjelic shows few signs of slowing down.

Andjelic’s extensive resume encompasses generations and continents. Late legends of the game such as Anatoli Tarasov, Alexander Ragulin and Sven “Tumba” Johansson were all his friends. More recently, he worked with contemporaries in the game such as Matt Duchene and Anaheim Ducks head coach Dallas Eakins during seven decades of services to hockey.

“I had a decent career and a great life. I still do, and everything is hockey,” said Andjelic.

During the abruptly ended 2019/20 season Andjelic combined duties as head coach at the Zoetermeer Panters in the BeNeLiga with being part of the coaching staff for Turkey’s national men’s team program.

The Serbian-Dutch coach is now once again out on the ice eager to continue his work with Zoetermeer. But with great uncertainty hanging over the 2020/21 season, Andjelic found time for a trip down memory lane from a life spent in hockey across both sides of the Atlantic.

When the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Miracle on Ice game between the USA and the Soviet Union was eulogised earlier this year, unknown to this day has been Andjelic’s cameo in one of the biggest upsets in sporting history.

“At the end of 1970s, I had been invited to speak at a coaching seminar in Montreal. I told them I had a Swedish friend Hans Westberg with a presentation on the topic: ‘How to beat the Soviets?’ Hans came along to Montreal and that’s how it all started,” recalled Andjelic.

Westberg, then head coach of the Netherlands, believed he had found a crack in the Soviet superiority. During three exhibition games versus the Red Machine, the Dutchmen went on the attack and scored with relative ease. In a 5-10 loss against the Soviets in their final exhibition game, the Netherlands even managed to win the final period. But when the Netherlands head coach stepped up to the podium in Montreal, most of the navel-gazing North American coaching elite failed to be impressed.

“After Westberg had made his presentation most of the coaches made fun of him. How do you know? What is your background? How many games do you watch in the NHL each year and so on,” said Andjelic.

One man in the audience being all ears was Herb Brooks. The newly-appointed head coach of the U.S. Olympic team became part of a smaller group continuing a more in-depth analysis in Westberg’s hotel room. With the Netherlands also taking part in the 1980 Winter Olympics, Brooks continued his talks with Westberg in Lake Placid as Team USA believed in miracles when the Soviets were toppled 4-3 on 22 February 1980.

“I later spoke to Igor Larionov about the similarities in terms of tactics. He had played in those exhibition games against the Netherlands and also against USA in Lake Placid,” said Andjelic of the memories later eulogized in a Dutch documentary “The secret booklet of Dutch ice hockey: How do you beat the Russians?”

Yugoslavia-born Andjelic came to age at a time when hockey attracted five-figure crowds in its capital of Belgrade. Regularly squaring up against teams from the what was then the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia, Andjelic was on the Yugoslav national team skating at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

“It was a great experience just to live in the same Olympic village with so many famous athletes. I knew Ragulin and I became pretty well acquainted with Tumba Johansson and visited him in Stockholm one year,” recalled Andjelic.

Skating at an exhibition game in the Netherlands in 1967 was to change Andjelic’s life forever. An offer to continue his career in the Netherlands was accepted. Over five decades later he is a legend in Dutch hockey and especially in the town of Nijmegen.

“When I came to Nijmegen as player-coach in 1969 there were two kinds of players: bad older players and bad younger players. I began by sending all the bad older players away and began working with the bad younger players,” he said.

Dutch national team stalwarts such as Jan Bruijsten and eventually his sons Mitch and Kevin were a troika benefiting from having worked with Andjelic. The same goes for Mike Dalhuisen and Nardo Nagtzaam, who made it from Nijmegen to the American Hockey League (AHL).

Theo van Gerwen, the Technical Director at the national ice hockey association IJshockey Nederland, recalled skating for Andjelic’s Nijmegen team as a 21-year-old during the third round of the 1984/85 European Cup.

“Back then Nijmegen would let other young players from other clubs play for the team. Alex invited me and I had a great experience,” he said of two memorable games against Sweden’s reigning champions AIK Stockholm.

“Alex has had a great influence on Dutch hockey. Especially in the city Nijmegen he has done miracles and always gave the youth a chance to prove themselves. Always tough, but always honest, Alex could hit certain feelings on people with his sharp remarks, but that’s who he is,” van Gerwen added.
Turkey became the fourth national team program Andjelic worked for as coach. He was assistant coach to Deniz Ince at the 2016 World Championships Division III in Istanbul and was in the same role at the Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round 2 Group M in Sisak, Croatia in December 2019.
photo: Irfan Kurudirek
After guiding the Dutch U20 national team to silver behind promotion-winning Switzerland at the B-pool of the U20 World Championships in 1985, the time was right for a new challenge. Many seasons in Switzerland at clubs such as Chur and Rapperswil-Jona followed before also trying his luck in Germany. By then the Netherlands had become his home and he returned before jetting off to a new adventure in the service of hockey.

“The connection with North America started in 1977 when I was visiting a coaching clinic in Belleville, Canada. There I got introduced to Fred Shero, the two-time Stanley Cup-winning coach with Philadelphia Flyers who in 1987-88 I coached against in the Netherlands. I also met Roger Neilson (coached eight NHL teams and inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2002) who invited me to work at his camps where I stayed for 33 years,” said Andjelic.

“At that time North America wanted to understand Soviet hockey. Being able to speak Russian I had connections to the Soviet Union and Tarasov also helped me,” said Andjelic, who published "The European Hockey Drill Book" in 1983, which was snapped up by the Americans.

“But when I went to speak at clinics in North America, I never said, ‘this is how you do it.’ I was offering them information and then they could decide to use it or not. It was the only way a North American would accept it. At that time their game was just up and down, shoot and forecheck. There was no movement out on the ice and a coach like Herb Brooks was way ahead of his time,” said Andjelic.

Now dating back almost eight years, Hockey Central focused on Andjelic in action during practice with the Toronto Marlies. John Shannon, the sportscaster failed to hide his enthusiasm as he described proceedings:

“At the end of the practise this 72-year-old man skates out and puts two tyres out on centre ice and started to get the guys using their eye-hand coordination and dribbling their skills. The guy in charge is Alex Andjelic and he is from the former Yugoslavia.

“This guy has coached for over 40 years in Europe and been quite instrumental in trying to improve the Marlies’ situation. The fascinating thing is that the guys absolutely love it. These guys are professional athletes and this guy comes out, and they are like kids in a candy store having a great deal of fun,” enthused Shannon.

While hard work and discipline is the key to success, a gleam in your eye should never be far away. It is a winning formula that made Andjelic travel the world with job offers arriving still to this day.

“During my career, I really enjoyed my involvement with the Marlies and doing development camps for the Leafs. Winning the DEL with Adler Mannheim [as skills coach] and being part of that team was great. Chur was another high point, playing at the Winter Olympic for your country is another one, so it’s pretty difficult to decide what was on top,” he said of seven decades in hockey where a couple of players would stand out.

“I used to coach this 15-year-old kid twice a month in Canada named Matt Duchene. He was amazing,” said Andjelic of the now 29-year-old two-time World Champion and Olympic gold medallist.

“Another one is Swiss goaltender Renato Tosio. A funny and optimistic person who was so competitive that he kept track of the goals his teammates scored against him in practice,” said Andjelic of the former national team goalie who played 713 consecutive games in Switzerland’s National League between February 1985 and March 2001.