Austria head coach Alpo Suhonen during the post-game press conference. Photo: Jelena Levsina
Suhonen visited Riga, Vasiljevs long time ago
Riga has become a popular spot on the European hockey map with international events every few years and a popular KHL team.
It has not always been like that. During Soviet teams, Latvia was more secluded for visitors from its western neighbours although there was hockey too with the original Dinamo Riga club team in the Soviet league and one or the other international game with the Soviet national team.
Visitors coming to Riga for hockey these days may have been here before, like during the 2006 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship with thousands of fans coming from abroad. They may see one or the other change in the city. A new fancy glass building here, a new mall there, restaurants coming and going like in can happen anywhere in Europe.
Such differences are nothing compared to what Alpo Suhonen, the Finnish head coach of the Austrian national team and sports director of the Austrian Ice Hockey Federation, is experiencing. For him it’s coming back to the Latvian capital for the first time since... 1977. There’s no Soviet-style Sports Palace anymore but shiny Arena Riga and many other things are different starting from the arrival at the airport that used to be more bureaucratic some decades ago.
Suhonen was here 39 years ago with Assat Pori. They played amongst others against Haralds Vasiljevs, the new Latvian national team coach.
“Pori and Riga were partner cities. We played here around New Year’s Eve against Haralds, against Herberts Balderis and all these guys. It was interesting. Riga was pretty different. We were in Hotel Metropol, it still exists,” Suhonen said.
“I remember two important things: We won the second game and there were a lot of fights. But after the game we and our families had dinner with them and celebrated New Year at midnight with champagne together on centre ice.”
Their careers continued differently before the paths crossed again as opponents 39 years later. Vasiljevs continued with Dinamo Riga in the top Soviet league before starting his coaching career. In Riga he was coached by the most legendary coach in Soviet hockey history, Viktor Tikhonov, at whom he later made his hockey apprenticeship at CSKA Moscow before coaching teams in Germany, Austria and of course Latvia.
Suhonen just started his coaching career with Forssa in the top Finnish league, in Ambri in Switzerland, and then many years in the Finnish national team program. After more club stints in Finland and Switzerland he eventually landed in North America, worked one year in the IHL, was an assistant coach for two years at the Toronto Maple Leafs and became head coach at the Chicago Blackhawks as only one of two European-trained NHL head coaches (the other being the late Ivan Hlinka). He later coached back in Europe, he was also a theatre director in Turku and since 2012 he’s with the Austrian Ice Hockey Association.
“It’s quite different in Riga now,” he said about coming back. “Like in many cities when the Iron Curtain fell, the city developed nicely. Together with Prague and Vienna, Riga is one of the famous cities with Art Nouveau architecture. There are many nice buildings and many were refurbished. It’s a beautiful city.”
It was less easy for him at the arena this time. Austria lost 8-1 after having been used to tight games with Latvia in the past.
“We have a couple of problems. We need good goaltending, got too many easy goals, some players have health problems too. It’s many smaller and bigger issues coming together. It hasn’t been that easy for us the last few weeks. The players wanted to play and the start was good. It’s the reality. We lost 8-1 and have to get back,” Suhonen said.
Despite the big loss, and today’s opponent Germany having won its game against Japan 5-0, Suhonen is not scared of the next game.
“I’m not afraid. It’s the dynamic of sport. You play bad and come back. Players have experience in such situations, to lose and have to come back the next day. That’s our profession. That’s sport. It’s a new game. We have to play 100 per cent differently. Everybody has to do his work better. There are no tactical issues, the player know how to play as a team. It was factors like getting easy goals, emotional breakdowns,” Suhonen explained.
While Austria’s chances have become marginal, for Germany it’s an opportunity to take revenge. The Germans hosted an Olympic Qualification group for Sochi 2014 and saw Austria win the tournament on their own ice.
The neighbouring clash starts at 15:30 local time (14:30 CET). It is broadcast live on TV in Austria and Germany, everybody else can follow it too on the Olympic Channel live stream.