International Ice Hockey Federation

New times for Czechs

New times for Czechs

Pesan set to coach team at World Juniors

Published 24.12.2017 02:40 GMT-5 | Author Derek O'Brien
New times for Czechs
Filip Pesan, until now head coach in Liberec, doubles up as new Czech U20 national team coach. Photo: Jiri Princ / Bili Tygri Liberec
At the upcoming World Juniors, the Czech Republic will be led by Filip Pesan, who also doubles as head coach of Bili Tygri Liberec in the Czech Extraliga.

It’s not usual for the head coach of a European national team to be the bench boss of a professional team at the same time, but the 39-year-old Pesan isn’t one to shy away from a challenge or a heavy workload.

“Right now, we don’t have a full-time head coach for the national junior team,” he explained. “The Czech Ice Hockey Association had the idea to hire a full-time coach but it hasn’t happened, so they offered the job to me.

“This is a big opportunity for me. I’m never going to say no.”

A big opportunity and a big challenge. Once a perennial contender, the Czechs haven’t medalled at the World Juniors since taking the bronze in 2005. In recent tournaments, they’ve brought rosters full of players that have had success at the U18 level at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and at that age group’s World Championships, yet haven’t been able to break through to the semi-finals at the U20 level. This year’s team will have more of the same, with 23 players who have won gold or silver at least once of the past three Hlinka tournaments on the 27-man camp roster.

“If I didn’t think I could do better I wouldn’t have taken the job,” he said confidently. “Hopefully, we do well in the group stage and then it’s really about winning that quarter-final game. If we do that, we’re in the final four and you’ve got a pretty good chance at a medal.”

Like most coaches, Pesan is a former player, but his career was spent almost exclusively in the second and third tiers of Czech hockey, playing only two Extraliga games for hometown Liberec in the 2002/03 season. But although he wasn’t the most skilled player, he had a mind for the game and wanted to stay involved after he retired.

“Before I finished playing, I started thinking about the possibilities,” he said. “I started coaching and I also started university.”

In 2005, at the age of 27, he started working as an assistant coach on Liberec’s U20 team while he was still an active player in the Czech third division. The following year, he went overseas to study at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

“I studied sports psychology in Canada for a year and I played for the university hockey team. It was a good opportunity for me to get to know Canadian hockey and also study something that would help me in my coaching career.”

Midway through the 2008/09 season, he was promoted to head coach of Liberec’s top team. He was 30 years old. Several players on the team were older than him.

“There were a couple of difficult moments for me but I had great guys on the team like Petr Nedved and Jaroslav Modry,” he said of the two veterans who were seven years his senior. “Those were guys who had played in the NHL, veteran players who were well respected by the younger players on the team and they really supported me, which helped.”

In recent years, Liberec rose to the top of the Extraliga with Pesan at the helm. In 2015/16, the “White Tigers” finished first overall in the regular season and then went all the way in the playoffs too, winning the championship. In 2016/17, they once again finished first in the regular season and advanced to the finals, where they were swept by Kometa Brno.

This season, however, the team has struggled.

“We’ve changed a lot of players,” Pesan explained. “We’ve got a lot of young players this year and they just need a bit of time to get settled down in their roles.”

Now 39 and with a young team, the days of Pesan having players older than him are probably finished, and that definitely won’t be the case on the national junior team, where the players know him as one of the country’s most successful coaches in recent years.

“Those guys show respect to me and the rest of the staff, of course,” he said of his young players. “[The World Junior Championship] is a big event in the hockey world and they’re looking for someone to lead them to success, and that’s what we’re all trying to do.”

Pesan has had to take time away from Bili Tygri at various points throughout the season, and will now miss the next four weeks while he tends to the U20 team. But does he ever find himself thinking about one team when he should be thinking about the other?

“To be honest, a couple of times that’s happened, but on a game day and especially after the opening faceoff, I’m totally in the game that’s in front of me and not thinking about anything else.”

He and his team will have to be ready for Group B opponents Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and Belarus when the tournament begins 26 December in Buffalo. He’s had several chances to watch the European-based players to this point and now he’s going to have time to evaluate the ones who have been playing in North America all season, but he’s been keeping tabs on what’s been happening overseas.

“I’ve got a couple of guys, my assistants, who have been watching those guys,” he said. “I see all the stats and I get reports on how they’re looking in the games, so I’m pretty sure I know what’s going on there with those guys.”

Some of them, like Edmonton Oilers prospect Ostap Safin and projected 2018 top-five pick Filip Zadina, who both play in the QMJHL, are safe bets, as are Filip Chytil and Martin Necas, who each got a taste of the NHL this season with the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes, respectively. But not all of the 27 players named on Monday will play in the tournament.

“I have a pretty good idea how the team is going to look but we’re just struggling with some injuries and we’ll see what happens,” the coach explained. “Hopefully, we have all the guys we want ready to go by the time the tournament starts and we’re all playing the way I want.”

The roster includes goalies Jakub Skarek, Josef Korenar and Milan Kloucek. Of those, the 18-year-old Skarek, who has played 17 games in the top Czech league this season, has to be considered the favourite to be the starter. Kloucek recently also played at the World U19 Junior A Challenge in Truro, Nova Scotia.

“We’ll see what happens. One of those three guys is going to be the number one, but it’s not decided,” he said of the goaltending situation.

“We believe we have chosen the best possible players, and now we have a camp coming up, from which the final roster will be decided,” the coach said. “With hard work and good chemistry, we think we have a shot at a medal.”

 

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