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Canadian coaches bring Canuck grit, work ethic to foreign hockey programs

QUEBEC - Canadian coaches are becoming a hot commodity on the international hockey scene.

At the IIHF World Hockey Championship, six of the 16 coaches are Canadian in addition to Team Canada's Ken Hitchcock.

Belarus, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, and Switzerland all have opted for a little Canadian influence at the helm.

Other countries employ Canadian assistants as fledgling hockey nations try to add some Canadian flavour and toughness to their own game.

"It's a great experience, coaching in Denmark, and maybe we might be able to add some things from the Canadian game that could help Denmark get to the next step," says Denmark head coach Mike Sirant, a Winnipeg native who spent 13-years as head coach at the University of Manitoba before taking over Denmark's hockey program.

"I recognized that Denmark is a fast-developing hockey country and to play some small role in helping continue their development was a challenge and an honour," said Sirant, who now lives in Denmark full-time.

Coaches have found different routes to their international jobs. France's Dave Henderson, for example, was born and raised in Montreal before moving to France nearly 33 years ago to play professionally and ended up working his way through the ranks.

It's a similar story for Ralph Krueger, a Winnipeg native who played in Europe before turning to coaching. He has run the Swiss national team since 1998.

Others, like Finland head coach and Wallaceburg, Ont. native Doug Shedden was recruited by Finnish general manager Jari Kurri to teach his team how to win.

But while Shedden's bosses expect a medal at his final tournament at Finland's helm, the goals for the others are to continue providing the building blocks for the long-term development of the hockey programs in their respective countries.

"I worked 27 years coaching hockey at the University of Ottawa, and now I'm teaching the Italians to embrace the Canadian style of hockey," says Michel (Mickey) Goulet, head coach of Italy and a native of Ottawa.

"In Italy, to improve the level of hockey, we have to improve coaching and get more kids to play hockey. That's the only way forward for Italy, because we don't have the money nor do we want to bring in "italos" like Roberto Luongo, like Italy did in the past, with for example, goalkeeper Jim Corsi," Goulet said.

Incidentally, it was Corsi, an Italian coach and fellow Canadian, who brought him to Italy.

Not to say that Goulet thinks the Canadian content needs to be weeded out of the Italian system. But he figures it takes a few decades to produce a homegrown world championship calibre player.

"I think you have to have a balance," Goulet says.

"You want the good ones that will play for Italy and the name on the front of their jersey, not the name on the back - it's the only we can have success."

It is a similar mantra in Denmark, which is beginning to export some of its homegrown talent to play in North America.

"You look at Denmark and for a country with only 19 ice rinks, I think all of Denmark can be proud of the effort of our team," said Sirant, who says he's learning valuable lessons from Dane coaches and players also.

"We do have a lot of young guys on our team and the future looks good for us."

In the case of former Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon, it was the Belarusian embassy in Washington D.C. that came knocking during the NHL lockout.

"The president of the hockey federation really liked Hockey Canada and they just wanted to change their direction and wanted a North American style coach," said Hanlon, born in Brandon, Man., and serving as an assistant coach at the world championships under Canadian-American head coach Curt Fraser.

Hanlon oversaw the young Belarus team in a number of tournaments and saw an amazing turnaround in that country before handing over the reins to Fraser, a friend who'd been cut loose by the Atlanta Thrashers.

Hanlon hopes to one day return to the NHL coaching ranks.

But the former NHL goaltender is happy to be replacing Shedden behind the bench for Jokerit, a Finnish hockey club, and credits Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson for developing the coaching program that has made Canadians so respected on an international level.

"The biggest thing Canada has going for it is Bob Nicholson and what he's done with the Canadian programs that are so well organized and so well run that it's paved the way for us to go abroad and its given us credibility as coaches," Hanlon said.

Certainly, many countries look to Canada for a blueprint for hockey success.

Goulet says when he arrived in Italy, the initial game plan had always been to look good on the ice. Not good enough, says Goulet, who has added a Canadian competitive spirit to the Italian squad.

"I just wanted to see if we could change the attitude," says Goulet, adding that he thinks he's succeeded in teaching his players to love the game.

"Hockey is not a 9-to-5 job, it is a 365-day-a-year job ... a passion ... it's a way of life."


Giacomo Martino

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