Coaches worlds apart
By LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun
Only a few feet and a pane of glass will separate Hardy Nilsson and Vladimir Ruzicka tonight from their vastly different orbits in the coaching universe.
The hair is the first giveaway, the 57-year-old Nilsson's a dignified shade of Swedish silver, his Czech rival with traces of a mullet from the last of his playing days in 2000.
Nilsson is a career coach, 20 years behind the bench, the past four in his current job with the Tre Kronor dream team. A few weeks ago, Ruzicka was in the middle of organizing affairs for Slavia Prague, the club he manages in the Czech elite league. Then came the awful news that national coach and icon Ivan Hlinka had died in a car crash.
Hlinka had two World Cup assistants in place, but Ruzicka, who'd been helping with the nationals at the 2002 Olympics and two recent world championships, was given first shot at the job. In hommage to Hlinka and hoping to re-establish the Czechs as world leaders, Ruzicka accepted.
Hlinka's funeral was right at the start of the Czechs' short training camp, a difficult time for all concerned. Those most deeply affected were the players from Litvinov, Hlinka's home team, where he had been a second father to players such as Jiri Slegr. The team met during the funeral and re-affirmed its mission.
"We were going all the way, with him or without him," Maple Leaf defenceman Tomas Kaberle said yesterday. "Now it's pulled us even closer together."
Hlinka's trademark No. 21 adorns team sweaters, helmets, while ex-Leaf Robert Reichel, now a player/executive with Litvinov, dropped his familiar 21 for the tourney.
The tragedy is not mentioned in the dressing room unless it's a media question, though it's not a surprise the shaken Czechs have meandered during the tournament.
They looked good in exhibition games, but lost the opener 4-0 to the Finns, appearing uninspired in the process. They committed hockey hari-kari in Stockholm by giving the Swedish power play four chances in the second period -- on three of them they beat goalie Tomas Vokoun.
But since that point of that game, they've scored 10 goals in four periods and Ruzicka's moves have unnerved the locals on the eve of the second Euro playoff. Where Nilsson has had one easy lineup switch, Mikael Tellqvist in net for Tommy Salo, made one minor change on defence and switched lines once in a game, Ruzicka's machinations have made headlines.
He benched 50-goal man Milan Hejduk before the Swedish loss (claiming Hejduk needed rest) and made wholesale changes the next two games. For tonight, he's bringing back Reichel and Martin Rucinksky up front, dropping Peter Sykora and Josef Vasicek. Ruzicka can't escape his day job, either. When he comes off the ice, often someone hands him a phone to deal with an issue back in Prague. Despite the demands on him, there is talk Czech hockey officials will ask him to coach the nationals full time.
While Nilsson sought to build team confidence with a set roster leading into tonight's elimination game, Ruzicka has tried to exploit the format, throwing the round robin out to concentrate on the right mix for the one game that counts.
"When I've had to tell three forwards they won't be playing, it's one of my toughest decisions," Ruzicka said.
His constant deck shuffling makes scouting harder for the Swedes, who have been wary of the Czechs since Wednesday's three-goal period.
"We have to look at the Czechs' roster, not what the newspapers say about how they played against Germany or Finland," Fredrik Modin said. "The answers will come (today)."