Is the NHL ready for a European head coach?
With the same names surfacing whenever a question of a coaching change emerges, a unique perspective may be what a team really needs to turn their fortunes around.
With hockey becoming more and more global, many international teams look to North America, and Canada in particular, when developing their ice hockey programs. To make true progress, you need to understand what the team at the top is doing, and innovate your own strategy.
The Soviet Union turned to the late Anatoli Tarasov to come up with its game plan in the 1950s. Tarasov spent countless hours looking into the North American game, with a focus on the style of the Montreal Canadiens for use as a base to build his own brand of hockey. A good candidate to have been the first coach to make the jump to the NHL, the political situation of the day kept the barrier between East and West intact.
Finland and Sweden have created some of the finest goalkeepers in the world by starting goalkeeping schools. They incorporated the best techniques used in North America and Europe to develop protegés like Henrik Lundqvist, Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne, and Antti Raanta.
North American teams have looked to Europe for inspiration and development strategies for other playing positions, as well, but while a few NHL teams have brought over some of the European innovators to influence their team directly, none as been the head coach of an NHL team since Ivan Hlinka (with the Pittsburgh Penguins) and Alpo Suhonen (Chicago Blackhawks) in the early 00s. No European has held the highest coaching position for two full seasons since Johannes "Johnny" Gottselig with the Chicago Black Hawks in the 1940s.
International players have been entering into the league since the 70s, and many of the top stars playing in the NHL are Europeans. It would make sense that there are at least one or two coaches in the rest of the world that are among the top 30.
With the same coaches going around the carousel in the NHL — the most recent example being John Tortorella, who made stops in Tampa Bay, New York and Vancouver before landing in Columbus — shouldn't a team look for a different solution than someone that has been fired several times from that position?
Foreign coaches will undoubtedly have been exposed to the NHL and have an idea about the style of competition. Their transition to North America would be easier than those made by coaches who have made the trans-Atlantic voyage east with little knowledge of the team, or even league, they're joining. Most European coaches have a great command of the English language, so there would not be that much of a language barrier to overcome.
The European style of hockey usually preaches a controlled game. 'The other team can't score if we have the puck.' More NHL clubs are looking into the possession analytics aspect of hockey, and that's bringing the formerly disparate North American and European styles of play closer together.
From my interviews with various professional players, it seems that a lot more focus is put on individual training in Europe, both in the weight room as well as on the ice, leading to players developing a more individual skill set. In contrast, it seems the NHL and AHL teams are concerned with moulding replacement parts that move up into a league-standard system that many teams and coaches have become familiar with.
The flexibility of the European philosophy to build a team around its players, rather than vice versa, is an obvious pro in my mind, but could also end up as a con if that philosophy is not adopted by all parties within the organization.
It takes time for a new system to be adopted. One that takes a more individualistic approach to each of the 23 members rather that one team entity will take even longer, and that may make it impossible to bring over a European coach in the middle of a season to turn a season around.
The spotlight will be focused on a foreign coach, as it was seen when England hired an international manager for their national football team. Media and public opinion will be harsher on a European than a native North American, and this will lead to more media confrontations.
Both Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello got a rough deal because of their English-language skills, and an NHL team looking to hire a foreign coach would have to see that this doesn't become the main story. The CV won't matter for the first few games, but it will be brought up at any time of adversity, and will also be the selling point of the team towards the fans and the media, and that starting point needs to be as close to perfect as possible.
While a unique vision for the style of play makes it difficult for a European coach to break into a league with established ways of doing things, it will also be necessary to make a team go the international route rather than select one of the spare coaches who knows the ropes, or choosing one who has come up through the lower ranks and appears ready for a role in the top league.
With those requirements laid out, there are a few who could realistically take a step across the Atlantic to try something new.
Vyacheslav "Slava" Bykov
A famous and fantastic international player, Bykov speaks English as well as French. He has coached some of the finest Russian players on both the national and international stage. He was considered a fall guy for the Russian fiasco in the Vancouver Olympics, but is the first coach to have won the Gagarin Cup with two different KHL teams (Salavat Yulaev and St. Petersburg).
Forsberg built up the Skellefteå dynasty, but left under a cloud of suspicious dealings when signing for a new Swedish club during the season. He took a team with borderline ability and set the foundation for the first real dynasty in Swedish hockey since the early 90s.
He took over the Skellefteå squad, and has taken the club even farther. Under his watch, the team has steadily improved, and is more or less in control of the league this year together with Frölunda. Wallson is reportedly the first one in and the last one out of his team's various appointments. He leaves nothing to chance, and the amount of time he spends on video analysis is extremely high.
Rönnberg is the current coach of Frölunda HC; the only team that seems able to hold a candle to Skellefteå this season. He has settled into the head coaching role that had seen a nearly constant turnover in recent years, building a team that relies on young players, and developing them into NHL-ready assets.
He was at the helm when Sweden won gold at the 2012 World Junior Championship, and won this years CHL in Europe, but has yet to claim the Le Mat trophy, or even make the SHL final, as a head coach in the SHL, though those shortcomings may be rectified this season.
Westerlund has one league championship to his name, and led Finland to three medals in four tournaments when he was the head coach for the National Team from November, 2004 to May, 2007. A silver medal at the Winter Olympics in Torino was the pinnacle of his international career.
He currently coaches Jokerit in the KHL, and the Finnish team does quite well with fewer resources than the big clubs from Moscow and St Petersburg.
The first Finnish coach to lead the Finnish Lions to a World Championship title, this year he led the Finnish juniors to World Junior gold. He won the SM-Liiga championship with HPK in 2006 and was awarded the Kalevi Numminen trophy as Coach of the Year for that season.
He has expressed interest in coaching in NHL but say that his network is not up to par and that he would have to start as an assistant coach [IIHF IceTimes, January 2016, p.25]. Jalonen is a very intriguing coach with lots of success at many levels, and an NHL team would be smart to bring him in for any position.
Thanks to Cirno (@SnowflakeSheep), Robin (@robinlindgreen) and Katya (@KatyaKnappe) for their feedback and ideas for potential candidacy on this topic.