A 2002 draft pick for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kronwall spent several seasons between the NHL and the AHL, picking up a Calder Cup win with the Hershey Bears in 2009. The defenseman soon returned to Europe, making his KHL debut for Severstal Cherepovets in 2011. His impressive contributions piqued the interest of Lokomotiv, who were tasked with assembling their first roster since the plane crash that ended forty-four lives and an equal share of dazzling hockey careers.
Kronwall was the most successful import in the history of the club, which may suggest why the team was reluctant to let him go—even after he hung up his skates this spring due to a career-ending hip injury. Kronwall is widely expected to join Yaroslavl’s coaching staff this season, an apt role for a decorated captain who is not shy in his opinions. We discussed his coaching vision and second act this week from Sweden, as the KHL prepares to return from an extraordinary hiatus.
Gillian Kemmerer [GK]: Did you always know that this would be your last playing season, or did circumstances force your hand?
Staffan Kronwall [SK]: In August and September, I had some issues with my hip that came out of nowhere. I found out that I had arthritis in my hip, and the doctors said, ”You need surgery, or you need to stop playing.” They even told me that if I did the surgery at my age, the chances of coming back were pretty low. I thought, well, I'm 37 years old. I wasn't willing to just have surgery, miss out a season and then hope that [my hip] was going to last until I turned 38. I knew quite early in September that it was going to be a grind and a battle the whole season—and it was, really. It was a lot of injections throughout the year. I'm happy that I managed to pull through, even though I didn't have my best season.
GK: Surely you never imagined that this hip pain would end your career.
SK: I was shocked, really. I felt good in training camp and preseason, and then all of a sudden, I just couldn’t sleep because of this pain in my hip. I didn't understand where it was coming from. I did an MRI, and then they said, "Well, this is pretty bad.” It was a lot worse than I expected or what anyone expected, so it came from out of nowhere.
GK: Given that your retirement wasn’t premeditated, how did the coaching opportunity unfold at Yaroslavl?
SK: We haven't signed any papers, or the paperwork isn’t done yet. I know that Lokomotiv posted on their Instagram, and I'm hoping that's going to be the case. I have a big heart for that team. I think they have good things going on there, so I'd be happy to be a part of that. We're still talking about what the role is going to look like within the coaching staff. I can't talk more than that about it, really.
GK: Did you always intend to coach after your playing career ended?
SK: I hadn't really thought about it. I have a pretty strong opinion on how I think things should be run—not necessarily the right one always. I don't think any coach has everyone on their side all of the time, so to speak. Everyone is always going to have their own opinions on what they think is the right way to run a team. Like I said, we'll see what the role is going to look like. I'm not going to be standing on the bench during games, as far as I know.
GK: I suspected, at least from what Loko had posted, that your role would have something to do with youth development. Is that possible?
SK: Yeah, it is. I'm hoping to help some of the young guys and also the imports. If they sign a guy that has never been to Russia, that bridge can sometimes be harder than they imagine. I’d like to help ease that gap.
GK: A liaison role for imports is interesting. I would imagine you could have benefitted from one during your first season.
SK: There's definitely a cultural difference. I played in Severstal my first year, and we had our own towels—they put our numbers on the towel, and that was your towel for the season. Now, things have changed. I think that a lot of good things have happened with the league since I came in nine years ago. It's definitely a lot better of a league as far as hockey, as far as off the ice. But when you don't understand your teammates, it makes everything a lot more difficult.
A lot of the coaching staff don't speak English. They post on the board and you're supposed to know [the drill] right away, and go. Communication is important. It's good to have someone in the coaching staff that could explain the drills to you if you don't understand. As an import, you often just put yourself in the back of the line, but sometimes there were line drills, and then your line was going first—so there could be some misunderstandings, for sure. Ninety-nine percent I think everyone understands, but there are details during the drills that could be missed.
GK: Inevitably, the world associates Lokomotiv with the devastating plane crash. A great deal of investment was put into the club in the wake of that tragedy. Can you describe what that has entailed?
SK: I think, like you say, when the name Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is put out there, the first thing that comes to mind is unfortunately the crash. It’s such a tragedy that no one could ever imagine happening. I remember it like it was yesterday when I got the information—and the sound all around of people crying. It was devastating, so I think that's probably something that's going to be very hard to erase. I don't think it's a good thing to erase because it's important to remember that team, and what an excellent team it was. A lot of great hockey players and coaches and staff and people were lost.
If you can say that a good thing came out of it, they put a lot of money and time and effort into building the new training facility. I’ve never seen anything like it in the hockey world. I think Manchester City and A.C. Milan in soccer have similar facilities. As far as living in Yaroslavl, it was never any problem for me and my family. We thought it was a treat to live there. It was like living at a Marriott five-star hotel, and maybe not in Moscow City, but we loved Yaroslavl. When I think about it, it's kind of ridiculous how well they treated us. It’s going to be very easy to get import players and Russian players if you can sell that. You can't argue with how good it was.
GK: What are some of the perks of living there?
SK: They have a video shot from up top, and the whole facility looks like a hockey stick and a puck. They have apartments from one to three bedrooms with full hotel services. There's cleaning three times per week. We have a spa that's only for the people and the team living there. I mean, it's not a training spa. It's actually like a relaxing spot with five or six different saunas. You have to go see it—that's how cool it is. We lived downtown for the first few years, and we enjoyed it there, but when this facility was done, it was a game changer because that's when our kids started grow up and they needed more things to do. They have a kids’ room with people looking after the kids if you wanted, for a few hours. They have tennis courts, clay courts. You name it, they’ve got it.
GK: That would have been a nice haven during an immensely difficult season. You had a few coaching changes to kick off the year, and ultimately wound up with KHL veteran Mike Pelino at the helm. How would you describe him?
SK: He's a perfectionist, let's say. He's been working with Mike Keenan for a number of years, and its shown how much experience he has. He had been coaching for I don't know how many years, but he came into a tough one. We were really down on our knees and managed to turn our season around. We made a push and became a lot better of a team than we were at the start of the season. I mean, he did what he could—definitely. His record was pretty impressive.
GK: As you embark on your own coaching career, which coaches were the most influential during your time as a player?
SK: I think there are two that come to mind right away. The first is Paul Maurice. He's coaching in Winnipeg right now. He's a tough, honest coach that I really enjoyed playing for. I played under him for about a season and a half in Toronto. The other one is Dave King, who I had in Lokomotiv for about a year. He came in late one year, and then he came back and finished the season.
Those two were very different types of coaches, but they were each a fantastic coach in their own way. When they put the hockey aside, they were amazing people. They put on a role when they were coaching, and they did that extremely well.
GK: What are some of the elements of Dave King’s coaching style that you admired?
SK: He was extremely positive—the most positive coach I've ever had, I think. It worked really well in Russia, where players are used to having very high discipline. We were in a tough situation when he came in and had changed coaches twice that year. He arrived just before the Olympic break, actually, for Sochi 2014. Three weeks, I think, before playoffs. We were sitting in the sixth or seventh spot, and he did something with the team in those three weeks that I've never seen. We beat Dynamo Moscow first round, well-deserved, and then we beat St. Petersburg second round—and then we fell short in Prague in the semifinals, but we just ran out of gas, I think, because of the two hard battles. One month earlier, there was no one in our team who would have believed that we could beat those teams in a playoff series of best out of seven. We beat both number one and two in our conference. I think everyone in the team was shocked at how good we were all of a sudden, but he believed in us. He saw something good, and he was very positive and kept pushing on that positive side. He was definitely something I think the Russians had never seen before, in a good way.
GK: I spoke with Slava Kozlov for this series who, like you, made the jump from playing to coaching. We discussed an old phrase that I’ve heard a few times in Russia: “In order to be a coach, you have to kill the player inside of you.” What does that mean to you?
SK: If you put on the head coach role, then you have to make sure that you are not buddy-buddies with your old teammates. If it goes a few years, maybe that would be possible because a lot of people have changed, but I think it's tough to be a coach for the guys you played with last year. They’ve seen a different side of you.
Some guys have seen you do stuff with the team that maybe you don't do as a coach. The time and the effort you need to put in to being a head coach is twice the time that you put in as a player. That goes for every job you could ever want. If you want to be successful, you have to put in your heart and you have to put in the time. If I ever make it to be head coach or whatever role I'm going to land, that's what you have to do if you want success.
GK: Speaking of putting in the time, have you turned to any books or resources to ease your transition?
SK: Definitely not, and I don't think that’s something I will do, really. I don't believe in coaching by reading books. I think I played enough years to know what I like, what kinds of coaches I like, and what kinds of practices I like. I don't believe in reading a book and then going out and being a good coach. If everyone reads the same book, then everyone will be the same coach.
If I ever turn into an actual active coach on the bench, I'll take my experience and do what I like, and then obviously, you have to adjust to the type of group you have. Any coach can be a good coach for the right type of group, but any coach can also be a terrible coach if you can't adjust to the group that you have. That's the hardest thing about being a coach. I think that you have to change your way of coaching depending on what kind of group you have.
GK: You’ve referenced the styles that you liked as a player a few times. Be more specific.
SK: The first word that comes to my mind is “effective.” I've had coaches who kept us forechecking all over the place, which is entertaining to watch—but if you play a 65-game season, you're going to run out of gas. You need six lines, basically one or two lines sitting out and rotating in, to play that system because you wear out your body so hard.
If you're asking me what type of style, I like smart hockey. I like forechecking when you have a better than 50/50 chance of going. If you have a 49/51 chance of getting the puck, I like trapping because I think you're wasting your energy. Then obviously you have to look at what the score is in the game, what period it is, what lines you're in on, so to speak. You have to dig deeper on details, but in general, I think you have to play smart hockey. Defense is always going to be the most important. You need good goaltending and a good defensive system. Then you need your top players to perform. I mean, there's no secrets there, but if you're asking me what type I like—I like smart, effective hockey so that you don’t waste energy in a long season like we have.
GK: Has any one style proven the most effective against the highest-echelon teams in Russia?
SK: No. I think you have to look at what team you have. That's number one. Do we have a hardworking team? Do we have a skilled team? Do we have a bit of both? The type of hockey, I think, you can change during the game. If you see a pattern in the game, you have to be able to change your system and say, "Hey, this is not working. Now we’ve got to be aggressive.“ Or, “Hey, we don't like the way things are going right now—so let's pull back and trap." I don't believe in playing the same type if you don't like what you're seeing.
You have to put some tricks into the other coach's mind like, "Oh, they’re changing." Then he has to adjust to that. It's a game of chess a little bit. I don't think that a lot of people know or see this, but that's what good coaches do. It’s a lot more interesting than just standing behind the bench.
GK: I know that you intended to play until you were 50, but 37 is still impressive longevity for this sport. What’s the source of the fountain of youth in hockey?
SK: It has been simple because I love the game. Like you said, I would've played until 50, but I knew that was not very likely. If you don't have a love for the game, then you won't be able to put in the time and the effort—especially during the summers. That’s the hardest part. You have to dig deep and have discipline to work that extra mile to get in shape. The older you get, the harder you have to work to prepare yourself. If you don't have love for the game, I think it's hard to push yourself in the summers to be ready, but discipline comes close second on that question.
GK: Is there any one night of your career that you wish you could relive?
SK: I mean, there's a lot. Playing my first NHL game, scoring my only NHL goal, my first game with Lokomotiv—the runs we had with Lokomotiv when we made it to semis twice, how the whole city just went bananas. We felt like rockstars in the city walking down the street. Winning the World Championship with Sweden in my hometown, in my home rink.
I've always said that winning with Loko would have been the biggest achievement of my career, and unfortunately I wasn't able to get the team there. That was a dream of mine, and some dreams don't always come true, but I'm very glad that I had the chance to play for the team that long and to be their captain. But winning is special. That is something that you bring with you for the rest of your life.
GK: A World Championship is an incredible victory, let alone in front of the home crowd.
SK: It was quite surreal actually, that whole tournament and how it turned out. The season before, in 2012, we had a fantastic team playing in the World Championship. Sweden and Finland were hosting. I was playing with my brother, and that also would have been amazing to win, but we kind of choked in the quarters and then lost to the Czech Republic. But playing for your National Team is something special for sure, and winning is even more special.
GK: My last question, as I ask to everyone—what did you do on your road trips?
SK: We were playing a lot of cards, especially on the longer trips. We were playing Shnarps. Do you know what it is?
GK: Anton Lander gave me the Cliff’s Notes.
SK: We were playing almost every trip. I liked listening to podcasts too when I had the chance. You're like a family traveling, and you have to kill the time with something instead of being on the phone or watching a movie on your own. I think communicating and playing cards is a good way to get closer.
GK: Apparently you were quite good. That's what Anton said when I spoke with him.
SK: I like hearing that. I'm not going to disagree!