LOS ANGELES – Coach John van Boxmeer enters his third season with Swiss club SC Bern, the team with the best attendance in Europe. But winning the Swiss title for the first time since 2004 won’t be the team’s only goal. The club is also eager to qualify for the Champions Hockey League. Also on the agenda, van Boxmeer will become the first to coach a Swiss team against an NHL team when SC Bern faces the New York Rangers on September 30.
You had a great regular season with SC Bern, winning the regular season by 22 points. What made your team so dominant?
We had a very good team with good character players and strong goaltending. Our team brought that willingness to compete hard and to play hard every night.
Nevertheless, SC Bern was upset in the quarterfinals. What happened?
Looking back, our first goal was to finish first in the regular season because of the Champions Hockey League. We spent a lot of emotion finishing first. Sometimes, when you put that much emphasis in finishing first, the team feels that they achieved their goal and don’t have anything left to go to the next level. When the playoffs start, it’s not that anybody improves their game just everybody has a little more emotion and focus. But if you’ve been playing on a high level for a long time, I think the team isn’t able to produce, which was probably our biggest problem. We were emotionally not able to get to that next level.
There was a lot written about the failure as two key players left, Christian Berglund and Martin Steinegger. How were you involved in those decisions?
Martin was a great player for Bern and Switzerland for a long time but he was at the age where I think his role was starting to diminish a little bit. We had some young players like Roman Josi, and Philipp Rytz, and Reto Kobach, so that we felt he needed to play more minutes, he needed to play in a bigger role. We talked to Martin at the end of the year. We thought that he still has a lot of good games in him and that he could still be a valuable contributor to our organisation but not necessarily as a top-6 D, but maybe to play more in a mentor role. After he thought about that for a while, he thought that it wasn’t something he could handle. So he decided that he’d like to go to Biel.
Will there be any major changes when you come back later this summer?
No, I don’t think so. We had a good season, so I don’t think that there’s any need. If you look at our record the last two years, I don’t think that there’s any need to make changes technically. One thing we will probably do is to play with a bigger bench. If you look at our line-up now, especially adding Martin Pluss and Trevor Meier, we have 14 or 15 forwards. We’ll be very comfortable in many situations you’ll see us play a deeper line-up than the last two years. The bottom end of our roster will probably have a bigger role. We certainly have to look at Pascal Berger, Alain Berger. There’s a future in our organisation and we must make sure that we bring them along at a pace that’s comfortable for them. They played very well for the first year. Certainly they have to earn their role and be ready for it.
After missing Swiss title twice, why do you think SC Bern will win it next spring?
If you look back, a lot of teams need to learn and have setbacks to see what they need to do – like losing the seventh game of the 2007 final series 1-0 or having no success in the playoffs after a great regular season. We need to become stronger and I think we will be stronger but you also need luck and to stay healthy.
As soon as the season begins, you’ll have a big challenge with the Champions Hockey League qualification tournament. What do you expect?
Our team will be ready. We played international games in the preseason against Russian and German teams so I don’t think it will be anything strange for us, but it is a highly intense situation to put your team into that early in the season. There is a lot of pressure and certainly a lot at stake. The training camp and all the preparation we do at the beginning of the season will be very important. The way the players train and the experience we have, we will be ready.
How appealing is it to be part of the Champions Hockey League?
It’s very exciting, not only for the players and the fans but certainly for all of European hockey, to see the different countries with their top teams playing against one another. It’s something different, interesting and exciting. It gives people a chance to see different teams from different parts of Europe. I think it’s something that the fans will enjoy.
Is the European perspective more of a double burden or double opportunity for you and the players?
I don’t think that you have to look it as pressure. This will be a great challenge to see how you do against players from other countries, so it should be exciting. If you look at the regular season, especially in Switzerland, it’s only 50 games. I think you get bored at times. This will add a little spice. Hey, you come to the rink, doing the same thing over and over again. I’d rather play games than practise every day. This will add a lot of excitement and will challenge the players during the season and force players to step outside of their comfort zone. It can only help to make them better.
You’re the first person to coach a Swiss club team against an NHL team. How is this for you as a Canadian and former NHLer?
I’m excited. I think it will be fun. It’s a chance for our players to play against NHL players and see where they’re at. Honestly, I don’t think that a lot of players have any idea of how close they are talent-wise. Some of our players see the NHL and think it’s miles and miles away from where they are ability-wise, but that’s not true. It’s very, very close. It’s just a matter of commitment, or drive, or passion to want get to the highest level. They should look at it as a challenge. This is an opportunity for them to beat an NHL team.
Do you remember December 31, 1975?
You tied CSKA Moscow 3-3 with the Montreal Canadians at the Montreal Forum. How was that?
It was unbelievable – to be a player in a game like that. Even today people think of it as one of the greatest games ever played. To be a part of that; to be on the ice and to be able to play in a game like that was very nerve-racking for a young player but it was very exciting, with the atmosphere. The building was electric. Perhaps a little more so, because it was a game between the free world and the communists. There was a little bit of political presence involved. They were a team that was dominating the world championship. That certainly cut the eye of the hockey world after the super series in ’72. It was a great experience and when you’re done playing you keep memories like that.
Do you think that those memories and emotions can ever be relived?
I don’t know about that, but I don’t think it’s the same thing. It’s not on the same level. For the players and fans it’s just a great opportunity to see them against an NHL team. They will be very, very good games and will be much closer than people think.
With the Victoria Cup between the Rangers and Metallurg Magnitogorsk, such clashes will have a revival. Could it be a factor for the October 1 game that training camps in Russia started already on July 15?
I honestly don’t think that you need to start the camp that early. Part of the game is still the emotion and I don’t think that you can push your team that hard for that long time. I don’t think that it will have a benefit, but they’ve been doing this for many years and had a lot of success, so to each his own.
What do you think about the potential for European club competition like the Champions Hockey League and NHL vs. Europe club games like the Victoria Cup?
I think it’s a great idea because for the game of hockey to grow you need to see more of these international games, to see the best of one country against the best of another country. It’s also very exciting for those cities involved and their club team. It’s got a lot of merit. I think at some point, maybe not in my lifetime, we’ll see it like in soccer, where the best clubs play for a championship.