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Ice hockey "commando" prepares for world championship

Sean Simpson will lead Switzerland into the next world championship

(Keystone)

Sean Simpson, the man who guided Zurich’s LHC Lions to a European title last year, will lead Switzerland’s national ice hockey team into the next world championship.

The 49-year-old Canadian replaces Ralph Krueger, another Canadian, who over the past 13 years dramatically improved the standing of the Swiss squad, transforming them into a top-eight team.

Simpson officially took the reins on April 5, Easter Monday, in a bar at a curling club in Olten, a city halfway between Bern and Zurich. An odd location and an odd date for the handing over of power, which was witnessed by only ten or so journalists.

Speaking in heavily accented German, Simpson explained he was “motivated and ready to face this new challenge”. Hired two weeks ago but still in quarterfinal playoffs with his ZSC Lions, the new boss of Swiss ice hockey highlighted the workload awaiting him.

“It’s an unusual situation to take over a national team mid-season. The four weeks leading to the world championship in Germany will be very intense,” he said. The tournament runs from May 7-23.

For Peter Lüthi, manager of the country’s national hockey league, Simpson was the man for the job. “After 13 years of rule by Ralph Krueger, we wanted a coach with extensive international experience, a recognisable name in Switzerland and who knew the kind of hockey played in our country. Our choice therefore quickly focused on Sean Simpson.”

A logical choice indeed, given Simpson’s success in recent years with the Lions. Swiss champions in 2008, the club last year won the inaugural Champions League and then beat the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks.

“He comes ready to prepare his troops for major events,” said Jan Alston, a fellow Canadian and forward for the Lions. “He is a very demanding coach but easy to communicate with. Sean Simpson is above all someone who gives the team a very good feeling when he’s behind the bench.”

The other man

Coaches of Simpson’s calibre are not typical in Switzerland, although one other man might well have been entitled to take over from Krueger: Arno Del Curto, coach of HC Davos, the four-time Swiss champions.

The coach from the eastern canton of Graubünden told swissinfo.ch he could have had the job. “I actually accepted the position,” he said. “But I wanted to take on the responsibility in parallel with coaching Davos, as is done in many countries. They did not allow this.”

Del Curto had been part of a vocal chorus of Krueger’s critics. Krueger, who also holds a German passport, had been criticised for a salary estimated at around SFr700,000 ($640,000) and for his roster selections.

His failure at the World Championship in Bern and Zurich last year – the team was eliminated before the quarterfinals – was what really precipitated his end. But despite the criticism over the coach’s strategy of conservative defence, observers are unanimous in praising his work over more than a decade.

“Ralph has done a fantastic job and I am aware that my task will not be easy,” Simpson said. “There is always a time for change. I want to give new momentum to this team as quickly as possible. I have my own style. After the Krueger era there will be a Simpson era.”

“Long-term vision”

One of Simpson’s first breaks from Krueger will be throwing the team’s doors wide open for new talent.

“I want to test young players as part of a long-term vision to take us to the Olympics in Sochi in 2014,” he said.

Simpson is aware the public’s expectations are high. But Switzerland’s top-eight status is a bit of a misnomer. The gap between the Swiss and the top six nations – where the majority of players have made careers in the NHL – is massive. The also-rans like Latvia, Belarus and Germany are hot on Switzerland’s heels.

Jan Alston believes the coach will rise to the challenge. “He’s used to commando operations during major events. And if you look at the good work being made in the junior leagues, you are entitled to have great expectations for the years ahead.”

Samuel Jaberg, swissinfo.ch (Translated from German by Justin Häne)

The new coach

Sean Simpson was born on May 4, 1960. He holds Canadian and British passports.

Drafted to the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks in 1980, Simpson never played a game with the team.

He instead spent two seasons in the lower American Hockey League before playing two seasons in the Netherlands.

He then moved to Olten from 1989-90 before finishing his playing career in Italy.

Simpson’s first coaching job was in Lyss, where he took charge of a team that would move into the second division. In 1998, he led Zug to its first and only Swiss championship.

He moved on to Germany, leading the Munich Barons to a 2000 German championship.

Simpson returned to Zug in 2004 and joined Zurich in 2008. He won the Swiss championship the same year.

In October 2009, Simpson signed a four-year contract as the Swiss head coach. His term began on April 5. The next day the team beat the Czech Republic 4-1 at a match in Olten.

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Team Switzerland

Team Switzerland begins competing at the 2010 World Ice Hockey Championship on May 7. It will play its first-round matches against Latvia, Italy and Canada.

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