Right Hand for the Job?

The announcement of Tony Hand as the next Great Britain coach last week as raised many questions. These have ranged from whether it is viable for an EPL coach to be national team coach? Is his record as a coach good enough? Who else is there? Is he tactically sound? And even does he have the passion for it? Added to this outspoken Sheffield Steelers’ spokesperson Dave Simms said after the news that Paul Thompson would be stepping down broke that there was no outstanding candidate for the job.

Putting aside all these questions for a moment it is great that such questions are now being asked. 10 or 15 years ago the national team wasn’t even on the radar of most fans. The Great Britain team was being coached by Chris McSorley was coaching in Switzerland and doing the job without getting paid whilst some duel internationals were being offered large sums of money to play for the side. Today the GB team has gone from this to a Division One promotion possibility and potential host of a world championship as well as rising from outside the top 30 countries to inside the top 20. Fans are also more involved with 2 international games at ‘home’ per year. No longer is the GB job a thankless task for a week a year but a high profile role taken seriously by the players and fans.

Turning to Tony Hand now. His history and experience in the sport does suggest that this is a job he was destined for. His playing career which is still going today has seen Hand score more points than any other British player or any other player in this country, a draftee of the Edmonton Oilers, played in all corners of the British game and was a member of the Great Britain team that last played in the World Championship group in 1994. Behind the bench Hand has built up 10 years worth of experience. Winning the British National League title with Dundee, the EPL title with Manchester and coaching at all ends of the financial scale in the Elite League with Edinburgh, Belfast and Manchester.

Despite this some quarters have asked questions.

Does Hand lack the passion and commitment for the job?

Some people have questioned this based on his actions as a player most based on Hand’s decision to retire from international ice hockey despite still being the most proficient British player in the league. However not only was this decision right for Hand given his age and had prolonged his career it has turned out to be right for the national side. By leaving the national programme Hand gave the powers that be at that time a shake up that was desperately needed. The mismanaged, haphazard way in which duel nationals were ‘employed’ was stifling young British talent and making a mockery of the national squad.

Does Hand have the Tactical Knowledge?

Tony Hand has been deeply criticised at times for his tactics. This has centred on his overuse of his top two lines. This is true however during his time in the Elite League with Edinburgh and Manchester Hand has lacked the depth due to tight financial constraints to roll three lines in tight games. However even during the EPL games Hand has continued this practise. This is an area that Hand will need to improve on although in his defence part of his reasoning behind the two-line system is that one of those lines has included Hand himself. It looks from the outside that in close games Hand feels he is better being on the ice himself and so uses the two-line system to put himself out there more. In international games however against strong line-ups such as the Ukraine or Kazakhstan it is much more important to keep the team fresh but of course Hand will not be icing.

Is it Viable for an EPL Coach?

On time will tell but it would appear to be difficult. Paul Thompson as an Elite League coach saw every team and every player by virtue of the fact he was behind the bench of one of the sides. This allowed Thompson to view players together and watch them play on their lines however as an opposition coach Thompson had a responsibility to beat those players and so at times was difficult for him to be abstract. Hand however does not have that problem for the majority of players. Also with more midweek games in the EIHL Hand will be able to watch games from an outsider viewpoint. It is also true that the EPL has some overlooked British players as well as Longstaff and Bowns who made the last GB squad.

The main sticking point however will be the EPL playoff finals. This playoff weekend comes a weekend before the World Championships start and has seen the Great Britain team play warm up games that weekend. With Manchester a favourite to make the weekend for the third successive year there is an obvious conflict of interest. There are of course rumours about Manchester moving back into the EIHL that would solve this problem for the final 3 years of Hands international contract but that is a matter for a whole other blog.

It is worth noting that Hand will have a team of assistant coaches to help him but it is not reasonable to expect an assistant to take charge of the warm up games and then for Hand to charge for the World Championships.

Is Hand’s Coaching Record Good Enough?

Following in the footsteps of a 4 time Elite League winning British coach is always going to make Hand’s coaching record look poor. However Hand has won 2 championships in the BNL and the EPL. It is also worth noting that Hand didn’t really have the resource to win the Elite League in Manchester or Edinburgh but did get them to the playoffs. Belfast was a different matter but Hand did only spend a season in charge there.

So that puts the jury out on Hand’s credentials to be Great Britain coach. So perhaps the deciding factor is who else is there?

The truth is there are not that many candidates. If you are looking for British born coach then there is only Hand who has a record remotely near that of Paul Thompson. Other duel national candidates are available such as Corey Neilsen from Nottingham. However Neilsen is yet to coach a league winning side and would mean losing a defenseman from the pool of players to pick from. There is also Rob Wilson but Wilson is currently coaching in Italy.

There are of course non-British candidates. Gerard Adams of the Cardiff Devils and Doug Christiansen of the Belfast Giants have both coached in this country for several years but neither have been involved in the international set up before and after a successful couple of years now is not to the time to start changing that.

At the end of day Dave Simms is right. There aren’t a great number of candidates for the job and no one perhaps is as suited to the role as Paul Thompson was. In Tony Hand though there is at least someone with a great hockey sense. All the rest of us can do is cheer him and the boys on.

Neil Tucker

Neil has written on ice hockey for many websites concentrating on British ice hockey mostly. Neil also covers ice hockey in other countries and organises his Blueliner Hockey Tour. A graduate of the Manchester Metropolitan University Neil turned his hand to hockey writing in 2009. As well as contributing on Blueliner Hockey Neil has contributed to Get Real Hockey and Slapshot Magasine.

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