For a brief span in the early 2000s, the NHL had two European coaches. Ivan Hlinka ran the bench in Pittsburgh, while Alpo Suhonen was in charge of Chicago. It didn’t last long; 168 games combined, to be specific. But with New York Rangers assistant Ulf Samuelsson in the running for the position in Carolina, perhaps NHL teams are willing to look at hockey minds who weren’t born on this continent once again.
Now, Samuelsson has the distinct benefit of being a known quantity in North America: He had a long, sometimes infamous career as a defenseman in the NHL and has plenty of coaching experience. Before his year with the Rangers, he was an assistant with the Phoenix Coyotes for five seasons and before he hooked up with Alain Vigneault in New York, he coached Modo of the Swedish League for two campaigns.
But what about the European lifers? Two names come to mind for me.
The first is Finland’s Karri Kivi, who became instantly famous for leading a defensively staunch Suomi world junior squad to a shocking gold medal in 2014. Kivi’s team went through the fire for their coach, beating archrival Sweden in Sweden after knocking off Canada in the semifinal.
Kivi specifically comes to mind because he won’t be back behind the bench when the Finns attempt to defend their title in Toronto next year; he took a job with Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL. His replacement, Hannu Jortikka, already had his detractors among my insiders, who characterize him as an old-school firebrand, far from a player’s coach and far from past success (Jortikka has won six Liiga titles with TPS and a world junior gold with Finland in 1987, but lately has bounced around the KHL).
Kivi is a young coach, just 44 years old, and while Traktor is a great opportunity, the KHL isn’t known for job security. An NHL team rebuilding around youth and in need of on-ice structure would do well to nab him, plus you get fun reactions when things don’t go well.
Another coach who caught my attention thanks to the world juniors is Sweden’s Roger Ronnberg. Another youngster at 42, Ronnberg piloted the Tre Kroner to a silver medal in 2013, when his team beat the odds in Ufa, Russia, to face the Americans in the final. Why were the potent Swedes underdogs? Because a boatload of their best players, including Mika Zibanejad and Hampus Lindholm, got injured before the tournament even started, forcing Ronnberg to ride his underagers to a medal.
After a shootout win propelled the Swedes past the host Russians in the semifinal, a Canadian reporter asked Ronnberg if his team practised the skills competition. Ronnberg looked at him perplexed and said, “Of course. It’s part of the game and something you can improve on.”
Bit of a “Duh” moment, though think of how many NHL coaches are still leery about the shootout and its importance to securing a playoff spot. Ronnberg coached Frolunda in the SHL this season, bowing out in the quarterfinal. Now obviously that’s not too impressive, but if you look at the progress made by prospects such as Alexander Wennberg (Columbus), Tom Nilsson and Andreas Johnson (both Toronto) this season, there’s more to the job than just playoff results.
There are many worthy candidates for first-time NHL head coaching gigs right now and plenty in North America – Willie Desjardins springs to mind and is apparently in high demand – but with Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen proving that you can do the job no matter where you born and raised, I wouldn’t mind seeing what some of the best young minds from across the pond could do as well.