Translations by Tomas Jandik
Hlinka Interview - Sport - 10-Mar-01
You have lived in the US for a year. Do you have a feeling that you have already become "naturalized"?
No, you can't do that in one year. I feel at home in Litvinov, not in Pittsburgh. It is not easy to start a new life in another country. But my situation now is better compared to the last year, because I speak English better now. It takes a long time to get used to certain things, but I can say that I have already got settled in.
And what about your family? How do they cope with the change?
Everything's OK. My wife left home for Christmas, but otherwise she is here with me. I'm getting visits regularly, my son came to see me, and other friends came as well.
For years, you have coached and worked in the Czech hockey scene, and paid attention mainly to European hockey. NHL has certainly different parameters. What's the biggest distinction?
The biggest difference is in the number of games. Eighty-two plus playoffs is huge. And add traveling to that. The Czech league has, compared to the NHL, its regularity - it is played on Fridays and Sundays, occasionally on Tuesdays. The planning and overall preparation is much more difficult here. It happens that sometimes we have to play four times in one week, or three times in four days. So practices have to be adjusted depending on the situation with the team, which is not exactly the most ideal thing.
NHL is often identified as the most famous, most perfect, and the best hockey league on the planet. The bad stuff about NHL is not mentioned often. What out of Czech hockey would you import into North America?
Here they build up on players, back home we build up on the coordination of defensive pairs and forward lines, which suits me more. In America, they pay a lot of attention to the stats; the winner of the scoring race is the king, other numbers are important as well. To have Bure on the roster is certainly great, but look where Florida is. He may play 29 minutes per game, but Panthers have 50 points, without any chance for playoffs. They play everything to suit him; he leads the goal-scoring race, but the team as a whole has not any good perspective. A lot of teams in the NHL do not have balanced rosters, unlike Czech clubs. Here, you can often see a lot of player vs. coach fights. And tough media.
Did you have to change a lot your style of coaching, or did you decide not to compromise your traditional methods?
Every team has its distinct parameters, what matters is the proportion of European players, but players often move, so I have to adjust. Video is used here on a regular basis, which is something I consider somehow overblown. I try to be understanding, work a lot, and I feel the season flies so fast.
Have you ever fallen into depression where you would ask: 'Why did I take that Pittsburgh'?
I think that during the course of a year, everybody steps in the wrong direction sometimes. The point is not to fall too deep, so that you can get yourself out of it.
Do you admit that not all your intentions worked for you in Pittsburgh?
Certainly. I can't talk about the actual matters, but I did make a wrong move couple of times.
Like, for example, your unsuccessful effort to play only three complete formations like in Europe? You had to give up this plan quite soon.
Well, it did not work. Even though even NHL teams play with three forward lines, the fourth comes in just a couple of times during the game; and when you add the minutes played, you come to the conclusion that the team uses pretty much only three lines. I thought it would be appropriate to form three complete formations, because the coordination between forwards and defensemen is very important, and I consider an advantage if they know each other very well. But I found out that it is extremely difficult to balance everything. At least, we try to play the same D's behind our first two lines.
Jiri Slegr, with whom you have some long-lasting ties, had to leave Pittsburgh. Did you mind that?
I was not thrilled by him leaving. The only thing I would add to that is that it was because of the intervention of the 'supreme powers'.
To coach any NHL team means to work under the extreme pressure - thanks to both the management and the media. Do you feel that giant responsibility?
The pressure is pretty much constant. Every day I am in contact with the press that knows everything about hockey and informs about all. And that's often tiresome. Naturally a lot depends on the results of the team. We gave ourselves a goal to manage the season so that we don't have problems with advancing to play-offs, which we pretty much accomplished. Nothing is finished, we still have 18 games to play, but I don't expect any big problems. Mario Lemieux helped us with his return, now we have two outstanding lines, and our ambitions thus have risen quite a lot. After the completion of the regular season, the pressure will multiply. The press will chase us into the play-offs, it will be tough. Despite all this I try to stay sober; I don't want you to take the following as looking for an alibi, but the fact is that a team, which wants to think about success in Stanley Cup competition, has to have an excellent goalie. And we have been experiencing problems with this position throughout the whole season.
Is it possible to compare the pressure, which surrounded you during your work with the Czech national team with that in Pittsburgh?
The pressure associated with the national team lasts moreless three weeks during the World Championship, plus maybe during the tournaments of Euro Hockey Tour. Whereas in Pittsburgh, we are under it every day.
Did it come to you that maybe your three-year contract with Penguins may turn into a much shorter job?
I have to count with that. I am not that naive to think that I can't be fired. The results are crucial, and if you don't have them, then not only those on the outside, but also the team itself will show their displeasure. The relations then would not as happy as they may seem. The coach may think how great job he does, how perfectly he prepared the team for the season; but if he loses, he is not any useful to the team and usually leaves. His players can show fantastic parameters during the tests, but if they don't transfer it on the ice, the coach becomes useless.
And do you have a feeling that you prepared Pittsburgh well?
In my opinion, the team looks solid. The truth is that no team is good enough not to have something to improve. What we miss is one good defenseman. Somebody able to spend twenty-five, thirty minutes on ice. The player who can prepare the final pass during our pressure, and who can bring calmness and experience to our defense. And I have already mentioned the goalies.
Do your words mean that before the NHL trading deadline the team management will find one defenseman and one goalie?
That's not that simple. To find a quality defenseman is difficult for Pittsburgh. The club strictly follows the budget, which is not by any means the highest in the NHL. Where to find him, who would let him go and for whom, that's the second question. And there are exactly the same problems with goalies. I'd like to be an optimist, but I think that we won't be able to find anybody until March 13. They say in America - never say never - nevertheless I don't think that any 'enforcements' will come.
Famous comeback of Mario Lemieux exceeded all expectations. Paired with Jagr and with Hrdina in the back, he is extremely dangerous. Can you imagine that because of his back pains he could jump off the roster and never come back?
Mario occasionally takes a break. Like on Saturday, when he skipped the game against Washington. We have found out that if we play three games in four days, he should not play the last one. Last time his problems worsened, so we'd rather go this way. I am not worried about Mario, he's a big guy, and big people have problems with their backs. The point is not to uselessly put too much pressure on his whole organism. He watches himself quite a lot, even though some agreements don't quite hold up. We agree before the game that he would play some eighteen minutes, but both him and Jarda want to play so much, they want to be on the ice all the time, so it often happens that Mario would finish playing 10 more minutes than planned. We play important games and he wants, and actually needs to be there. Mario will 100% continue with his career even during the next season. His goal is Olympics.
Jarda plays well, it's just the matter of luck whether he scores or not. And in last couple of games, the luck was not there. So we changed the composition of the first line. Instead of Stevens, Hrdina now plays with Jagr and Lemieux. And since then everything looks OK.
Alexei Kovalev woke up from a several years-lasting sleep and decay in an incredible way. It can very well happen that this strange persona in the NHL who handled his great talent rather wastefully, can even win the scoring title. What did you change in him so that he so unexpectedly bloomed? It has been said that especially you deserve the credit for this change.
First of all, I let Alex play. Look at it this way: I did not come to America to teach hockey. To tell the players how to play would be the worst thing I could do. Coaches here tend to be very impatient, they shuffle players through all the lines, and everybody ends up moving a lot. My experience proves that a line will find success if the players play together for a longer time. And we have an example - Lang's line with Kovalev and Straka. The similar line is in Colorado, where Sakic and Hejduk is accompanied by Tanguay. Our guys like to play together. They enjoy it, which is visible even during the practice. And most importantly, they suit each other hockey-wise, which is important. Three players may like each other, but if they don't function well on the ice, the friendship is useless. Kovalev finally moved up, he seems to be the most skilled out of the whole trio.
So far, you can enjoy the excellent play of the European line, but the problem is that in two months, everything may come to the end. The contacts of all the three players will end, and to sign them, the club will have to find a lot of money. Their joint demands may very well exceed $10 million. How can the club find so much cash?
I can't answer this question. The coach can have his demands. He can say: I want this one and that one, but the budget will always change the plans. I can't assess what happens after the season, whether we well be able to sign all three guys. Naturally, I'd like to keep the roster together and add just one constructive defenseman and a goalie. But that's all I can do in this situations. Others will decide what actually happens.
A lot of Czech newspapers has printed speculations and opinions regarding your return to the national team during Olympics. Your reservations are known, nevertheless, is anything new in this regard?
I don't want to talk in percentages, what the chances of me going are. We have an agreement with the hockey federation that we will talk during the summer. I want to add that finances don't matter. If I decide to return to the coaching of the national team, then even for free. However, I am in a rather different situation now compared to the one before Nagano. I have read somewhere that I am looking for an alibi, that I don't want to tarnish my reputation and that I am afraid of another Olympics. That's a bunch of nonsense. I have never been a chicken who would fear a competition. Of course, the risk is always there. You can end up the first or the last.
So you are not fully convinced that your advice to the Olympic team can be worthy?
I really can't say now. First, I think that Pepik Augusta and Vlada Martinec do a really good job, and I don't want to interfere with this tandem. Second, we have a bunch of Czech players in Pittsburgh, and that may eventually influence the final nomination as well. There are many delicate details in this problem, everything is quite difficult. Therefore, we will talk in the summer and solve it.
Tomas Jandik is the resident Czech on LetsGoPens.com and is a man who unifies all the goodies of the American dream - meaning, of course, being a Pitt graduate, a Razorback, and a Penguins fan.
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