NHL's lack of European coaches unlikely to change

The question of whether a head coach in Europe will again cross the Atlantic to become an NHL bench boss is always debated at the annual hockey world championship, and this year is no different.

European inclusion debated at hockey world championship in Germany

Cologne, Germany  — It has been a decade since the great European coaching experiment failed in the NHL, and it might be at least as long if not longer before it happens again.

Think back to the 2000-01 season, and recall how Ivan Hlinka and Alpo Suhonen became the first European head coaches in the NHL, with Pittsburgh and Chicago, respectively, and how a year later both were gone.

The question of whether a head coach in Europe will again cross the Atlantic to become an NHL bench boss is always debated at the annual world championship, which started last week and runs to May 23 in Germany, and this year is no different.

Are NHL general managers narrow-minded?

Depends on who you talk to.

"Remember, it is an old boys' club," says former NHLer Uwe Krupp, who coaches Germany's national team.

That said, NHL teams would want to be much more careful than they were when Hlinka left the Czech Republic to join the Penguins, and Suhonen went from Finland to behind the Blackhawks bench.

Neither had any apprenticeship with NHL clubs before they were hired, and you can bet NHL teams won't make the same mistake twice.

Game similar on both sides of Atlantic

Toronto GM Brian Burke says he would gladly interview someone who has had success in Europe. But, says Burke, that person would have to be willing to either go the minors to learn the ropes about pro hockey in North America or become an assistant coach with the NHL team.

"I don’t think they would have a choice," says Burke, who is at the world championship in the capacity as GM of Team USA. "I think their options would be someone saying come coach our AHL team or come as an assistant coach in the NHL or we are not interested. That would be my guess."

Currently, there are two European assistant coaches in the NHL — Tommy Albelin in New Jersey and Ulf Samuelsson in Phoenix, and there are strong candidates in Europe to bolster their ranks.

Ralph Krueger is a German-Canadian who coached the Swiss national team for a dozen years. The current Swiss coach is Sean Simpson, a British-Canadian who has a blue-chip record as a head coach in Europe.

Officials here often talk about Russian head coach Vyacheslav Bykov being a good catch, possibly in Montreal because he is fluent in French.

One thing that helps their cause is that the way the game is played in North America is not that different from how it's played in Europe since the NHL has poached liberally from the European game and the Europeans have, in turn, taken on the style played in the NHL.

European goalies also struggled to get in NHL

Finland GM Jari Kurri, a Hall of Fame inductee who was Wayne Gretzky's right winger for years, compared the current climate to when NHL teams were leery of European goalies.

"There are a lot of good coaches in Europe, no question," said Kurri. "It was like before with the goalie situation, the European goalie, [when] … they did not think he could play. I think the mentality is the same way with European coaches."

Krueger agreed.

"I compare it to a Swiss player trying to make the NHL," he said. "Until Mark Streit made it, they looked at players differently, and now, there are Swiss guys drafted by NHL teams every year.

"Same as Uwe Krupp in Germany. It was him, and now, there are guys at the NHL level or close from Germany.

"I think with coaches, it will be the same thing. Someone will have to break down the barrier, and someone will have to think outside the box, and I believe with the games coming together, it will happen."

It might happen, but not any time soon.

"I guess the next step is, do you come over to Europe and hire a European coach and have him set right in?" said Dave Taylor, the ex-GM of the Los Angeles Kings. "I think most coaches like to transition a little bit as an assistant and work up, or have the reins at the minor league level. That seems the more common route."

In other words, the status quo will likely prevail.