|Former Montreal Canadien, John Van Boxmeer will coach the SC Bern, a Swiss league team that will take on the New York Rangers in an exhibition game on Sept. 30.
John Van Boxmeer is a veteran of historic events in hockey, so it's no wonder he doesn't get all gushy when he talks about what it will be like coaching the first Swiss league team to play an NHL squad.
"We have some really good young players," Van Boxmeer said of SC Bern, which hosts the New York Rangers on Sept. 30, "and for them to be able to see what the difference is between them and an NHL player is going to be really good."
Thirty-six years ago, Van Boxmeer, then a 19-year-old prospect who was just taken with the 14th pick by the Montreal Canadiens, had a similar experience. He was one of four junior players chosen to train with the Canadian squad that played the Soviet Union in the famous 1972 Summit Series.
"We got to practice and travel throughout Canada with the team and then went back to our NHL clubs," Van Boxmeer said. "As a 19-year-old, my first taste of NHL experience is with the best players in the League."
Three years later, as a young defenseman with the Habs, Van Boxmeer played in a New Year's Eve game at the Montreal Forum against the Soviet's Central Red Army team that grew fame as one of the greatest hockey games ever played.
"Back then it was us against them," Van Boxmeer recalled of the 3-3 tie. "The Soviet Union was together and, more than anything, that is why it had such significance. It was the world against the big, bad red machine. It was an unbelievable game. It was a tight, tight game. There was a lot of pressure. The building was packed. Everybody was singing the national anthem. The atmosphere was just unbelievable."
Although the stakes don't seem nearly as high, that's sort of the environment Van Boxmeer expects when the Rangers come to town for an exhibition game.
Van Boxmeer, who played parts of 12 seasons in the NHL for four different teams and won the Stanley Cup with the Habs in 1976, is looking forward to watching his players soak in the atmosphere created by some of the greatest fans in hockey.
SC Bern draws roughly 17,000 fans per game, the most in the entire Swiss League by a landslide. They bang drums, sing songs and party throughout the game.
"This is about the players and their experience," Van Boxmeer said.
A little more than two years ago, when he moved to Switzerland after his three-year tenure as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings ended, Van Boxmeer only knew there was a stark difference between the NHL and the Swiss League.
He didn't know how much it would affect him as a coach. Turns out, it was drastic. The continental divide in the game and players required a quick adjustment to his coaching style or he wouldn't have survived the season, which is just as long as the NHL's with nearly half the games.
"There is a lot of downtime and you're always stopping and starting, but the downtime especially is tough," Van Boxmeer said. "As a coach in North America, you're basically going seven days a week and it's go, go, go all the time. Every day here is just not intense, intense, intense."
Van Boxmeer found that he had to meet his players in the middle. While they were used to practicing twice a day, but only going 50 percent each time, Van Boxmeer said he convinced them one one-hour practice per day at 100 percent was better.
"Johnny is a hard coach, but he's fair and every day you have to be at the rink and working your butt off," said Christian Dubé, a former New York Ranger and a 10-year veteran of the Swiss League. "He keeps guys on the edge every day so that's one thing that is different, but it's good."
"He knows it's about the game, not necessarily too much about the practices," added Simon Gamache, another former NHLer.
Meanwhile, the shorter schedule – SC Bern plays 50 games in a season – convinced Van Boxmeer that there was no need to be as intense as he was in the NHL, although his players now know that if they don't perform, they're not going to play.
That's also a change from the norm, Van Boxmeer said.
"Certainly the demand is greater than the supply of quality players, so they're used to playing no matter how they play for the most part," Van Boxmeer said. "We dress four forward lines and four sets of defensemen. If you're a fifth and sixth defenseman in the NHL you're not playing that much. Well, these guys are the seventh and eighth defenseman, but they were still expecting to play."
Van Boxmeer said he's comfortable in Bern, but he would listen if an NHL team called. He considers it a long shot to land his first NHL head coaching job at the age of 55, though he's aware Atlanta Thrashers coach John Anderson is getting his first crack at 51.
"You always want to map yourself against the best, so I'd definitely be interested," Van Boxmeer said. "If it doesn't ever happen, it's not like I haven't been there. I played there and coached there. My life won't be ruined or unfulfilled."
How could it be? He already has a stash of memories that would make most hockey people jealous. He'll pick up some more on Sept. 30 when the NHL comes to him.
"As you get older and especially after you leave the game, all you have are the memories," Van Boxmeer said.Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer