How happy are you about the bronze medal of the former wards?
Unreal, which can hardly be expressed in words. The biggest one came when the girls beat the Finns on Thursday because it was a step that we haven’t been able to cross and handle in the past. It was the biggest emotion there, and I even cried that they had to climb the hockey Mt. Everest succeeded after many years. On Sunday, it was already “just” a beautiful consummation, which I experienced in peace. The girls dominated the duel for bronze and the Swiss had no control over them. We knew that the girls were the third best, only they didn’t know it themselves. Now with the help of Carly, who gave them freedom, freedom and trust, it ended beautifully.
It just had to be a gradual journey, right?
Yes. Already in 2019, under coach Novák, they won their group, but then lost to the Finns, who almost dominated the championship. Even then it was clear that this is a team with which, if you work well and the girls realize what they are capable of, then there is a possibility of the semi-finals. Last year at the Canadian Championships we won the group again, but we wanted the players to dominate the ice, to hold their own on the puck and to know that they are better than the opponents from Group B and can make it to the best in the world. We then lost the quarter-final against Finland by an own goal, but we had more chances and really dominated part of the match. It was a shift again.
And then came the successful qualification for the Olympics.
People sometimes say that we didn’t have tough opponents in it, but I don’t think so. We were playing at home and were favourites, which brought pressure. But it was a big breakthrough. At the Olympics, we dominated in some matches, but we did not succeed in the duel with Denmark and Japan. The quarter-finals with the USA are already there, but we were unlucky. The girls really didn’t have it for a long time, but now it finally broke. It was in our favor at important moments and whether it was against Sweden or Finland it was on our side. The girls were prepared mentally, for hockey, but you also need luck. They are third in the world, although I say they are the best in the world because America and Canada play on a different planet. They have one tournament and then there is the world championship, which the girls won.
Coach MacLeod makes no secret of following up on your work. You recommended her, didn’t you?
She was one of the five or six names I recommended after I left. Then it was the union’s decision. But I spoke with Carla only once, we had a two-hour call via the computer, when I told her everything I had experienced with the national team over the past two years. I honestly told her what I thought about each player. She also attended a talk I gave in Canada for coaches about how we played in the Olympics. And there she asked a lot of things. We haven’t been in touch since then, and rightly so, because she has to make her own team and give it her idea and charge. She didn’t change much in that short time, but she emphasized the game in front of the goal, whether it’s screening, dribbling, winning battles in front of the goal. And it was beautiful to see how relaxed the girls were. They were happy about the goals, they had rituals and a good mood, for which the coach has a lot of credit.
You weren’t part of the team and watched everything from afar, but was the team mentally and internally stronger than at the Olympics, where you criticized them for that?
Certainly. But the criticism at the Olympics was also directed at myself. I criticized myself because I felt that I didn’t have that much energy after qualifying. That those two years cost me an awful lot of strength. I felt health problems and I did not perform well as a coach in the Olympics. There were also a number of unpleasant factors, mainly in the form of covid. We were isolated, we couldn’t train and every day we were worried that some girl would miss the games. This does not add to the team atmosphere. Now I saw how the girls were all smiles and I think Carla did a great job. She approached it wisely and smartly and used the huge potential and talent of the girls.
Tell me more about your rather mysterious departure from the national team. At the end of February, the executive committee gave you the confidence to continue developing women’s hockey. Then there was partial criticism from some representatives of domestic clubs and your resignation followed.
I already felt after the qualification that I was running out of energy and that I was not feeling well mentally and physically. I knew I had to make it through the Olympics, but after the Olympics I was very strongly advised by the doctor to stop doing what is extremely stressful and to take six months or a year off. We agreed at home that I would not continue, but then I went to the executive committee, where there was quite a euphoria and there was an appetite for support and money, and I made the mistake of saying: Yes, I will continue to do this. When I got home, my girlfriend reminded me that we had agreed that it was over. And I subsequently reconsidered. I was sorry, but my original vision was that I wanted to put women’s hockey in women’s hands. I never wanted to retire from women’s hockey. Leading the national team was a huge honor and responsibility for me, but those two years cost me more strength than I expected. And I couldn’t go on.
I don’t want to pick up on your health, but was it physical or mental?
Both. It was a complete burnout and the physical consequences stemmed from it. My girlfriend told me that I would destroy myself and end up with bad health. So I listened to the doctors. It’s just that the executive committee “got involved” in it, where I promised something, which was not right at the time.
After returning from abroad, you said that you wanted to stay in the Czech Republic and finish the last third. And God willing, an extension. Applies to?
Yes, I stay in the Czech Republic. I enjoy being Czech with everything. I work remotely for the Toronto Maple Leafs as a development coach who flies to Toronto three to four times a year and works with the Maple Leafs and Marlies (AHL farm). But my main task is to work with drafted players who are still active in Europe. At the moment we mainly have the Finns, so I will go to see them every month, go to the ice with them, watch them in matches. It’s a responsible job, but it’s not stressful at all. I’m surrounded by other coaches, a broad implementation team, so I don’t make any decisions alone. It’s a rewarding job because I have to improve every day, learn, but I can also bring a lot.
Do you still cooperate with Czech hockey?
Not at all. I want to focus on just one job and I also want to work less.
Kari Jalonen, the coach of the men’s national team, said that his biggest advantage is that he does not speak Czech. Does it also apply to Canadian coach MacLeod?
For the time being – that is, not forever – this is a great advantage. Besides, she doesn’t even live here. He will come to camps, championships, but he lives in Calgary, where he works at the university. He does not understand what is written, what is said. However, I claim that every coach is only a guide to the team for a certain period of time. I and my predecessors were climbing Mt. Everest guides, we led the team somewhere, then passed the baton and hoped that the coach would do the rest of the work after us. That position does not belong to anyone, it is just an honor to be able to represent the nation.
I admit that I was one of the conservatives who opposed the foreign coach of the national hockey team. But when no one wanted the position after Filip Pešán was fired, Kari Jalonen was a good choice, and the championship in Finland proved it. The same applies to women. Are you glad that Czech hockey has abandoned that conservatism?
I am It’s a good choice right now. He doesn’t even have to be the head coach, but it’s good if at least one of those coaches sees things differently. This is very important to us. We need opinions and views from other countries. I’m also glad that the head coach is a woman. This is a big thing for us Czechs in hockey. That combination is hugely important. For the generation of girls who are growing up, they will see that after playing hockey, they can train or continue to work in hockey. Some people ask me if I regret quitting. No, on the contrary! It is more important for Czech hockey that a woman and a foreigner was able to motivate the girls in this way than if I was there.
Are you optimistic about Czech women’s hockey?
We know very well that we don’t have enough girls to raise them from a young age in women’s competitions. And I don’t know if it’s ever realistic. Growing up with boys is a huge advantage for them. But it’s also a disadvantage from a social point of view – they change clothes by themselves, are isolated from the team and have to hear and experience a lot of unpleasant things because they are in a boys’ team. I believe that this success will bring much more interest in women’s hockey from coaches, managers and sponsors. And that something will come of it. Whether it’s more VTM-type camps, which is one of the things that women’s hockey needs. Have more mini-concentrations over the weekend or in one day, where there will be conditioning training, games on the ice and training of skill habits. Then the national team’s 16th and 18th teams must have regular and frequent camps where they will train together. As a handyman, we were able to prepare for covid for a long time, we were able to work purposefully and it showed. That’s the way.
You are now in Canada. Does the Czech surprise from the World Cup resonate there?
Yes. People notice when someone plays attractive hockey. When he jumps up a notch. I get a lot of texts, Carla will get a lot too. Now we will also move to Group A. The advantage is that you only need to win one match and you are in the semi-finals. That’s how the Swiss did it in recent years, losing all the matches in the group, then winning in the quarter-finals and being in the medal game. But if there is a vision for us to one day compete with Canada and America, then of course we have to work differently.