In a league that mines more than 30 per cent of its players from overseas, it stands as a paradox that the NHL has seen a generation pass since one of its teams last hired a European-born head coach.
Rikard Grönborg has some thoughts on the disconnect. Language issues and cultural differences surely explain part of the trend, he reasons. But the Swedish men’s national team coach has also observed a copy-cat tendency permeating from the world’s top hockey league.
“Everyone’s playing the same system,” Grönborg said this week. “It seems like they have one team that’s been successful for a year or two and suddenly everyone is emulating everything that they do. Everything from recruiting the same type of players to the same systems. I think the challenge for management is to look what kind of team you have and [say] ‘OK, who is going to fit our team—the team we have right now—and develop us into a contender in the National Hockey League?”
It’s a cycle he intends to break. There are some in NHL circles who believe the 49-year-old is likely to attract interest once the coaching carousel kicks into high gear next week, and it’s safe to say the interest is mutual.
By his own admission, Grönborg needs to find a general manager willing to “stick his neck out a little bit.” There hasn’t been a coach of his kind since Finn Alpo Suhonen (Chicago) and Czech Ivan Hlinka (Pittsburgh) were hired before the 2000-01 season.
However, the timing might be right for a man who has spent more than a decade inside the Swedish federation—coming into contact with virtually every active player of consequence from that country while coaching at the under-18 worlds, world junior championship, IIHF World Hockey Championship and, most recently, the Pyeongchang Olympics.
“To me, the only challenge that would be left is the National Hockey League, to be perfectly honest,” said Grönborg. “I’ve kind of done all that stuff and coached some of the best players in the world. Now I’m interested to have my ideas, to [implement] them over a period of time and do them overseas, and kind of challenging the coaching community over in the NHL.
“I bring a different perspective on things.”
He is best described as a hybrid.
Grönborg is actually a dual Swedish-American citizen after playing college hockey at St. Cloud State in Minnesota and spending the first 10 years of his coaching career in places like Wisconsin, Montana and Texas. He married a woman from Salt Lake City and holds a master’s degree in management and leadership.
In fact, he might never have returned home in the first place had he been successful in landing the Spokane Chiefs’ head coaching job in 2005—finishing as a runner-up to Bill Peters after working one season as an assistant coach with the WHL team.
It was shortly after that when the Swedish federation came calling. A big part of Grönborg’s appeal to them was that he had learned a different style of the sport while working in the U.S., and they were interested in exploring different methods of running a bench.
“When it comes to North American coaching, generally speaking, a coach comes to coach vs. just being a trainer, as we call it in Sweden [coach is translated as tränare in Swedish]. Go out and train the team,” said Grönborg. “Here it’s actually a coach and kind of plan how we utilize the players and give them job descriptions and whatnot. There’s different tweaks in the game situations instead of just kind of rotating four lines, which was very common back in Sweden.
“You’d rotate four lines until there was 10 minutes left and then go down to three lines and then you go down to two lines the last two minutes. …In Sweden, it was very common to have four very even lines.”
Grönborg instead prefers to carve out specific roles and assign tasks. He is keen on communication so that expectations are clear and believes that the next generation of players will require more feedback than ever before because of the world in which they were raised.
“There’s so many X’s and O’s out there—I think most coaches coaching at that level, they know their X’s and O’s—but how do you get the players to grow in your environment?” he said. “Because that’s the biggest key for me. How do you communicate with those players? How did you get them to excel and become better and buy into the system? That’s what I’m intrigued about, is how you develop the players.”
While he has started preparations for next month’s IIHF World Hockey Championship in Denmark, Grönborg is keeping tabs on what’s happening overseas. He is due to make a presentation to NHL coaches during their annual meeting at the draft in June and knows there’s at least the possibility of being interviewed for a job here before then.
We’ve gone the entirety of the 2017-18 regular season without a coach being fired, but that’s bound to end in the coming days. As many as five or six teams could eventually be in the market once they reach the off-season.
In a league that included 95 Swedish players this season—the third-highest total, behind Canadians and Americans—there’s no reason to think a Swedish coach couldn’t have success.
“I don’t see why not,” said New Jersey Devils centre Marcus Johansson. “I think it’s definitely possible. I think there are some really good coaches in Europe, too. It would be interesting to see how it went.”
It’s going to take some outside-the-box thinking. Someone willing to look past what Grönborg doesn’t have—such as work experience in any North American pro league—while placing value on what he does have, which is a whole lot of time spent with top NHL players in the heat of international competition.
He needs a GM who is looking to do more than copy the latest trends.
“I think it’s more of a challenge to assess what your team is all about, what your strengths are and how you find the right guy for helping the team out,” said Grönborg. “Look at soccer in Europe: I mean you have a Dutch coach in the English league, you have an English coach in the Swedish league. It doesn’t really matter. They look at ‘OK, we want the coach that’s going to fit the profile for our team’ more than, you know, where he’s from or anything like that.”
This is where things are headed eventually. Just as we’ve started to see some small shifts in the type of people getting hired to work in NHL front offices, the search for top coaching talent will inevitably require men and women of different backgrounds to start being considered for these positions.
Given the regions of the world where the sport is most popular, it should naturally lead someone back to Europe.
Hey, it might even take them to Grönborg’s front door.