In a rash of changes, Germany has named new coaches to its men’s, U20, and U18 national teams. A year full of relegations and moderate play internationally has led to a number of changes in the German Ice Hockey Federation, and new wind is hoped to get the program back on track.
After Pat Cortina most recently headed the men’s team and the U20 squad, Marco Sturm has been put in charge of the men’s team, and his brother-in-law Christian Kuenast will be taking over the huge task of getting the U20 squad back to where the federation, and the international ice hockey community, feel Germany belongs – amongst the world’s top 10 clubs.
An unwritten page in his book as an international coach, Kuenast has got quite the challenge ahead of him, and it all begins with the team’s first major tournament shortly before Christmas in which Germany will face off against Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Norway, and host Austria to gain promotion back into the world’s elite group.
A heady challenge, Hockey’s Future talked to him about some of the challenges he and Germany will be facing in the coming months.
Hockey’s Future: Roughly a month ago, you were named the new head coach of the German U20 team. You have experience as an assistant coach in the DEL and as a head coach in the DEL2. After only two years as a coach with the Straubing Tiger youth program, you are now taking on a new and truly different challenge. How did this situation evolve?
Christian Kuenast: I was with the U19 national team last February in Sweden at a friendly tournament. The communication has stayed intact since then. As our discussions about the position as the U20 head coach became more intensive, things ended up going very quickly.
HF: You spent your entire playing and coaching career within Germany. What can the international ice hockey world expect of you and your teams?
CK: The most important thing is that we work hard. This is the only way we are going to be able to get better. That’s how we’re going to get to where we want to be.
HF: What support will you have and how long are expected to hold this position at this point?
CK: My contract is for two years, and then we’ll see where we want to go from there. I’m currently searching for just the right assistant coach who can join me as the season begins.
HF: You’re taking on a team that was just relegated from ‘A’ group competition. What are your main three goals as the coach of the U20 team and how do you plan on making them a reality?
CK: Our short-term goal is to move up into the top division as soon as possible. This certainly is no easy task. Over the long run, my work will be all about contributing to our prospects becoming more consistent in their abilities and work ethic, and stronger on the international scene.
HF: What challenges are you most looking forward to?
CK: I’m looking forward to working with younger players. This is also why I decided to work with young players in Straubing back in 2013. That was a priority for me.
HF: In recent years, fans of the game have been able to enjoy the play of talents such as Leon Draisaitl, Dominik Kahun, and Frederik Tiffels, who have been able to compete very well at the top international level. Who of the players you are working with should the international ice hockey society be excited about seeing?
CK: I’ve only had this job for a few weeks now. I’ve naturally already seen all of the players at some point, but I think it is too soon to make a true statement or evaluation. We do, however, have some young guys coming up who are going to be capable of being competitive guys with leadership qualities at the highest international level.
HF: When does your work start up and how will you be preparing for the D1 Group A WJC?
CK: My work began on July 15th. There really isn’t a whole lot of time to prepare for the D1 WJC, but we do have a framework plan set up with a number of preparatory activities and test games internationally. A tournament took place just two weeks ago in Switzerland. Another one will be taking place in the Czech Republic shortly before the season starts. In November, we’ll participate in a 4 Nations tournament in Slovakia before taking the biggest steps towards the D1 WJC.
HF: This tournament will take place in Vienna shortly before Christmas. It will include several countries that are very serious about moving up into the elite group again, including Norway and Latvia, which have both been on the rise. Latvia will be featuring a number of players who just convincingly relegated Germany’s U18 team out of the top group at the U18 World Championship in Switzerland. How will Germany be preparing for these opponents?
CK: As part of our training seminars and also in other ways, we’ll be informing ourselves of our opponents and what challenges they present as part of our preparation. We thoroughly realize that we’ll be playing five very difficult opponents and that we have to beat all of them in order to gain promotion. But naturally our opponents will be doing everything possible to prepare correspondingly with the same goal. The Latvians, for example, have their team together the entire season. Nonetheless, we will be facing these challenges positively and with confidence.
HF: You yourself were a professional goalie, and that’s something that’s always in a goalie’s blood. With Thomas Greiss and Philipp Grubauer, Germany currently has two NHL goalies. Niklas Treutle just signed with Phoenix. The 19-year-old Maxi Franzreb of the Hamburg Freezers was at the Los Angeles Kings prospects camp. You now have the opportunity to play a decisive role in the development of the next generation of goalies in Germany. What talents are currently in the pipeline and how do you view the goaltending situation in Germany’s junior ranks?
CK: At this juncture, it is still far too early to give a concrete evaluation of any particular players. We’ll be viewing all of the players who are amongst my circle of candidates and observe them precisely in the course of the season, especially now in the fall, before I’ll be making any decision. We cannot rest our goaltending laurels on any earlier successes, but rather we have to work even harder in this department as well. The other nations are also getting better at this position. After all, the goaltending position has a great deal of importance in the sport of ice hockey.
HF: After the U20, U18, and women’s national teams were all relegated, and the men’s team played a merely ‘adequate‘ World Championship in the Czech Republic, where many of Germany’s best and most established players were not available for various reasons, Germany’s ice hockey program has a number of challenges to face and bridges to cross. It definitely appears to be in a phase of transition. How do you see the state of the nation in German Ice Hockey, and where does improvement have to take place?
CK: Things haven’t been all that positive in recent times, but we still need to face every task in a positive manner and with belief in as well as commitment to what we’re doing. This is certainly what I’ll be doing and that is something I expect of my staff and the players. Improvement can only be achieved when we all pull together. And when I say that, I mean the clubs, state ice hockey associations, and the German Ice Hockey Federation as the umbrella organization. This will allow us to take small steps forwards. I think that we’re already heading on a good path since (DEB President) Franz Reindl took over, and the country has been putting an emphasis on changing things right at the early stages of ice hockey development.
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