Words of wisdom from the bench: The impact of coaching at the World Junior Championship

The teenaged stars on the ice are the ones in the spotlight, but don’t ignore the impact a coach has in determining a nation’s fate.
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When the teams hit the ice in Ostrava and Trinec, naturally the lion’s share of the attention will be on the players. It’s a strong year for draft-eligible prospects, led by top candidate Alexis Lafreniere, not to mention the usual assortment of soon-to-be NHLers who make the world juniors such a competitive tournament at the top end.

But there’s one group that often gets overlooked at the world juniors, and they always have a dramatic impact on the tournament, good and bad: the coaches.

An obvious example of the negative came in 2017, when Finland fired its coaching staff during the tournament in Montreal. Jukka Rautakorpi was the man behind the bench at the time, and Finland was coming off a gold at the 2016 WJC. But despite having Miro Heiskanen, Eeli Tolvanen and Henrik Borgstrom, the 2017 edition bombed out of the round-robin and had to beat Latvia in a best-of-three to avoid relegation.

Rautakorpi was replaced by Jussi Ahokas, who went on to lead Finland to another gold medal in 2019 – which included an upset of Canada in the quarterfinal on Vancouver ice.

The Canadians had their own coaching issue with Tim Hunter last year, as the WHL Moose Jaw bench boss just couldn’t get his team on track offensively when it counted. Even with a ton of talent, Canada scored just one goal per game in consecutive losses to Russia at the end of the preliminary round and Finland in that fateful quarterfinal.

But you don’t have to go far back to find a Canadian coach who brought his team together. In 2015, with the tournament in Toronto, Benoit Groulx rallied his troops when a malapropism went viral in the Canadian dressing room. Attempting to use the phrase “Tic-tac-toe,” the French-Canadian bench boss accidentally said “Tic-Tac-Tao,” spawning a meme among his players that lightened the mood in a pressure-packed situation and helped the Canadians take gold for the first time in six years.

Nowadays, Canada and Team USA tend to have someone different in charge nearly every year, and the Americans have found success with a number of NCAA coaches, from Bob Motzko to Dean Blais. Phil Housley was a high-school coach when he helmed one of the most dominant American squads ever to gold in 2013. This year, Scott Sandelin of Minnesota-Duluth gets a crack.

For Canada, Dale Hunter grabs the whiteboard for the first time. Hunter has been in charge of the NHL factory known as the OHL’s London Knights for nearly two decades, briefly taking a break in 2012 to coach the Washington Capitals. He has won three OHL titles and two Memorial Cups while graduating names such as Mitch Marner, Max Domi and Matthew Tkachuk.

Hunter is a tough coach, and he’s not afraid to bench a player for lack of effort – even if they’re projected to be a first-round pick (trust me, I’ve seen him do it). His ability to manage a lot of talent at the same time should be a good fit for Canada, which always has a deep roster, while his London teams never have trouble scoring.

But sometimes consistency behind the bench is the answer. Russia has won a medal eight of the past nine years, and Valeri Bragin was behind the bench for seven. Past players have marvelled at Bragin’s ability to pull a team together and deliver the right message at the right time and, from my own observations, he’s the kind of coach who wants to teach his players and make sure they understand what he needs from them.

This year, undoubtedly, coaching will come up. It’s a short tournament, and you have to hit the ground running, so someone will either soar or flop. It may not get all the headlines, but every year, the men who guide the boys have an impact.

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