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European Coaches Will Factor Into NHL's Future

Trends in coaching could favor excellent communicators such as Rikard Gronborg and Olli Jokinen.
Rikard Gronborg

By Jon Rosen

Before installing structure as the first-year coach of Liiga club Mikkelin Jukurit, Olli Jokinen installed a karaoke machine in the team’s dressing room.

“Some guys like to sing a lot,” said 39-year-old center Jarkko Immonen.

The machine hasn’t always been plugged in, but Jukurit players surely have been, prodded by the guidance of a coach who has unquestionably been a boon for organizational culture since being appointed to the position in February 2021. “I’m coaching the team, but I’m the servant for the players, 24/7 for the players,” Jokinen said. “Whatever they need on the ice, off the ice. Help them with the life lessons. Help them with the day-to-day things. Anything, what it means to be a pro.”

It’s an archetype of the trend toward coaches at virtually all levels of sport who have adapted to get the most out of a younger athlete who might not take as well to more heavy-handed prodding. Rather, many modern players respond better to personal time and explanation, and, importantly, the understanding that the coach truly cares for them. “We’ve got guys singing before the practices, but they understand that when we go to work, we work,” Jokinen said.

Olli Jokinen

The 43-year-old is a veteran of 1,231 NHL games, but his only prior coaching experience was with the minor South Florida Hockey Association. Well past the midway pole of his first season, however, Jukurit is far surpassing any prior organizational high-water mark with 11 wins in a 13-game stretch through mid-January. There is no annual promotion or relegation in the Liiga, and this is easily the 52-year-old club’s best run since it accepted an invitation to join Finland’s top flight in 2016.

European hockey might not be on the radar of many North American fans, but a vast and intriguing personnel pool indicates that it should be. There are talented coaches who may be positioned to benefit from an evolving mindset signalling that North America’s traditionally staid hockey culture may be trending away from its familiar insularity. And Jokinen, who drew appreciation bordering on cult status for his talent, baby-faced looks – and in the twilight of his career, perhaps some flowing blonde locks – is certainly among that group.

No European has been hired as an NHL head coach since Chicago’s Alpo Suhonen and Pittsburgh’s Ivan Hlinka were brought on in the summer of 2000. Suhonen lasted just one season; Hlinka led the Penguins to the 2001 Eastern Conference final before he was fired four games into 2001-02.

Since then, Finland’s Jarmo Kekalainen was hired as Columbus’ GM in 2013, Sweden’s Patrik Allvin was recently named Vancouver’s new GM, and Ralph Krueger, born in Winnipeg to German immigrants, helmed 145 games with Edmonton (2012-13) and Buffalo (2019-21) after an extended run with the Swiss men’s national team. Marco Sturm guided Germany to the silver medal at the Pyeongchang Olympics and is now an assistant with Los Angeles, while Tuomo Ruutu and Ulf Samuelsson are assistants in Florida. Tomas Mitell, who coached Stockholm’s AIK for two years in HockeyAllsvenskan, had just turned 41 when he was among the casualties when Jeremy Colliton was let go by Chicago earlier this season. There are a handful of European goaltending coaches, Evgeni Nabokov among them, but that’s the extent of European NHL assistants.

There’s a saying that the coaching guard is an “old boys’ club,” and that’s certainly true in many corners of hockey. Peter Laviolette and Darryl Sutter are on their fifth coaching stints, while Bruce Boudreau and Peter DeBoer are on their fourth. Of course, all have found layers of success in the NHL, with Laviolette and Sutter combining for three Stanley Cups. It’s more eyebrow-raising when coaches who failed to make an impact in earlier stops are given second or third chances before the best European coaches get their first.

But a prime reason North American coaches are afforded multiple opportunities is that they benefit from the constant presence and support system of their networks. That might imply nepotism or serve as a different way of saying “old boys’ club,” but it’s much harder to factor in the immediate orbit of those who make decisions in North America from a continent away. “It’s about knowing somebody, believing, and finding a connection,” said Hall of Famer Jari Kurri, the GM of Jokerit Helsinki since 2013, which since 2014 has played in the KHL. “It has to be right, and the timing (has to be right). There is no question that Europe has a lot of great coaches. Of course, the history is different. I think that’s the most of what they worry about. Do they know enough about the NHL and the history of the game and the style of hockey? So, I think those are all things that make them worry, maybe. But, why not? Why not?”

The history, according to Rikard Gronborg, is important, and not for reasons one would expect. Employed by the Swedish national team from 2006 to 2019, the three-time World Championship gold medallist (twice as head coach, once as an assistant) and coach of the 2018 Tre Kronor team in Pyeongchang, Gronborg, 53, has regularly been a darling name on “outside the box” coaching lists, whether at his alma mater at St. Cloud State or NHL openings in Buffalo and New Jersey. He identified bandy’s influence on the European game – “where everything is built from the defense up” – as opposed to the more straight-ahead, “lacrosse way” favored by NHL teams.

But Gronborg, who has both Swedish and American citizenship and has coached in Minnesota, Utah, Montana, Wisconsin and Washington, has always described himself as a “hybrid” coach, one who relies to a greater degree on his relationships and the maximization of his players’ abilities over schematic advantages. “I don’t think it’s so much of ‘tactics’ and ‘strategy,’ because I think when you get to a certain level, it’s my personal reflection that the tactics are (similar) with most teams,” he said. “I think it’s more of the leadership part of it, how you can lead people, because it’s a people business. With everything going on now with the NHL, how do you treat the people in the organization, how do you treat the players in the organization, the staff and everyone else?”

Coaches within and outside of the NHL use another team’s clips to demonstrate the way they’d like to see their structure and game plans executed, and some teams have the personnel to better harness the up-tempo, more direct North American game. From Scandinavia to Salzburg, many coaches speak highly of the Carolina Hurricanes’ systems play and cut their clips to emphasize points in video sessions.

While it helps to have a Sebastian Aho and an Andrei Svechnikov, the Hurricanes are a much greater entity than their pace and skill. “If you look at the whole idea of ‘everyone matters in that organization,’ they did something different with their after-game celebrations, for example,” Gronborg said. “They did something together.

“There’s so much focus on strategy and tactics, and those things are very important, but when you get up to a certain level, most of the coaches are very in tune with that on both sides of the puck. But how do you lead people? That’s my kind of question, what kind of leadership do you want for your organization and your teams?”

His method is more Socratic. Like North American coaches, Gronborg relies on regular communication with a leadership conduit he believes empowers his most important players to establish the team’s high standard of play. The team meets as a group after every game, a process he likened to marines debriefing after a mission. Representative of the trend toward decreasingly abrasive coaching, he insists that his players begin and lead each post-game session. “When you’re dealing with high-pressure situations, it’s scientifically proven that you have to involve everybody in the process, otherwise not everyone’s going to buy in, and I think that’s what Carolina, for example, is doing,” he said. “And they do it really well.”

Like others in high-profile positions who’ve managed or played in both Europe and North America, Gronborg is under no delusions. GMs have volatile job security and don’t usually get opportunities to make more than one or two coaching hires during their tenures. The safer coaching pool is of exponentially greater volume than the more off-the-board pool. “But again, the curiosity is there, that’s for sure,” he said.

Kurri’s coach at Jokerit, Lauri Marjamaki, also presents an interesting case. Finland has traditionally punched above its weight internationally, and Marjamaki, who earned a bronze medal at the Sochi Games under Erkka Westerlund, led the Finnish team in Pyeongchang at the age of 40.

He’s now fine-tuning his approach to make the most of Jokerit’s playoff appearances and finally displace KHL juggernauts in SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow. In a league transitioning to an NHL-sized playing surface, such slim margins in playoff games are often earned by the team with a raised competitive level that more effectively harnesses important details. “During the summer, we watched a lot of clips about Tampa Bay, Boston Bruins faceoffs,” Marjamaki said. “I think we want to develop that, we have to find something new about our game. There are small rinks in the KHL, and this league is a tough defensive league. A lot of battles. A lot of battles.”

One regular sentiment was that in order to have the best chance at an NHL job, a coach had to not only pay dues but build their network at the junior, collegiate and lower professional levels. That can be a hold-up for European coaches, who after years of experience in the continent’s top leagues, might not want to ride buses between North Bay and the Soo. “Maybe they want to go right away to the NHL,” Marjamaki said. “For example, (current Finland and former Jokerit coach) Jukka Jalonen said that he can go to the assistant coach of a good coaching staff and want to see what kind of league it is and how he can help his players and support his team to be successful.”

It’s essentially the path blazed by Sturm, who joined Los Angeles as an assistant only nine months after leading Germany to an improbable silver medal in Pyeongchang.

Will Jokinen get a similar opportunity? If there’s a team looking to build camaraderie among its players, he should. While the karaoke machine might draw more attention, he’s installed a more direct reminder of the playing fraternity flourishing beneath him.

“We have a sign in our locker room,” Jokinen said. “It says ‘Home.’” 

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