What's the hardest part about getting fired
Toni Söderholm, born in Kauniainen, a small town between Espoo and Helsinki, has been the head coach of the German Ice Hockey Federation since 2019. His start was spectacular. In Slovakia, the DEB team played the best World Cup preliminary round in their history - seven games, five wins, including a 4-2 against eventual world champions Finland - and reached sixth place, the best result since 2010. Last year was for Söderholm then several exams ready: the death of his father, the cancellation of the World Cup in Switzerland and a corona infection. For the World Cup in Latvia (May 21 to June 6), the 43-year-old is now leading a team that not only lacks NHL professionals Leon Draisaitl, Dominik Kahun or Tim Stützle, but also numerous regular players after a season marked by the pandemic from the German Ice Hockey League. Söderholm relies on team spirit: "We'll have our work shoes on when we go on the ice."
SZ: Mr. Söderholm, in the current issue of the ice hockey magazine "Dump & Chase" you reveal yourself as a hobby cook. Type: home cooking rather than haute cuisine. Where do you classify your team before the World Cup opener against Italy on Friday?
Toni Söderholm: The women's basketball coach at the University of Connecticut said in an interview: He'd rather lose than watch players who only think of themselves. I don't like to lose either. But I also don't like selfish players. We will have a good mix of players who already have a history with each other and those who want to experience and achieve something new together.
Do you need something like a thirst for adventure for this World Cup?
One of the coaching staff said: If there are a few rejections now, it will lead to a rejuvenation in the squad. We don't take players with us because they are young - but because they are good. Please don't get it wrong: Experience is an incredibly important factor in a World Cup tournament. We play against Italy on Friday (3:15 p.m. / Sport 1) and the next day again at noon against Norway. Experience is important here. Whether victory or defeat: An experienced player immediately looks ahead as soon as he has showered. But I also believe that the circumstances call for a certain kind of curiosity that younger players in particular, who primarily see the positives, have.
During the preparation they wanted to observe which players "may perform better in the national team than was possible in the club". Are you not necessarily looking for the best players, but rather players who grow into certain roles?
To one hundred percent. One hopes for a development process. But players who don't play a role at first are also important. The third goalkeeper, for example. Or a striker who doesn't play a power play: How does he behave immediately after an outnumbered or outnumbered game? Is it ready immediately? Is it useful for the team? That sounds more negative than it is meant to be: These players are just as important as those who play outnumbered or outnumbered.
Are there more opportunities for development in the national team than in the clubs? Or is that due to the trainer's motivational skills?
Being able to wear the national jersey gives the boys a push. We don't have to motivate anyone here. We try to keep everything as clear as possible. Players are allowed to make mistakes. But they should play in such a way that it increases their chances of success. That too can boost self-confidence. We have players with potential. We want to tease out.
This year there were a few cancellations from long-term regular players. Some were obviously injured, some weren't. Are you disappointed?
I fully understand when a player cancels. And I'd rather have this discussion in April than a week before the World Cup. I appreciate it when the players honestly say that they want to support their families now or that they no longer have any mental power. You shouldn't make the mistake of saying: Player XY played for the national team for years, who should fill his gap now? My job is to know who could replace these players. And does player XY really bring us more, with 80 or 90 percent, than someone who went through all the preparation and is highly motivated? You only need one player per row who is having a bad day and you'll be outnumbered when his row is on the ice.
You almost have to do without NHL professionals.
Is that a problem - or is it a possibility? Getting players from North America to a World Cup is always an interesting puzzle. They played a completely different kind of ice hockey there, on a smaller ice rink. Many games have been postponed, so the players don't always get into the best rhythm. Here, too, we see the possibilities rather than the problems. The squad looks pretty good. And we have a couple of players from over there. The players will sacrifice themselves for each other.
With Leon Draisaitl, Nico Sturm, Dominik Kahun or Philipp Grubauer, it would be a different team. All four play with their teams in the NHL playoffs, with Marc Michaelis the contract situation was not clarified, Tim Stützle needs a break. Have you never lost a tear that you can't have these players with you?
When you're having a bad day, you might think about putting together the best possible squad. But the NHL players have all done really well, and I hope nothing more than that, for example, Leon and Dominik achieve something together in Edmonton. I also don't feel that something is being taken away from me. Every national coach sits somewhere and builds the best possible squad from what is available to him.
Goalkeeper Thomas Greiss from the Detroit Red Wings could have helped. Because of his politically questionable social media posts, Greiss is no longer invited by the DEB. Do you support this decision?
I spoke to Thomas about this topic a few months ago. He has his opinion, I have mine. My main criterion when putting together a team is: Is it a harmonious group that supports each other and accelerates and increases their abilities? So that 1 plus 1 is no longer 2, but 2 plus or 2 again what? If I have the feeling that someone doesn't fit in, then I make a decision.
After your last year as a professional, when you became German champions with Munich in 2016, you were Don Jackson's assistant coach for a year, then took over the SC Riessersee in the Oberliga - and, bang, were suddenly national coach.
You shouldn't forget the one year in DEL 2 with Riessersee. (laughs)
Still: an amazing coaching career. You are considered to be a very structured and well-planned person. In truth, is improvisation your most important skill?
It sounds stupid when I say "over the years": But as a player you go on the ice very intuitively and then actually play your best ice hockey. As a trainer, I try to trust this intuition that the right decision will come in the back of my mind at some point. And of course I need and have the support of my assistant coaches. They give me the freedom to analyze situations. I think a lot. I keep wondering what is best for us and I find it difficult to ignore these thoughts. If I had no support there, I would run from fire to fire and would only be busy extinguishing. But for the whole development it is not so important where you come from and how long you have been a coach. The most important thing is what happens now.
2020 was a tough time for you in terms of sport, but also personally. The DEL season was canceled, the World Cup in Switzerland canceled. Your father died. You yourself were infected with the corona virus and could only look after your team at the Deutschland Cup from a distance. Have you had periods in which you pondered? Have you ever thought about taking a break?
Yes, there were phases like this. The hardest part is that you never feel like you are accomplishing anything. There is nothing measurable. There are just more and more thoughts in your head. And you have no way of letting them out. You have no team in front of you, you have no everyday life. If a player injures himself, he loses part of his identity. You are part of a team and yet you are not part of the team. You can be in the cabin as much as you want: when the others are sitting there in their gear and you in street shoes, you become an outsider. It was the same with me.
What did you do about it?
I have spoken a lot with others about how they are doing, what they are planning. That gave me momentum again. You shouldn't see everything too negatively either. This sense of identity is slowly coming back.
How did you keep in touch with your players?
There was no direct contact. Simply saying hello after a game, saying a positive sentence to a player. That was difficult to accept in the beginning. I talked a lot with the players on the phone to see whether everyday life reflects their dreams. One call can last 40 minutes, the other only four. One is very open on the phone, the other is not. It's been a tough season for the players and their families too.
There have been some spectacular coaching changes recently in football, high transfer fees are paid. Would you like a similar appreciation?
I don't know if my phone calls are worth 30 million or 25 million (laughs). Football is a completely different world, not at all comparable. But I don't think it's good that so many coaches are changing now. One reads about layoffs almost every day. Part of the coaching business is getting fired and you never know when the day will come. You never know when someone will call and sign you up. You don't know when to win and when to lose. As a trainer, however, you also hope that you will have a little time for the aforementioned development process, that you will analyze exactly what you want to achieve and what you do when things don't go that way. In German ice hockey, it would be important to have long-term development. Not installing a new trainer every year, new structures. That would be my wish.
These decisions are, among other things, the responsibility of a sports director. It is precisely in this position that the DEB recently made a change. Stefan Schaidnagel was released from his duties, Christian Künast, previously women's national coach, has taken over. How much unrest has this change caused?
I have known Christian since 2016. We have always exchanged ideas since then. Not much has changed in my everyday life. Stefan laid the structures, the basis for the future. Now maybe a new twist will be added. But as far as my work is concerned, I was always calm at DEB. And you shouldn't get involved everywhere. A coach is a coach, a sports director is a sports director, a bus driver is a bus driver, a doctor is a doctor.
Your contract runs until the end of the season in 2022. Which offer couldn't you say no to?
When I started on January 1, 2019, my greatest hope was that I could experience the 2022 Olympic Games as a national coach. And a lot, really a lot would have to happen for me to say I'm dropping the Olympics. After the Olympics, there is the World Cup in Finland. In the event that an NHL club calls, you would have to think twice - but that's purely speculative! I also don't see someone calling me and asking: "Do you want to move to Montreal?" I am here now and very happy with what I am allowed to do here.
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