As we approach the CHL Quarter-Finals, we look at the interesting story of Vitkovice Ridera Ostrava's globe-trotting general manager and head coach Jakub Petr.
by Tomas Chudy
OSTRAVA – In the Champions Hockey League, Vitkovice Ridera Ostrava have surprised everyone. The team from bottom half of the Czech Extraliga standings is among the last eight teams standing in this CHL season.
One of the European club competition's founding teams, Vitkovice went through a pretty tough group stage. They won only once in Group E, in their last game against Krefeld Pinguine. However, team from Ostrava had to rely on Karpat Oulu, leaders of this group. The Finnish powerhouse beat Krefeld and sent Vitkovice to the knockout stage.
In the Round of 32, Vitkovice demolished Slovakian champions HK Nitra by scores of 7-0 and 5-0. In the Round of 16 they faced another reigning league champion, Bili Tygri Liberec, from their own Czech league. In Liberec, they fought very hard, but allowed a late shorthanded goal and lost 1-0. In second leg on home ice, Vitkovice won 2-1 to tie the aggregate score, meaning it had to be decided in overtime. Newcomer Radoslav Tybor scored on a breakaway in the first minute of extra time to put his new team into the Quarter-Finals against Fribourg-Gotteron.
A lot of credit for the team's success has to go to Jakub Petr, Vitkovice’s head coach and general manager. He is a very interesting figure in Czech hockey. One of the most promising young coaches in the country, but at 43 years of age, very experienced man too. We’ll look at his journey to the top of the club's hierarchy.
He started his career in unique place for hockey – in Australia. He played there in Sydney and then coached the Australian U18 national team for three years. Then he returned to his hometown Ostrava and started to work as a youth coach in Vitkovice. He worked his way up to head coach of the junior squad and was also head of the club's youth academy. He won a junior title in Vitkovice a then was an assistant coach for the professional team for almost two seasons. This past summer, he was named head coach and general manager.
Apart from Vitkovice, he also coached the Czech U18 national team. They achieved a rare medal success in 2014, when they won silver at the IIHF U18 World Championship. Nowadays, he is coach of the U20 Czech team, which will play in the upcoming World Junior Championship in Canada. He has also learned from NHL coaches. We asked him a few questions for you.
How did it happen that you became a hockey coach in Australia? You didn’t go there for that reason, did you? I read you worked as a waiter and in a horse racing barn as well.
“I knew a few Czech and Canadian people who worked there in the hockey industry, but that wasn’t my main goal. Me and my wife had dreamed about a journey to Australia for a long time. I also studied there. But after the first six months, I missed hockey a little bit, so I contacted some people and from then it went really fast. I also played for the Sydney Bears and I knew there was an open coaching position for the U18 national team, so I tried it and succeeded.”
What did coaching in Australia give to you?
“It improved my English, because before then, I was in the United States for two years, but I didn’t have to talk there as much as in Australia. I coached English-speaking players, so I had to learn fast. But I don’t think there were any complaints.”
Can you compare Australian and European ice hockey?
“It’s not possible, to be honest – they are different worlds. It’s like comparing their rugby with ours. But nowadays, there are many coaches from Canada and the United States, and when we were at the World Championships with the Australian U18 team, we met with a lot of coaches who worked in NHL organizations.
“And we found there Nathan Walker, who played for six years in Ostrava and now is playing in the AHL with Hershey Bears and is fighting for a chance in a strong Washington Capitals organization. Even Australian boys can make their dreams come true.”
How did he end up playing in the Czech Republic?
“I coached his brother in the U18 team and one friend of mine called me a share this idea (to take Walker to Czech Republic) to me. I was sceptical, because I didn’t know him, but when he arrived as a 13-year-old, it was pretty obvious he had a place here. He worked really hard and played with older boys. He started to skate when he was two years old, which is an anomaly in Australia. If he doesn’t end up making an NHL team, I would like him to come back to Ostrava once more.”
You made it step by step in the Vitkovice system. Now you're not only the head coach, but general manager as well. In terms of time, is it possible to manage both positions?
“It was much tougher when I worked as chief of the academy and coached juniors. I had responsibilities with the U18 national team too, so it was really tough. But I enjoyed it and I’m enjoying it now. I’m responsible for the U20 national team, but to be coach and GM isn’t a big problem. I’ve got a little more office work because we are slowly building a team for next year. I had to deal with contracts and looking for reinforcements. Luckily, the financial situation is up to our chief executive.”
You went to study at a coaching camp in Chicago and your favourite coach is Jon Cooper from Tampa Bay. What are you trying to learn from them?
“I was really happy they invited me to that camp in Chicago. I always want to learn something new. I was in Sweden and Finland too, so I try to take something from every experience. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I have a few favourite coaches because of their long-term work or mental side. Jon Cooper is one of them.
“Apart from hockey, I love the way (Spanish football coach) Pep Guardiola works. His work is always visible in the style of play or in the youth system of the club. A big part of coaching is the mental part. I would like to be remembered as a coach players loved to work for even if they didn’t win.”
Advanced statistics are on an upward trend in hockey right now. Many NHL teams have their analytics departments. Your opponents from last round Liberec use them as well. Do you work with these statistics?
“We tried it last year and this season we've been working really intensively with it. It’s a help for coaches to evaluate players and decide which line combination work and which don’t. We work with them all year, but it’s more for coaches. We talk to players about it sometimes. Advanced stats are used in national teams as well, so I like this trend. We use well-known stats like Corsi and heat maps, but we have our individual stats too.”
We’ll go to the Champions Hockey League. What does this competition mean to you?
“It’s a real breath of fresh air for me in a long league season. You meet top coaches from other countries, play against top teams from other top leagues in Europe. I would like more fans to attend games like these, because it’s a unique chance to see top international players or young talents. For example, last year we played against Patrik Laine and we could see the difference between him and young Czech players.”
While you’re struggling a little bit in the domestic league, you are among the last eight teams in the CHL. How do you explain it?
“In August at the start of CHL season, we were injury-free. Since then, we haven’t played a single game with a full roster. We were lucky that Karpat won against Krefeld in the last group game, which sent us through to the next round. We had respect for Nitra and it was 1-0 maybe halfway through the first game, then we scored a couple of goals and it was over.
“Then we played in Liberec with many youngsters and depth players, but we fought exceptionally well a lost only 1-0. At home, we capitalized on our chances and won in overtime. Many people told us that we didn’t qualify and we’re only playing because we’re one of the founding teams, but we've shown that we want to be successful in the CHL.”
You played a Swiss team Fribourg in the Quarter-Finals. They are second to last in the Swiss league, but have won three of their last four games. What do you expect from them?
“They are improving. They’ve got some new faces and are a team full of good players, so it will be very tough. We were outside the top 10 too this season, so I don’t look at the table. Current form will decide it, I think. We’re going to battle hard.”