Why the NHL might finally be ripe for a European coach

Sweden's head coach Rikard Gronborg, center, gives instructions during a time-out in the second period of the 2016 IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championship semifinal match between Sweden and Finland in Helsinki, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (Markuu Ulander/Lehtikuva via AP)

Rikard Gronborg believes it’s only a matter of time.

And with the disturbing crackling of the old boys coaching network in recent days, the most qualified coaching candidate outside of North America might be on to something.

Nineteen years have passed since the last European coach was hired to stand behind a National Hockey League bench — Finland’s Alpo Suhonen (Blackhawks) and the Czech Republic’s Ivan Hlinka (Penguins) landed gigs in 2000-01. Perhaps the National Hockey League is getting ripe for a broader worldview when it comes to its coach hiring policy.

Thirty per cent of the league’s players are European, and 55 per cent of 2019-20’s rookie class is European.

“That tells you where the trend is going. So, I think it’s just a matter of time that NHL teams in the U.S. and Canada look over here at some of the excellent European coaches,” Gronborg says.

“Hockey is hockey. The challenge is for the NHL to open up a new chapter. Hiring coaches with some new backgrounds is only healthy.”

The 51-year-old Gronborg is a lifelong student of the game who has won everywhere he’s went, but despite interviewing for a handful of assistant and head jobs—including one prominent Eastern Conference position—cracking the NHL is the one rung that has eluded his grasp thus far.

Born and raised in Sweden, Gronborg spent 20 years honing his skills in the U.S., studying at St. Cloud State, marrying an American and becoming a dual citizen while coaching at the University of Wisconsin and for the Great Falls Americans. After an assistant job with the Spokane Chiefs (WHL) in 2004-05, he returned to Sweden and worked his way up the national ranks.

As head coach of the Swedish national club, he has worked with nearly every Swedish star in the NHL. He guided his country to back-to-back world championship gold in 2017 and 2018.

But after again getting passed over in the NHL’s off-season carousel, he uprooted his family to throw yet another layer of polish on his CV.

Executives couldn’t deny Gronborg’s work at the Olympics, World Cups and world juniors, but they could point to the fact he’s never coached a professional club team for a full season, or argue that he’s benefitted from guiding all-star teams.

Challenge accepted.

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Speaking over the phone from Zurich as he watches his seven-year-old daughter’s hockey practice, Gronborg explains why the Gronborgs (Rikard and his wife also have an 18-month-old) moved to Switzerland.

“I wanted to add something on my resume and have a high-profile job. The people I talked to all said, ‘This is the toughest job in Europe,’” says Gronborg, the head coach of the Zurich Lions.

“It’s a huge organization with high expectations and didn’t have success last year and want to turn it around. I felt if I can make it there, I can be a pretty good coach.”

In recent years, both Marc Crawford and Bob Hartley used their success with the Lions to springboard back into the NHL, but neither took over that franchise in the state Gronborg inherited it this fall.

Zurich finished in 10th place in the Swiss A League last season and was on the verge of relegation. Auston Matthews’ alma mater is a preeminent franchise in Switzerland, and the pressure to win is real.

With little roster turnover (ex-Blackhawk Marcus Kruger is the Lions’ most known player), Gronborg installed a progressive system, opened communication, and jolted the Lions atop the standings with a sparkling 16-6-3 record and a plus-28 goal differential.

“The biggest thing for me was to take some of that stress away and absorb some of that and talk about it. That’s been good,” Gronborg says.

“I’m presenting a different way of playing. A lot of skating, a lot of skill is involved, and that’s something that really suits the organization.”

Gronborg describes his approach as “a hybrid” between the North American and European style but believes the gap between those schools is shrinking.

“The hockey world nowadays is not that different, especially with the way the NHL has opened up play. All the hooking and holding of the past is gone, and that requires a skill game,” he says.

Andreas Johnsson won a silver medal with Gronborg at the 2014 world juniors. The Maple Leafs forward says the respect the coach garnered from the players was instant and mutual — and he was impressed by Gronborg’s willingness to communicate.

“I enjoyed playing for him,” Johnsson says. “He has a more North American style. In my position then, I wasn’t used to it. He’s very honest all the time and was pointing at the things he wants to get better.”

Does Gronborg have what it takes to break the European drought and coach in NHL?

“Of course,” Johnsson says. “I could see that.”

Gronborg places an emphasis on player-coach relationships. He installed a monthly sit-down where his players set the agenda.

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“If they want to talk hockey, we talk hockey. If they want to talk about something else, we talk about something else. That’s my initiative, but it’s their meeting,” explains Gronborg, who also conducts plenty of shoulder-to-shoulder conversations with individuals during practice.

“It’s very nonintrusive as opposed to calling them into the office with a desk between you.”

Gronborg swings his office door wide open, and he encourages his players to pop in and chat—even if the topic has nothing to do with work.

“They get to know me better, and I get to know them better,” he says. “That’s a skill as a coach.”

And a refreshing perspective given where the culture of coaching is headed.

“I’m extremely happy with where I am in the Swiss League,” Gronborg says, “but like a player, you always want to know what the next step is too.”

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