Moving north. Jiri Jantovsky making his mark in Norwegian hockey

Moving north. Jiri Jantovsky making his mark in Norwegian hockey

07 Aug 2011 | Lukáš Peroutka

The westernmost Scandinavian country, Norway, got its name from the expression “way north.” That’s exactly what former Czech player and now head coach Jiri Jantovsky took a few years ago. Switching Czech leagues for an ice hockey challenge in Norway, Jantovsky has quickly fallen in love with a country of natural beauty. After a remarkably successful maiden coaching season, he is now entering his second year in charge of Comet Halden.

At the age of 35, Jantovsky became one of the youngest coaches in the game last summer when he was offered a head coaching position at the newly formed Comet Halden club, playing in the Norwegian "1. divisjon", the second-highest league in the country. Jantovsky did wonders with his young squad, finishing second in the regular season and earning a place in the GET ligaen qualification series.

A Second-place regular season finish can be considered a success. Do you agree?
I do, of course. When I was offered a contract before the season, there were only four or five players on the club and a bit of uncertainty. Even with a complete squad, our goal was just to finish in the top six. But we played our first five games against top teams in the league and we were able to match them, so I thought we can think about second place. We accomplished that, so it is a success.

In the following qualification series, Comet finished in last place. Were there any ambitions to succeed against teams from the highest division?
I already knew that we would have no chance in the qualification at all. However, we were able to be competitive apart from the last game, when we were missing two key centres and lost 11-1 to Manglerud Star. I even had to use some defencemen as forwards. It was a different level.

Your scoring leaders were two Czech players – David Hnat and Jan Sochor. How did they end up with Comet?
I have played in Norway for four years, even against David and Jan. They did not sign contracts elsewhere and gave me a call. It was great for me, because they have quality and experience. It was my first-ever season as a coach and most of our players never even played in this division. It is a miracle that we managed to finish second. I set up summer training, which has never been done before in this league. I think it paid off and we were ready for a long season.

How did you end up coaching at such a young age?
I started to miss hockey after a year of doing basically nothing after finishing my active career. I did not have enough motivation to start again as a player, plus it would be very difficult. There are quotas for foreigners in the league and the demand for Czech players is not on the same level as it was a few years ago. Comet Halden then received a license to play in the first division and I got into coaching with the club, quite uniquely at the age of just 35. It is not the highest league in Norway, but I got a full-time contract and I think I took the chance really well. I had already signed a contract for the next season by Christmas and I am happy in the job, despite the pressure at the end of the season, when we knew we had to win. To be honest, I was quite looking forward to the possibility to switch off.

Do you see you future in Norway, then?
Of course I would like to make my living with hockey, but the situation here is a bit different than in other countries, where once you get into coaching, you can usually stay with various clubs for a long time. The distances between clubs here in Norway are much longer. If I see a future here, it is with Comet. It is the club of my heart. I might have played just one season here, but it feels like home and I like the people in the organisation. I got an offer to coach the Sparta Praha junior team, but I chose Halden and I am happy about that choice. It is coaching, so everything can change, but right now I have a contract until the end of next season. We will see what happens.

How do you like Norway as a country?
I like it very much. My fiancée is also Norwegian and we have a two-year-old daughter, so my family and background is already here in Norway. I still have my son back in Czech Republic, that’s the only thing luring me back. But I definitely plan my future in Norway.

When did you decide to move over here?
I came when I was 28, but I had already been thinking about it for two years at that time. I was playing for Jihlava in the Czech "1. liga" and I wasn’t really happy. I moved to Sparta on loan for a few months, but I already had contacts in Norway and when NHL players moved to Europe during NHL lockout in 2004, Jihlava let me go for free. In Norway, I started to enjoy hockey again and I even wondered why I didn’t come here earlier.

Haven’t you thought about trying your luck in other leagues or countries, perhaps some of the better-known?
Many people asked me that question. But I was at the age when I wanted to play in a league where I would be better than others and have a higher income than in the Allsvenskan in Sweden, for example. During my first year here, I already knew I want to stay for a long time.

So how is it with the financial aspect in Norway? Is it better in comparison with the Czech Republic or other countries?
Oh, absolutely. I was an average player in Czech Republic. Over here in Norway, I have earned some good money, especially during my first two years when there was still no crisis and no quotas for foreigners. I have earned almost the same money in two seasons in Norway as in my entire career. It is not a mind-blowing amount, but it is money which any player in Czech "1. liga" can never get. What’s more, you really get the amount of money that you have in the contract and the club takes care of taxes. Contracts are signed for just eight months a year, but I liked that fact because I could be in Czech Republic for four months training and visiting my friends and family, something I wasn’t really able to do when I was playing 100 kilometers away from my home in Pardubice.

Finances were not the main reason to move to Norway, though. I just wanted to change something as I was tired of hockey in Czech "1. liga", especially in Jihlava and the move made me start enjoying hockey again.

You played for quite a few clubs back home in Czech Republic. Which one was the best in your eyes?
Definitely Pardubice under head coach Milos Riha. It was the best hockey I have ever experienced. I played well at that time and was even included on the national team. I also have fond memories of Sparta Praha with coach Alois Hadamczik. I was there only on a loan from Jihlava and nobody was expecting much from me, but I think I played well and showed that it is not that easy to make your mark in second division in any country. That’s what I told my players here, as well. Sometimes it is easier to play in the top division where the style of play is not so fierce and rigid.

Do you still watch Czech hockey on the internet?
I do, of course. I was really surprised with Slavia Praha in last year's playoffs. That team is something of a role model for me. I also like to work with young guys, who perhaps do not have the experience and skill, but they are willing to train hard and use fitness, determination and simple tactics as a weapon against teams with better players. Everyone can now see that it works.

Can Slavia’s head coach Vladimir Ruzicka be considered as your role model, too?
Yes, definitely. I really like coaches like him or Milos Riha. They know when to praise and when to shout. Yes, they might be impulsive, but they live with a team and are able to inspire their players. When I was an active player, I liked this type of coach, because you always know what’s going on. I don’t like those quiet coaches who do not say a lot and you suddenly find yourself just sitting on a bench wondering why you're not playing.

Do you try to apply the same methods?
Yes, I do. I am at every training session. If I tell the players that they have to be at every training session and then I come only three times a week, what’s the point? The mentality here is a bit different; players are not used to attending every training session from early age like in other countries. But my players know I am always there, we had the best training attendance and I was pleasantly surprised.

What’s the popularity of ice hockey in Norway like? How many fans come to your games?
We had an average of 500 spectators per game last season, which is very good for this division. Of course, it depends a lot on the results as people want more and more. We had 1800 at our first qualification game against Stjernen. Our arena is very small, yet modern, and the level of equipment is almost better than in the Czech Extraliga.

What are your ambitions for the upcoming season?
I was an ambitious player and I am an ambitious coach, too. I will be disappointed if we don’t reach the qualification again and I would like us to be a more competitive team there. I would like to have at least six new players on the team. We have our potential targets and they would like to play for Comet, but Halden is a small town and it might be a problem to find them a job. Still, our young players are going to be one year older and I hope we will have a more balanced team and won’t have to again rely solely on two Czechs.
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