Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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From FaceTime coaching between periods to players missing in double digits—Salavat Yulaev head coach Tomi Lämsä could never have imagined a year like 2020. The former head coach of Jokerit Helsinki was newly promoted to the helm of Ufa’s bench, having served as an assistant coach for the past three seasons. The lessons he has learned under Russian leadership have changed the way he coaches one of the KHL’s most dominant teams—combining local hockey culture with a Finnish perspective on team-building and unity.

Lämsä’s focus has oscillated between the big picture items—stronger defense, tighter units—and the day-to-day struggles of an uncertain roster. The circumstances have forced the Finnish national to get creative, deploying high-profile youngsters such as Rodion Amirov and Shakir Mukhamadullin in an effort to eclipse the departures of the league’s early top scorers, including Markus Granlund and Teemu Hartikainen.

From the elements of Finnish hockey that have resonated in Ufa, to his intentions for the team’s fresh crop of Russian talent, Lämsä opines on a number of key names and themes that have dominated a season unlike any other.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You have returned to a head coaching role after several seasons. Do you feel that your time in Ufa as an assistant was a valuable learning experience?

Tomi Lamsa (TL): When I first came to Ufa, it was a really good place for me to learn. I got to keep my eyes and ears open, and to see what is this place, what is the culture, the hockey culture, and the whole of Russia. In the first year, I worked with a Finnish coaching staff and I was an assistant. Before that, I was a head coach in Finland. I didn't know much about Russia before this job, so I think in the first two years with the Finnish coaching staff, of course I learned a lot, but I think after that when I worked with the Russian coaches, I learned even more. I got to understand the approach to hockey, how this culture approaches teaching and learning, things like that. It's so hard to come to a different culture, a different country where people are speaking a different language. There are many things which make your work harder. I almost think that you need to work for a while as an assistant, and then you can step up to a head coaching role. It was a really important time.

GK: How would you compare the relationship between coaches and players in Finland to what you’ve witnessed in Russia?

TL: Kids in school and in the hockey world, they experience a different kind of path [in Russia]. If I compare to Finland, it's more athlete-centered thinking. Here, coaches are the guys who make all decisions, and the players follow the coaches. I think that's a big difference. You can't change everything in a moment. I try to put together my background from Finland with what I’ve learned here—how to teach, how to communicate with the players. I know the history and background of our Russian players. So I think, at the moment, we have a mixed approach with our team.

GK: Talk a bit more about the Finnish philosophy that you are trying to introduce. 

TL: I’ve been working as a coach for twenty years with the Finnish Junior National Teams. I think a big element of Finnish hockey is how we approach things like a team. We are winning and losing together. We have really strong values inside of the team, and every player, every coach needs to follow our values. Everything that we plan comes from a unit. When we have a strong unit, we have a strong team. I think that here in Russia, there’s more of an individualized approach.

In the Russian style, teams are looking for skillful players, and all of the guys are thinking, ”I would like to do something.” Maybe in Finland, we are more like, "We would like to do something. We want to reach something." So that's one big thing that I think I'm bringing to our team. Tactically-speaking, I think the one big change I want to make is to play more together—distances a little bit shorter, five guys playing like a team more. 

GK: Teemu Hartikainen surmised before the season that you would tighten up systems on the defensive side, but maintain some of the freedom up front that we are used to seeing from Salavat. 

TL: You need to understand what kind of team and what kind of players you have, and at the moment here in Ufa, we have a really skillful force. We have four lines, and we can score with four lines, make plays with four lines. For sure, I want to bring something more [defensively], but COVID ate three, maybe four weeks of time to improve our game. I think after one week, maybe when we have all of our guys back again, we can start over a bit. But for sure, I want to bring something to the defense.

Hockey is so fast and the players are skillful, so you need to take care of both sides of the game. You can't just focus on defense, because inside of good defense, you already have good offense. And inside of good offense, you have good structure within your unit. It’s easy to start with defense right away, steal the puck back again and score a goal. You can create both sides of the game—defense and offense—with a whole unit, five guys working at the same time, in the same way. That's the big picture of how I approach hockey in 2020. 

GK: How have you handled some of the curveballs that this season has thrown at you, including managing a team virtually during big games? 

TL: When we started this season, we had a plan to go to Finland for training camp. We booked every facility, everything was ready. Then we couldn’t travel and we needed to stay in Ufa. We changed everything. The preseason went well, we did a good job and we practiced well, and that was okay. I have a big picture, but every day I need to read and react. I go to the arena and I meet our doctor: “What kind of news today?” Maybe today's a good day, or today's a bad day. Every day you need to be ready. It doesn't matter how many guys we have, we still need to play and we need to win games. So that's been really challenging.

When I was in quarantine, I ran meetings over FaceTime for the whole team and locker room. And then every day, we had a coaches’ meeting for one hour with video. Before the game and after every period, I had a FaceTime connection to the coaches’ room. During the period itself, there was one coach I was connected with [on the bench]. During the game, it's really hard to change things. Of course you can emphasize something, but I just wanted to give support to the coaches so that they could make decisions under pressure. When you are behind the bench, you just need to react. You can't start thinking, “Hey, Tomi’s at home, what is he thinking about now?”

It has been a good chance for the young boys. They have done a really, really good job and we have gotten some points. Our situation is pretty good, but I spoke with other coaches today for whom it's not. It takes time because every player, every human reacts in a different way to COVID. Some have no symptoms. I had a fever and a headache and my muscles were sore. Some people can get really high temperatures and it takes time to recover. Even if the guys are back in arena and they can practice, we don’t know when they can play again with full energy, at 100 percent. It takes time.

GK: Markus Granlund made early waves for Salavat. I know that the media often casts him in the role of a replacement for Linus Omark.

TL: Already before the season, people were asking: ”Hey, do we have a new Omark?" And I responded right away—"No, we have Markus Granlund.” He’s a different kind of player, and both players are really good. We all know Linus—he played here for many years, he scored goals, he helped the team a lot and he was a big leader. Fans loved Linus, and he was a big part of the team. But Markus, I knew him before. He's a Finnish guy, and while I had never coached him, I knew that he had skills. He has really good hockey sense and he's a team player. I knew right away that he was going to be a different kind of leader for our team.

I think that Linus and I had a really good relationship, but it’s the same with Markus. He can score goals, make nice and important assists. He doesn't talk so much in the locker room, but I think he leads by example. He's a really good guy, and I really like him.

GK: Is your intention to play all of your Scandinavian imports on the same line? 

TL: I really want to try these three guys—Granlund, Hartikainen, Manninen—together because I thought that there was some chemistry between them. They had it from the first practice, and it seems like they are thinking about the game in the same way—offensively and defensively. All three are hardworking, but at the same time, they are skillful guys who care about the game, and they really want to improve every day. On top of that, [defenseman] Philip Larsen is a really good skater. Offensively, really skillful. He brings one more aspect for these guys.

So that's why it's sad, because they all played together during preseason. Philip was out for the first four weeks. And when Philip came back, the forwards stayed out. So I think hopefully after one week we can, during the regular season, put these guys together for the first time. And I really can’t wait to see what's going to happen when those boys go in together.

GK: There is a spotlight on some of your youngsters right now. Let’s start with Rodion Amirov. How would you assess his strengths?

TL: Amirov reminds me a lot of one Finnish player, Teuvo Teräväinen. I know he plays in Carolina, and I coached him when I worked for Jokerit. There are so many similarities between Teuvo and Amirov. He’s an excellent skater. He's really skillful with his skates. He can make big turns and he can speed up, change his rhythm. He also has really good hockey sense and hands. During the practices and during games, he can do things that make you say, "Oh wow, what was that?" He’s a really, really talented guy, and he's a smart player. He can think for himself and he wants to improve. He always has a lot of questions. "Hey, I want to do it this way. Is this good for me?" So I can really see that he has a great future.

Tomi Lamsa. Credits: Yury Kuzmin

GK: What areas would you like to see Amirov tighten up this season?

TL: I think he needs to find the balance between offense and defense. And of course, when we play against the hardest teams, he’s still a young boy. For the one-on-one battles, he needs to be able to battle against the best defensemen after every shift. He needs to go again and again. When he starts winning those battles, then he's going to be a really, really good player.

GK: Shakir Mukhamadullin is another young player who has been called upon to step up for Salavat this season. How have you liked working with him?

TL: I liked him already last season when he played on our team. He has great character and he's not your typical Russian defenseman. I think he has more skills, and he's also a really good skater. He can play offensively really well. When Philip Larsen was out, we used Mukhamadullin in our first power play unit. So he has the skills for that, and they’re not so typical.

I spoke a lot with scouts before the draft. I said that he has good character, and he really wants to improve. Everyday, he's playing with his game face on. He enjoys the game. I believe that he has a great future. I like to work with motivated and talented guys, because that's maybe one of the best parts of this job, when you see their bright eyes and that they have some kind of vision toward where they are going, and you can help them. That’s a big joy of coaching for me.

GK: Do you expect to see his level of aggressiveness and physicality improve over time?

TL: Shakir is a big guy. He has a big body. When he plays defense, in my opinion, he needs to use his body more and to improve his physical presence on the ice. He can play harder with the stick. He can use his body, make harder hits, so he can easily play stronger defense. If he continues to practice the same way, then I know it's coming, because every other night he plays against good forwards and good teams. And for sure, as coaches, it's our job to try to help him and to create practices in which he can improve himself.

GK: Whenever we speak about a talented Russian forward, you always hear the word “creative” bandied-about as a major source of strength. Do you believe creativity in hockey is something that can be taught, or is it innate?

TL: This question is always so hard to answer. When you put together skills and hockey sense, then you can have something of creativity. I think you can teach hockey sense a little bit. You can teach skills. But the best guys, it comes from somewhere else. You can't teach this one. If a player has bright eyes and they are hungry to learn, you can help [as a coach], but everything comes from the player. The player needs to have this. He needs to have this hunger to learn and to reach the next level, and then you can give him something. But for the best players, like I said, I don’t think it's something that you can teach them.

GK: So you can give them all of the ingredients, but can’t bake the cake in a sense.

TL: You said it. That's the point. 

GK: You’ve lived in Ufa for several years. I want to know what you think about the city—but most importantly, how do you like chak-chak?

TL: First of all, it's not my favorite, honestly.

GK: So far, it’s no one's favorite.

TL: When I signed here more than three years ago, I didn't know anything about Ufa. I knew that it was a city close to the Ural Mountains, in the middle of Russia. But honestly, the city is really nice. It's almost like a European city. I live in the downtown area, so there are really good restaurants, shops. Everything is close, and the arena is unbelievable. That's why I think it has always been easy to extend my contract. Ufa has been good to me and my family.

I think we have the best fans in the whole league because every game, winning or losing, they are really supporting our team. The people here in Ufa are really friendly. When they understand that you don’t know the language or come from somewhere else, right away, people want to help. And that really comes from the heart.

GK: When you were growing up, who bought your first pair of skates as a child?

TL: Well, I think it was my parents. It's interesting because I don't have any sisters or brothers, and as for my dad and my mum, there is no hockey background. I think I was four when I announced that I really wanted to play hockey. Their first answer was that maybe we could find something else. [Laughs] It took some time. I had really, really old skates and equipment. When I went to the first practice on some outdoor rink, I was like, "Hey, this is my thing." I started as a coach when I was twenty or twenty-one.

Hockey is a big part of my life. A big part of my family. My son plays hockey and my wife, she follows hockey of course, every hour, every game. This is a job for me, but more than that, it's a way of life. When I go to the arena, I don't think, "Hey, now I need to go and work." I go and I do my best because I do what I love. That's my approach to hockey.

GK: Especially in a crazy year like this, what is one lesson that you think people can take from hockey and apply to life? 

TL: There’s one thing that I like to use with the team. I tell them to enjoy every moment, because you never know what will happen—like this COVID situation. If we have a chance to go and play hockey today or tomorrow, then hey, we need to enjoy every moment. I think this is the best times of our lives, because we really can do what we love.

Tomi Lamsa. Credits: Ilnar Tukhbatov

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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Salavat Yulaev (Ufa) Salavat Yulaev (Ufa)
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