The news comes as a shock not only for Davos, which won six championships under Del Curto, but for all Swiss ice hockey. Besides having fans across the country, HC Davos also has a few detractors and haters as with any team. But Del Curto was well-respected in all circles, for what he has done far beyond the borders of his Alpine club.
Del Curto led Davos to six championships (2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2015), won its traditional Spengler Cup tournament five times (2000, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2011) and had a top-four finish in a top IIHF-sanctioned European club competition twice, 2006 in the European Champions Cup and 2016 in the Champions Hockey League.
Del Curto was not only known for his success but for his charisma. His coaching and his handling of players was passionate, at times rough, his style up-tempo hockey. Defence-first was not his slogan. His hockey was pure entertainment to fans. He was a rocker behind the bench and a hockey philosopher in longer interviews. With his glasses he was sometimes compared to Harry Potter during his most successful days in the first decade of the 2000s.
There were many facets of Arno Del Curto. He regularly won first place in tabloids’ rankings of the worst-dressed coaches in Switzerland as well. He refused to wear a suit when he could just be behind the bench the way he feels comfortable – in jeans, a sweater and a jacket. The only time he was seen with a suit in a dressing room, he did it for fun to shock his players in an NHL-style outfit before HC Davos played an exhibition game against the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009.
He took it off pretty fast. Davos lost 9-2 and Del Curto hasn’t been seen in a suit again since.
One of his most famous players was San Jose Sharks veteran Joe Thornton, who played the lockout season in 2004/05 in Davos and won a championship with fellow NHLers Rick Nash and Niklas Hagman. He has returned to Davos almost every summer for ice practices with his former coach.
The 62-year-old was not only known for developing young players but also for being able to deal with players who had problems elsewhere or were not considered easily coachable. During their best times in Davos, Del Curto had a close friendship with Reto von Arx. While playing with the Swiss national team he was thrown out during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games after a long night out. In Davos he scored the championship-clinching goal just two months later. It was the first of six championships Del Curto and von Arx won together.
A player had a bad transfer or bad season elsewhere? Just call Arno for a career turnaround. It hasn’t changed after over 22 years. Inti Pestoni scored as many goals in 21 games this season as he did in his entire last season in Zurich despite the current crisis in Davos.
However, many other things have changed. When the then-little-known coach of third-tier Lucerne and the U20 national team joined HC Davos in 1996, Nokia’s 8110 was one of the hottest mobile phones out there. Del Curto would for most of his tenure refuse to use a mobile phone. Players and even presidents have come and gone during his tenure in Davos. Seeing smartphones in the hands of his young players was a nightmare for him. Del Curto, whose players were sometimes more than players for him but friends he’d play cards with away from the rink, loved to communicate the old-fashioned way.
23 seasons is a long time. That’s more than for example Lindy Ruff’s 15 seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, and even more than Jack Adams’ 20-year tenure with the Detroit Red Wings. Viktor Tikhonov coached the Soviet Union and Russia for 12 consecutive seasons and Ralph Krueger made it to 13 seasons with the Swiss national team.
Del Curto speculated in interviews during the last years that the time may come to say good-bye. Now it has come. The Swiss record champion currently is sitting at 11th in the 12-team National League. No team has conceded more goals, 78 in 21 games. There have been some big losses. Most coaches would have been fired earlier in his place but not Del Curto, the “cult coach” as he’s called in Switzerland.
The “cult coach” moniker comes not only for his success and coaching but also in the media. He was honest, open, emotional and often interviewers would get different answers than expected. A wrong question could lead to an impulsive answer with wild gesticulations. Understatement was another of his trademarks. His team was always the underdog, reaching the playoffs would be a miracle. 22 times he did it, in his 23rd year Davos is in danger of missing out.
There were few interviews of Del Curto in English as he never coached a team abroad. Known for his Grisons dialect in interviews in his native language, the few interviews he gave in what he described as “bush English” were no less popular in Switzerland such as this one by TSN during the 2012 Spengler Cup or others in the Champions Hockey League.
In one of the funniest moments he crashed an interview of his player Gregory Hofmann in Italian a few years ago when the player was asked about rumours of leaving the team for Lugano the following season. When Hofmann didn’t want to confirm anything, Del Curto tried his best school-book Italian. “[expletive] situation for me. Just say why you move to Lugano, because you don’t like the coach,” Del Curto crashed the interview. “Tell the truth, why do you go to HC Lugano?”
After a 5-1 road win in Zurich on Sunday there were few signs that the farewell was imminent. But Del Curto wouldn’t be Del Curto if there had been a storybook ending. He decides himself when it’s time to go and the time is now.
Whether Del Curto will retire or coach somewhere else is not known yet. Moving to another team is something that seemed hard to imagine for a long time. The only time he was close to leaving Davos was in 2010. He once unveiled in an interview that he agreed to coach SKA St. Petersburg but then in the next moment said “nyet” because he couldn’t leave his old love, HC Davos.
There is no succession plan in Davos either where the club management obviously hasn’t had prior experiences with changing coaches. Del Curto will have to be replaced not only as a head coach as he has also served as a GM for most of his era. In today’s Swiss Ice Hockey Cup game against the SC Rapperswil-Jona Lakers his long-time assistant Remo Gross and former player Sandro Rizzi will coach the team on an interim basis.