David Leger was brought in by the Polish hockey federation (PZHL) to help shape the future of Polish hockey. After his first season in Poland though, he was let go. He coached two Polish national teams while here, resulting in two silver medals. Poland was unhappy with the silver at the U18s and when senior national team head coach, Ted Nolan, was let go, it seemed the PZHL wanted to clean house and that included David Leger. Today, we talk to Leger about his time in Poland.
Polsih Puck: Was the U20 World Championships, your first IIHF coaching event, and first international event?
David Leger: First International coaching, Yes.
PP: Was there anything different about coaching international hockey, then standard club hockey?
DL: From my perspective I know you’re never going to control what the other team brings to the table. So you really have to look inside your team. The challenge I think was just to make sure everyone was on the same page. Hockey players are not so complicated and the last thing they want to do is be on the ice and think about where they need to be. You don’t want to make it so complicated for them to play the game. A big part of our ramp-up time during summertime and when we collected together in October November, was just to make everyone understood where we wanted them to be on the ice without the puck. That is the biggest challenge I would say moving forward. You got players that are all over different places to get them all on the same page so that they’re playing the same system that was the biggest challenge. I think the SMS system where at times we were able to bring in Pas, Jarosz, Pelaczyk, and all these players could get exposure to some of our terms that we use with the SMS kids. We mitigated a little bit of that problem by just taking advantage of the times they came in and played with us.
PP: With SMS team, you didn’t have as many top players as the team did in past years. There has been talking of making the SMS team a U23 team and even moving the u18 team to a Czech junior league. Do you think those changes would be beneficial?
DL: Yeah and SMS is a big challenge in Poland. No body is fooling anybody. There are some real difficulties in trying to have a under 20 team play against men and it legitimately be something that is valuable for both sides. I quickly realized we were over are head in terms of competition, so I never focused on necessarily on the wins and losses so much as the quality of the individual battles in each game and I cared more that we made progress and competing each shift. There were times I had 16 and 17 year olds, so Walega, playing against a 35 year old man with two kids and wife. The man strength alone should have made that battle difficult, but to Kamil Walega credit and some of the other young centers credit they found ways to adapt and compete. Those were the things that I saw translate when we got to Bled, I thought our guys competed hard in their one on one battles. The boys who had been with us over the course of the year, the Rybaks and Bizackis. I thought Bizacki had a unbelievable tournament. He was playing a ton of minutes during the season. He played very well in international competition because of how we framed how he was going to play in the SMS games.
PP: There have been a lot of questions about SMS team and constant losing they had to endure and is that really the best for them.
DL: The complexity in Poland is that the first league is probably where that SMS team should be, and play their games. Whether they can elevate the quality of the first league to a level that will make it competitive with each and every team that plays in, but in my mind that the drop off between the bottom tier teams in the PHL and our team was pretty severe. The SMS under 18 team, I had so little exposure to that team. During the year I was behind the bench for that SMS team once, we went to Prouba to play a game and I thought that caliber was really good. It was really beneficial to get players oriented to playing the right way. I found that competition was okay and understood though that all teams were not like the Prouda team.
PP: At the U20 World Championships, you took Norway to the shootout. How hard was that ending for you and team?
DL: It was the combination of the journey. It was difficult for all of us. I think it was more acutely difficult for those who had played in that tournament the two previous times and got to that stage. I think it was really disappointing for some of those players. It was disappointing from my perspective because you like to see your players find success and they really couldn’t have done anymore more that was asked of them. They performed perfectly and when you look at that we never actually lost a game in that tournament we lost a little skills competition at that end.
PP: At the U20s, you probably had the best line in the tournament with Lyszczarczyk, Jeziorski, and Pas. What would say is the potential of those 3? Like is this the line that is going to lead Polish hockey for the next decade.
DL: I understood when I first talked to Poland, one of my mandates was to help create the next generation of Polish. The previous generation had just differing results, really inconsistent results all over the map. I really tried to instill and entrench habits that would set a generation of the next polish players up. The 98 to the 2004 group in the next 10 years should, if done correctly, form the core and nucleus of the Polish senior national team. There is no question Alan, Dom, and Jeziorski should be looked at as prospects for the next generation for sure and there is a whole wave of players behind that, Soltys, Walega, Brynkus, Libik, Gosztyla, Michalowski.
PP: Another player you had on the U20 team and it was his third year was Tomasz Skokan. What did you think of him?
DL: He was one of those guys that we had no interaction with us as a staff before I met him on December 1st or end of November when he arrived in Poland. He picked up everything that we wanted to do right away. He was among the best players at that tournament. He is an undercover real good player, very effective is in his battles, makes smart decisions with the puck, competes, a good example all the time. He is another one in that next generation of Polish players I think.
PP: Now to the U18s it is hard to say a lot went wrong for that team. They lead the tournament in scoring and controlled their games most a lot of the time, you go to overtime against Estonia and have to play for nothing how disappointing was that finish?
DL: It’s interesting how that tournament all played out. We never got to be with that team (U18 National team squad) until I think February so we had six week time with that group. We put down the system that we wanted them to play they picked it up fairly easily. We were still challenged throughout that event, Lewandowski joined us just a day into the tournament so we were constantly orienting players sorta in a mad rush. In the big picture that collection of u18 players, 2 things One, they inherited a problem that happened the year before. 4 players on that team that were part of the team that got relegated. They had to somehow all the sudden win a tournament. People expected them to win automatically. There was good competition from other countries. The under 18 team, learned a lesson. These 17-year-old players learned how to hold on to a 3-0 lead and it’s an unfortunate mistake at the time, but they’re so important lessons for young players to learn moving forward and if you prioritize under 20 and senior national team games as the most important. Then everything preceding that is kinda a dress rehearsal for their performance as those bigger more high profile events. This is what I would say to anyone who criticizes 17-year-old kids. From my perspective yeah we made mistakes in the final game. We had a penalty shot called against us. I think we had a soft penalty call against us that they got the tying goal on. Our issue was we stopped competing in that final game after we got up 3-0. You go through those lessons as a hockey player and feel the pain at the end. I think all the players on that team learned how to control a lead in a critical situation. You can talk about that beforehand and warn them about it, but until you shed the tears and don’t get want you hoped for in the end you don’t really learn the lesson. We learned a hard lesson. I came back from that event quite excited for the future of Poland under 20 program and what they had in store just because I thought there were some really gifted offensive players on that team.
PP: Klaudiusz Libik has become one of my favorite prospects in Poland. He can play forward and defense. You had him playing as defensemen a lot in the tournament. Do you think he is better suited there or just based on how many talented forwards you had?
DL: So we first met him in February that was the first time that we had seen him. He gave us an indication that he was a D and that is what he wanted to play. He hadn’t played hockey for many years, he was relatively new to the game. His ability in games was staggering for how well he played for the short amount of time he actually has played the game. Good athlete, good team player, a really conscious player really upset with himself. In one game he thought he put the team in bad a spot and he was really upset with himself. We ended up winning the game, but I really took from that he is the kinda high character guy you want on your team.
PP: You had Jan Soltys at this tournament too after having him on your u20 team and he was named the captain for this squad. How talented of a player is he.
DL: He scored two big goals for us at the u20 tournament. I spent the whole year with him on the SMS team. Soltys is physically dominant, competes and battles, and not afraid to go to the net, plays very similar to a North American. Skates well and good puck skills. I was disappointed a little bit, I had a team contact me from the CHL asking about him and saw he wasn’t selected in the import draft. I think he would be really suited to play major junior hockey. I think he’s got a really bright future. Its a problem, unfortunately, it goes hand and hand. We played against Liam Kirk in the under 18 tournament. There were a number of NHL scouts we all knew were there. It’s a little bit tough for Polish players to get some traction or notice. That is were the national team can insulate them. If the national team is moving forward in a positive way that will help accelerate them. I left Poland really impressed with the potential and quality of players for the future.
PP: Is there a player you wanted to get on one the junior teams but couldn’t due to injury or the player denying? Like for example Wojciech Stachowiak who chose Germany over Poland.
DL: I have tried to reach out to him (Stachowiak). Adam Kiedewicz was injured just before the U18 tournament that was a bit of a shock for us. He was impressive when we saw him in February. Bieniek couldn’t make the commitment to come to Tallinn, his club team was in the playoffs and he couldn’t just leave in time. Slowakiewicz we spoke with and he was with his club team in Sweden and couldn’t come to pre-camp so It was something we could just couldn’t work around to have him come in December. That was a decision we made internally. I understand he is a really good player and I would love to see him play and will see if he gets a chance to play moving forward.
PP: A player, I wanted to ask about who was left off was Ernest Bochnak. Had a really good showing with the u18 team in 2016, but hasn’t played for a junior team since. Any reason he was left off like is his skill not there?
DL: He had come to the February camp and was going to be competing for one of the final forward positions. We liked him at the February camp, and then he was not able to join us in a timely manner before the Tallinn Tournament. We had played an exhibition game in Prouba and he wasn’t able to join us. At that stage, we were right where we were making final decisions on players.
PP: One of the biggest problems I saw for Poland at the World Championships was the defense. What do you think of Poland future on defense?
DL: We had a style of play that was fairly aggressive, certainly for our blue line. I thought we played well for a collective, we insulted the defensemen quite well. There is good potential there. Michalowski played really well at the event. I think he was a plus 6 which I think for him was really good, we played him in a shutdown role. Noworyta, Niedlich, a lot of these younger players played very good minutes for us at that event (U20 World Championship). I think there is probably a deficiency in Poland overall, I think most people would say that. It is what I heard certainly coming through the door that they didn’t feel the level of their defensemen was very strong and that’s okay. I thought the coaching they needed was to simplify their game a bit
PP: Can you confirm you put your name in for the Senior National team head coaching job?
DL: Yes, for sure.
PP: What would have been your strategy for the Senior National team?
DL: I would have looked to continue with what I was doing with the under 18 and under 20 program. Instill an identity for how the next generation of polish players would have the best chance to succeed. You saw the under 20 and under 18 players have a style of play that allowed them to be at their best. My strategy would have been to build on that identity and style of play. I think that the senior team needed to get younger. I did a bit of study, the Polish team was on average 27.5 years old as a team and all the champions from the A Pool, Division 1A, and Division 1B. Sweden, Great Britain, and whatever the other team was (Lithuania) their average age was 25 years old. So 2 years difference for how old the Polish team was relative to the champions. Take that for what it is, The Polish team needs to get younger and make a commitment to grow and develop some younger players.
PP: Yeah, There was some controversy after Dominik Pas was left off the roster after a great showing in some exhibition games.
DL: It’s hard. It was structured a little bit differently then I thought. I never once met Ted Nolan, I knew Tom really well, me and tom talked a lot. Ted and I never interacted. It’s hard for me to make any critical comments, I wasn’t there, It wasn’t the group I was responsible for or had real knowledge of. I mean I’m not foolish I knew they had some significant injuries on some good young players that really impacted how that team would play. Dominik was really outstanding at the under 20 tournament, you and I spoke about that before. Dom’s challenge going forward is always going to be can he be a consistent battler and competitor, he knows that. Maybe the senior team just said we’re gonna take our chances with an older player.
PP: Something we have also talked about is a lack of Polish players going overseas take chances is that crucial for Poland?
DL: 100%, There is a way to direct development where it is not coming out of your pocket all of the time. You can build relationships with different clubs teams, you can place players in their clubs make those connections and relationships where you can place perspective players in different countries and they can have a chance to develop and get different exposures, it brings them back to the national team as a more complete player. Libik is a really good example of that, he was poised in how he played and he played at a higher level, Gosztyla was the same, the other polish players played well and competed hard, but it’s beneficial to spearhead and try dive the opportunities for players in different federations.
PP: Ted Nolan remarked about really old fashion training methods used, did you see any of that.
DL: To be really honest, I was just zoned in on the SMS group that I was dealing with, so no I never had any exposure to any practices by club teams or the under 20 club teams.
PP: Dominik Pas and Jeziorski played most of their time with a club team, Nolan said player were worn and overworked. Did you feel they were worn out.
DL: No, not when I saw them for sure. I saw them In December. I didn’t see them as the season progressed, they were young players, they wouldn’t have had a taxing schedule for themselves. In every country, you have teams that make long runs and players know how to customize their own fatigue levels and regenerate.
PP: Final question. What is the biggest thing that needs to change for Poland to be a successful hockey country?
DL: I think the patience to follow a plan that is not going render immediate results. That is a bit self-serving on my part. When I first met with the federation a year and ago that is what I thought they wanted to do. They were unhappy with the progress and development of their youth hockey. They wanted to try and rebuild it and have it gain traction moving forward. I understood it as it wasn’t a one-year initiative and it was going to be over a number years. The results may not yield itself for 5 to 10 years. The patience and courage, this is what I would say is the biggest issue, to find a path that works best for Poland and then to stick with it and support and invest in and cultivate it. You see this in football right now look at a small country like Croatia even Belgium small soccer nations, they found a way inside of being a small soccer playing country. They found a way to be on the threshold of greatness. I know Belgium lost, but finishing in the final 4 of the world cup is pretty significant. To me, it is finding the plan, following the plan, and having the courage, tenacity, and determination, to stay on the plan and to recognize when you’re on the right path
At Polish Puck, we wish David Leger the best of luck in his upcoming season, with the Kanata Lasers in the Central Canada Hockey League, and we thank for his time during this interview.