A Band-Aid Over A Bullet Wound. The End of the Tomek Valtonen Era

When you were a child, and you tripped and fell scraping up your knee. Your skin burned, and the scrapes started to turn red as blood filled the knicks in your skin. It could be cured by just a simple band-aid, especially if you had the Pokemon-themed ones; they were super effective. The Polish national team was bleeding and put a band-aid over the wound. This wasn’t a small cut though, it was a bullet wound.

Poland had been demoted to Division 1 Group B, and the Ted Nolan experiment was a complete failure. Ted Nolan was a high profile hire. It was kinda embarrassing how quick it went bad and failed. Poland was relegated to Group B after a 6-1 loss to Kazakhstan. Six goals against are fitting because it probably matches the number of times Ted Nolan was in Poland. Ted Nolan and Poland parted way pretty quickly after the tournament. Now, although Poland did do a formal coaching search, it seemed from the start there was only one true candidate; Tomek Valtonen.

Valtonen was the dream candidate. A young coach with Polish roots, he was going to be coaching in Poland with Podhale, he spoke Polish, and he had a background being a head coach in Finland at both the Liiga and top junior level. I don’t think there was another coach that checked off the number of boxes that Valtonen did. It looked to be off to a great start as well when Valtonen added well-decorated Finnish coach Risto Dufva as an advisor to the team.

From the coaching standpoint, it seemed everything had fallen into place for Poland, but in reality, everything was close to burning down. The financials for the team was not in a good position by any means. Then many prominent players joined together to form the Polish Ice Hockey Players Association (PIHPA). The PIHPA fought for better conditions for national team players, as they felt pay and training conditions were not adequate. Most of the players’ association would boycott the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge tournament that Poland was hosting.  Quite a few players retired from the national team overall. Then on day 1 of the competition, the ice conditions were so terrible that games had to be canceled.

Despite everything going against them, it was a success for Poland. Tomek Valtonen and his staff created a roster of players that usually may be far off the usual Polish national team radar that was able to compete with the B teams, maybe C teams, of Austria, Denmark, and Norway. Poland was even beating Denmark until the game was suspended due to the poor ice conditions. Despite everything going wrong off the ice and with the ice, Valtonen and his staff put in an excellent performance.

The Finnish head coach continued to stick up for the players as well. He applauded their efforts to unionize together and fight for the conditions they deserved. While the heads of the PZHL didn’t seem to want to negotiate with the PIHPA, Valtonen’s support and strong relationship with players seem to get a lot of them back in the fold. He was the peacekeeper that Poland needed in the situation. Valtonen himself had also criticized the conditions that Polish players play in.

In Podhale, Valtonen created a team with plenty of national team talent mixed with an influx of Finnish imports. The group seemed to be quite promising and a possible contender to win the entire league. This was the beginning of the end of the honeymoon period with Valtonen because pretty much everything after that initial sign of hope before the hockey year never showed up again.

Podhale was progressing as the same team they were the previous year with the massive influx of import signings not being that impactful. Poland would then travel to Finland to train and face off with two Metsis teams. Both of these games resulted in one-goal losses, but nothing too wrong yet. It was also a pretty valuable training experience, along with showing how much work team Poland needed.

The next couple of tournaments would just be embarrassing for Poland. They suffered shutout losses to Lithuania and Romania while getting destroyed in matches against Hungary. The games against Hungary just showing how quickly Poland’s former rivals jumped past them on the development stage. The Lithuania and Romania were especially troubled as Poland was set to face them in their bid to return to Group A.

Back in Podhale, the team did improve their record and moved in the overall standings by one place, but would lose in the bronze medal game this year. While it may have not lived up to the pre-season hype, there was still a lot to be excited about as the team showed a lot of promise. It would already be the end of the Valtonen era in Podhale though, as the team announced he would depart from the team at the end of the season. Unchecking one of the biggest boxes and reasons, he got the national team gig.

Now came the big showing of the year, Poland was once thought to be a favorite that would easily win their way back to group A, but now that was rightfully in doubt. These doubts happen further when Cracovia Krakow seemingly refused to send the equipment of a few national team players that had yet to re-sign for the following season. Valtonen claimed he reached to Krakow, but they didn’t reply, Krakow later released text messages showing they did in fact reply. In the end, the national team lost defensemen Maciej Kruczek, as his equipment never arrived. This didn’t help team Poland at all that already had a few players drop out with injuries.

The tournament itself pretty much told the story of Valtonen’s first year in Poland. The team starting off strong with great showings versus the Netherlands and Ukraine, only for everything to go drastically wrong as they lose to Romania. Then with nothing on the line, they beat Estonia and Japan in games where you could see no one on team Poland really was giving their best. Their faith was already sealed with the loss to Romania.

It seemed Poland was destined for another coaching change. Valtonen was making more enemies than friends in Poland, as he wasn’t afraid to speak publically about some of the problems he saw with the sport in Poland. Him leaving Poland was also still a sore spot, along with a very disappointing World Championship and the international year overall.

Valtonen remained the national team coach in a bit a surprise announcement. Risto Dufva was also now added to his coaching staff and would be coaching GKS Katowice during the upcoming year. Valtonen was now set to coach in Germany and brought some youth players along to train and try out for German youth teams as well. It seemed like the positives were starting to rise up again!

With Valtonen gone to Germany, it was mostly a pretty quiet year. Poland competed in one Euro Ice Hockey Challenge tournament versus Hungary, Italy, and Japan. They won against Japan and stayed competitive against the first two. Nothing big of note from the two matches. It was all quiet, too quiet.

Risto DuFva would leave Poland just a couple weeks after the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge. Leaving GKS Katowice and the national team in pretty quick fashion. It came out of nowhere,  and only worsened the relationship between Poland and their Finnish staff.

It felt like a sure thing this staff would be gone the following year, and it was just getting through the final two tournaments. There is a magical cure for it all though. That is winning. Poland went into the Olympic Qualifiers without multiple top players and only six total defensemen after players having to drop out. Then in the first period of game 1, Pawel Zygmunt would break his arm and be done for the season. They steamed rolled over the Netherlands and Ukraine, setting up a winner take all game versus Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan is a literal KHL team loaded with talented imports as well. Poland beat them in the biggest upset in Polish hockey in years. It did take John Murray making an insane amount of stops, but Poland had done what looked to be close to impossible. Poland now advanced to the final round of Olympic qualification. There seemed to be a lot of optimism in the air, and renewed excitement for the team.

Then Covid-19 hit. The World Championships were canceled, and Tomek Vatlotnen’s contract had expired. It didn’t seem like this would be the end at all though. Valtonen seemed very excited for the future and looked like he expected to be behind the bench for team Poland when they played the final round of qualifications in August. The qualifiers were once again delayed meaning Poland would have to wait till next summer.

Meanwhile though in Kazakhstan, the loss to Poland rung hard. The team fired their national team head coach Andrei Skabelka. Skabelka was also let go from his position with Barys Nur-Sultan, the Kazak KHL team. They needed a new coach and who better than the man who got the original coach fired. Tomek Valtonen was announced as a candidate for the position, along with a few other Finnish coaches. Kazakhstan’s offer would one hundred percent be better than Poland’s offer in every way.

Throughout their coaching search, it was never known how serious a candidate Valtonen was for the position, but at the moment of writing, he is not considered the favorite. With the coaching search in Kazakhstan coming to an end. Tomek Valtonen returned to Poland to meet with PZHL leadership. This meeting could have gone plenty of different ways, but at the end of the session, it was announced that Valtonen was out as the head coach of the Polish national team. The end of the Valtonen era was official.

The team was at its highest that Valtonen had taken them. It seems like an odd time to split ways, but maybe winning didn’t heal all the past drama and disputes. Hokej.net reported that they wanted a coach in Poland, along with some financial constraints, also being a problem. Tomek Valtonen is a great coach that quickly made some necessary changes to the national team. Him moving Marcin Kolusz to a full-time defenseman revitalized Kolusz’s career at a time when people were questioning if he should be included on Poland’s roster anymore. Now Risto Dufva even took Kolusz to Finland with him, signing him to a Liiga contract. Some necessary young and new blood was injected into the line-up.

Tomek Valtonen is a good coach. His players seemed to like him, and I believe he could have taken Poland to the elite division of the World Championships if given the time and support that was required. The problem is Poland’s issues are not that small. They are much larger than what Valtonen could have fixed. The PZHL is not to blame for everything during the Valtonen era, but they shoulder a large amount of it. Poland still has so much left to work on and improve. Valtonen definitely helped slow the bleeding but didn’t stop it. No single band-aid can.

On a side note. I would just like to thank Tomek Valtonen for his professionalism that he always showed myself and other Polish hockey media members. He always made himself available for questions about anything at any time.

If you want to keep up with all the offseason news, make sure to follow us on Twitter @PolandHockey and like our Facebook page.

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