The new Salavat Yulaev head coach speaks about his advancing years, Dmitri Kvartalnov, Vladimir Yurzinov, the pressure of the job, and how he plans to piece together the puzzle known as Salavat Yulaev.
Erkka Westerlund needs no introduction to Russian fans, although many would prefer to forget one of the Finnish specialist's career highlights. It was, of course, Westerlund who was head coach of Team Finland at the Sochi Olympics, where the Finns put an end to the Russian team's Olympic dream, after which he arrived in the KHL as boss of Jokerit. Having coached the Helsinki team for two years,
Westerlund decided to take a break and wait for a decent offer, but the rest was a short one. At the end of March, it was announced that the 60-year-old specialist had moved to Ufa.
The Salavat Yulaev job will be the first time in his long career that he has coached outside his homeland, but he seems unfazed by the stark change of environment. The knowing smile suggests wisdom, but he cheerfully admits that he still feels like a youngster. The jovial mood disappears, however, and the steely determination becomes apparent when talk turns to the targets set for the Ufa team next season. The team is currently competing in the Governor of Nizhny Novgorod Region Cup, and has battled its way to being one of the main contenders. Incidentally, it was after the 2015-16 Western Conference Quarter-final series against Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (a 2-4 defeat for Jokerit) that the coach waved 'au revoir' to the KHL. That series was a fiery affair, with sparks flying in all directions, and we began our interview by asking the coach for his musings on that particular episode.
- Erkka, you are now back in Nizhny Novgorod, so what memories do you have of that series with Torpedo in 2015-16?
- Yes, it was here that I spent my last match before I pressed the pause button on my career, but frankly, I haven't really thought about it since. It was a memorable series but now I have a new club that I am proud to lead. Salavat is a club with great prospects and potential, and I believe this is the beginning of a new and very interesting journey, so all my thoughts are devoted to the present and the future.
- You had a rest from hockey for a year...
- Yes, and now I feel ready to return to work, and I have many ideas which I would like to try out with Salavat. I did not turn my back on hockey, by the way, and I was always open to suggestions and offers.
Of course, this is not an ideal situation, when one player understands me immediately but another has to turn to the interpreter, but hockey is an international game, and the language barrier should never become an obstacle.
- Did you still follow the KHL, and in particular, the progress of Jokerit?
- Yes, of course. You could say the KHL was my home for two years. I can't say I saw all of Jokerit's games, but nor did I lose all affinity with the club. It was very interesting to follow events in the Championship.
- Looking at your career, you had a longer period away from the game - from 1991 to 1996. Why was that?
- I was young back then, and I wanted to learn something new and get acquainted with the latest ideas. While I was studying, I continued to work with Finland's youth teams. It was a wonderful time.
- If you had not received the offer from Ufa, would the pause in your career have continued?
- I had many offers, from the KHL and from some Swiss clubs, so I probably would not have been out of work for long, but the offer from Salavat was the most concrete and the most interesting for me, so I did not wait long before accepting it.
- How lengthy were the negotiations with the Ufa club?
- Again, the offer from Ufa grabbed my interest straight away, but I had to sort out some details and formalities. About a month after I provisionally accepted the job offer, we shook hands and signed the contracts.
- You turned 60 n March. How is your physical condition?
- The coach should never lag behind his team, so I just need to keep myself in good shape, recuperate properly, and be fit for work. In short, I feel great.
As a rule, I try not to dwell too much on the result of any particular match. If we get bogged down by over-analyzing individual games, then we won't have time to focus on the most important things. And the most important of all is building a team.
- How many coaches in the KHL are older than you, do you reckon?
- Interesting question! Let me think... From memory, Vladimir Krikunov immediately springs to mind, but I think that's all.
- No, there's also Zinetula Bilyaletdinov.
- Yes, of course! So, I'm in third place. Well, I don't think it's a bad thing when the League has experienced and mature experts. Although, admittedly, I don't think about my age, and I feel like a youngster (laughs).
- Which of your fellow coaches currently working in the KHL do you know the best?
- Of course, first and foremost, the Finnish specialists, Jukka Jalonen, for example. And I can't help but mention that Dmitry Kvartalnov played for Jokerit when I was boss there in the late 1990s, and together we won silver medal in the Championship of Finland. As for Russian coaches, Vladimir Yurzinov had an enormous impact on the Finnish coaching schools, and I have the utmost respect for him. He brought so much skill and knowledge to Finland.
- Have you got settled in Ufa yet?
- Yes, I already feel at home there. I really like the city and the people around me, but most importantly – we have good players from which we can build a team, and with whom we can create something. We're embarking on a big and – I hope – a glorious quest.
- Nonetheless, you are the first foreign head coach in Salavat Yulaev's history. The fans, no matter how friendly they are, will still demand results from you. Are you ready for such pressure?
- I'm so old, old... (laughs) so I don't pay attention to such things. I just concentrate on my daily work. As a rule, I try not to dwell too much on the result of any particular match. If we get bogged down by over-analyzing individual games, then we won't have time to focus on the most important things. And the most important of all is building a team. As for the pressure... If it gets too severe, I might have to resign. I'm not afraid, and there would be no shame in that.
I had many offers, from the KHL and from some Swiss clubs, so I probably, would not have been out of work for long, but the offer from Salavat was the most concrete and the most interesting for me.
- At the Salavat Yulaev - Spartak match there were quite a few Ufa fans, and for the entire match they were chanting at your bench, ”You came to win!” Can we apply this slogan to you?
- Of course! It suits me fine. When the season is on, we want to win. But now, in these friendlies, it is more important for me to get to know the players, and try out different combinations of lines in order to determine the best ones. But I fully understand the fans' sentiments.
- Can you visualize your strongest formation yet?
- So far I only have many pieces which I need to put together to solve the puzzle, so I am trying different combinations until a picture finally emerges. As yet I can't say I'm content with some given combinations, and even the first line, which has remained unchanged, still has room for improvement.
- You have your son, Thomas, on the Salavat Yulaev staff as a video coach. Does he also intend to pursue a career in coaching?
- Yes, he wants to follow in my footsteps and learn the trade. We already worked together for two years, as Tomas assisted me at Jokerit, and now we have moved to Ufa. Every coach needs his own team, comprising people with whom he has built an understanding. I need people I know and trust, but at the same time, it is vital that they share my coaching philosophy. I have such a staff, and my son has become a part of it.
- Your staff will have to build a relationship with the team, and there is the language barrier. Do you find it hard to communicate with your players?
- Oh, yes, it's far from easy. Half of the team speaks English and the other half doesn't, and (ex-Anaheim Ducks defenseman) Nikolai Zalygin has been invaluable in this respect, as he passes on my ideas to the players. Of course, this is not the ideal situation, when one player understands me immediately but another has to turn to the interpreter, but hockey is an international game, and the language barrier should never become an obstacle.
- How would you rate Salavat Yulaev's current state of preparedness for the forthcoming season?
- Again, we have great players, so regarding the personnel we are 100% prepared. As for the team play and understanding, I am about 50-60% satisfied, but we have enough time to work on these things. We will try to come up with something new and surprise the League in some way.
FACTFILE Erkka Westerlund:
Born: 30 March 1957, Pernaja (Finland)
Playing career: JyP HT (Finland) – 1980-81
Coaching career: JyP HT (Finland) – 1981–88; Lukko (Finland) – 1989-91; HIFK (Finland) – 1997-99; Jokerit (Finland) – 1999-2001, 2010-12, 2014-16; Salavat Yulaev - March 2017-present
Honors as coach: Olympic silver and bronze medalist; World Championship silver (twice) and bronze medalist; European U18 Championship gold medalist, World U20 Championship bronze (twice); SM-Liiga champion and silver medalist.
Khl.ru would like to thank the Salavat Yulaev and Torpedo press services for their assistance in arranging this interview.