It has been a rocky start for the franchise based in Latvian capital. Many things have happened, they have been climbing up and down in the standings and as the season is very close to hitting the middle mark - it was finally time to sit down with the man behind the team to discuss his hockey experience, his team and the hurdles that they all are facing together. A lengthy conversation at Arena Riga opened many doors and gave insights that should be valued.
Where does he come from? What is his background in sports?
"I was an athlete while growing up. I canoed at a very high level. In the 1993 World Junior Championships I earned a bronze medal together with my partner. I went to school in Murjani Sports Gymnasium (a very well known school near Riga that many of the Latvian Top athletes go to). In 1995 I put an end to my career although I did return to it two years later for a brief period of time. Unfortunately canoeing isn’t something that you can make a living out of as a grown-up. You couldn’t do it then and you can’t do it now.’’ Edgars started to begin the conversation. "I studied and in 2005 I became the director of Arena Riga".
In 2006 Latvia hosted their first ever IIHF World Championships and he was there to help make things happen as the head of the main venue. "That was probably that big moment when I got involved in hockey. My son started playing when he was five years old, I was really interested in that as well as I enjoyed supporting him. I myself stood on the skates for the first time when I was 25-years-old. I’ve only played at an amateur level," he noted.
His first KHL experience? That was in a near-by country - Ukraine, he spent a year working for Donbass Donetsk.
"I spent seven years working at the Arena Riga, then an offer came and I didn’t have to think too long about it - in 2013 I went to Donetsk and became the general director of Donbass hockey club. The sporting side of hockey wasn’t my responsibility at all, I had all the administrative things in my hands. The project of the new arena was something I was really into. After that I worked for different companies in different countries. My time in Norway was monumental. That is where I learned and got to research things that are more related to hockey rinks, the boards and ice".
After touring Europe, he was back home and now fully involved in developing Latvian hockey as a member of the board at Latvian Hockey Federation as well as sporting director. Edgar’s resume got another achievement written into it - he was the head of the organising committee at the 2021 IIHF World Championships - a tournament like never before. Without spectators and with strict rules due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Everyone you talked to would say that he did a great job handling things alongside his team with professionals in many key fields. "Working for the Latvian federation I learned about the things that are important hockey-wise. I ended up taking charge at the World Championships. In October of 2020, I joined Dinamo Riga as a member of the board. At that time I was observing how the organization operates and then in March I became the general manager", he noted as he finished off introducing himself.
What did he take from working with Donbas that can be used now - in his job as the general manager?
"There are many small things that are helping right now. In two words it can be described as organizational work. During the season one thing is when you work with the national team and you have a short tournament with a short preparation time, something different is when you have to work with the team the whole season. In Donetsk, I saw every process and how it’s approached from the inside and it’s all very complicated. KHL has a complicated logistical process with long flights and many other things. It all requires precise planning. It’s a challenge for everyone - even the coaches and general managers".
"I learned that there are no small things in hockey. If we’re talking from a team's point of view - you can forget to order a carpet and it causes issues. Let alone if you don’t plan the mealtime for your players when it’s required - for us, the normal people it’s nothing but if a player eats an hour later than he should it can affect his performance on the ice. The player won’t be rested enough, the food won’t have been processed and the player won’t be ready for the game. The workload that athletes have during the season is really serious and everything around them has to be sorted in a perfect manner in order to assure that the players can rest when there is an opportunity to do so. I think that’s the main thing that I learned. During the season we fight to conserve every hour, every minute to accommodate our players", Buncis explained the complex process.
How did he land in the chair of general manager? It was simple, at least it sounded that way.
"I didn’t apply nor did I name myself as a candidate. The job was offered to me. I was involved as a member of the board as well as the vice-chairman in relations to sporting needs, then the council called and I agreed to take the job".
While being hired as the new front-office executive Buncis also had to take care of organizing the World Championships. Juggling these two tasks wasn’t as hard given that he had the helping hands of another experienced hockey man.
"I have to say that this team that we have right now, the team that is working right now I really want to mention Guntars Paste who instantly got involved, he’s a true hockey person. His knowledge, his encyclopedic knowledge, and not only about the players is amazing. I think he still remembers all Dinamo games and the outcome of all games that have been played in these 14 seasons and he would know who scored in those games. Just outstanding capability to navigate and get involved in the process of building the team. Without him it would be really hard", Edgars Buncis praised his assistant.
After being hired at any job you have to get familiar with the surroundings, co-workers, competitors, and potential partners - in hockey those are other hockey executives, team staff, and hockey agents.
"It was quite easy, the agents looked for your contacts. In this case, it gives you an upper hand when entering the surroundings. They need you more than you need them and that’s how you get noticed fast. The job of the general manager is the selection of players but you also have to take into account the plans of any player and their needs. Communication with their agents. It's one big puzzle that you have to be able to assemble".
Sergei Zubov was hired as the team's head coach before the season - while it’s no secret that there were other candidates, he was the man from the very beginning. You could notice that when Buncis began talking about the coach - he had a lot of respect for him.
"We did look at others but Sergei was the front-runner. I did talk to him twice before organizing a meeting with the council of the team. I liked his intelligence. He comes from Russia and has a huge experience within North American hockey and that has changed him, maybe he had been that way the whole time but his intelligence was outstanding. I can’t talk about or compare his hockey knowledge with mine, he is in the Hockey Hall of Fame after all. The way he talked, the way he calmly presented his concept and ideas. The way the negotiations were held left a very soothing impression that is very important for a team that is based in Latvia".
Why were the characteristics important for the team when deciding to hire him?
"Our players aren’t made for a drastic coaching approach. There aren’t many of us, every player has grown up in his little bubble, and those athletes that make it to pro-level - they each have their level of tolerance and sensitivity. The way Zubov approached the game was the perfect manner to reach each player individually to assure that the team would be like a well-oiled gang. Step-by-step the team grew together and right now I have to say that the feeling around the team is very nice and the gang is working together. The points that we have to take will be taken. I don’t think that there is a single team that would underrate Dinamo".
The team’s assembly was started early and for the off-season, it was constructed and ready to go - who was responsible for the signings? How much input did the council have and what about Zubov?
"This time around we had all the freedom we needed. Zubov was informed about the whole process but didn’t get involved or push on his opinion. The selection of players and contingency that arrived is solely the work of mine and Paste. The players are our responsibility. The council does set the budget, set the frame and we work from inside of it and I think that we did a very good job there".
What about the coaching staff? Why did the decision fall towards Latvian assistant coaches that might not have as much experience?
Buncis had no problem expressing the desire to have a good bench while also allowing their, coaches to grow. "One of our main goals was to have Latvian specialists in the coaching staff so that they can learn things. The faith flipped things around and Valerijs Kulibaba had to grow up faster than anyone expected. I think that he is one of those coaches that has the potential to become a really good head coach down the road. Edgars Lusins on the other hand - we have worked with him on many different levels of national teams and last year when he worked in Austria we talked a few times. I instantly noticed that he had become more serious, more responsible as a human. Looking at the current coaching staff the cards fell for him as a personality as well as a coach that can work with this very specific position that is a hockey goalie, he’s doing his job very well".
And speaking of goalies - Johan Mattsson was and still is a gem.
"Mattsson was one of the first players that were offered to us. I and Paste agreed that the goalies were our top priority. Our concept was to go after two starting goalies, but the season turned out as it did and Mattsson is now at the front of our goalie list although we never had an intention for it to turn out this way. We negotiated with him for about two weeks. His parameters and style expressed to us that he can be a great KHL goalie. When he arrived he wasn’t the goalie he is now. I have to admit that Dinamo, the start of the season, and the whole preparation process has improved him and I truly hope that he also believes it to be the case. I can take my hat off in front of him. His performance causes tension for me as a GM and some worries in terms of future but we could potentially continue our working relationship with him after the season".
Who has impressed him so far? Many would expect a different answer given how Nikolajs Jelisejevs has performed up until an injury sidelined him but Buncis had someone else in his mind.
"I was pleasantly surprised by Emilie Poirier. The story of how he got to Europe was very well known. I think that him playing in Slovakia wasn’t the best decision but these things happened and it is what it is. When he started playing and got into his groove he impressed me. He reminds me a little bit of Miks Indrasis although they are two different players in terms of manners - they are very similar. He has settled in well and is a KHL level player for sure".
Some players have come and gone for Wannstrom. It was a performance-based decision but what happened with Frank Corrado? It was a mystery that many were wondering about.
"From my point of view Frank is an exceptional hockey player but this time around it’s hard to say why things didn’t work out. The real reason that he left is an injury that he sustained and I don’t want to discuss it. Maybe the coaches didn’t trust him enough, maybe there was something else. We allowed him to travel home to Toronto where he has been for over a month now and we hope that he would think things through and realize that he had to come back. We waited for him to come back, we wanted him to come back but the moment when we were told that there are other injuries we just couldn’t keep waiting. The depth of the roster is what it is and we had to have a healthy body ready to go because we need a quality player like he was. There are injuries in the team, thank god we haven’t caught Covid-19, but if something happens we need another player to be ready to go. Looking at our resources we have the players that we have. Maybe some of the 2001 born players from HK Riga could jump in and help us but they’re not there yet to be consistent help to our team if we compare Osenieks to Corrado - they’re not the same player. To wait and pay for an unknown period felt wrong. That’s why we moved on and have already brought in a new player and now we can move on", Buncis explained.
The next big story and an end to a relationship were Sergei Zubov informing the team that he’s leaving in the morning before the team's flight to Cherepovets. Did panic set in?
"There was no panic. Our coaching staff worked as a team from the very start. It wasn’t as if one person thought of something and everyone else followed. Every single coach from strength and conditioning to video coaches was involved in the process. I wasn’t worried that we couldn’t continue going further. If we’re talking about needing to hire someone - it’s for the council to select who coaches. I informed them about the developing situation and they decided not to throw any hurdles to Zubov’s departure".
Aleksandrs Nizivijs was brought up from the junior squad as an assistant and that was a clear indication that Kulibaba would remain in his seat for the foreseeable future - how short or long is his leash?
"Our staff currently is the way you see it. Nizivijs was brought up because he was in our system already and we lacked one more brain on the bench. We will go step-by-step. Right now I like what I’m seeing".
The main goal - playoffs but what are the small things that you want to achieve?
"We have those as well. Our goal, our task, and our challenge are the Olympic games. A whole bunch of Dinamo players will be candidates for a spot on the national team and we wish them well. We have to be mindful and have to look at our tasks as a hockey club, the results, and the battle for playoff contention, but we don’t want to be in a position where one of our top guys doesn’t make the national team because of them being overworked. Now there is a national team break for a week, there will be another one in December - from one perspective you know that players need time-off but you also understand that their fight for a place on the Olympic roster is huge. You can’t take a stance and tell them no. Latvian Hockey Federation and Dinamo Riga are the definitions of Latvian hockey, for that reason alone we cannot shoot each other in the leg", Buncis stressed the importance of working together to assure everyone is happy.
"We understand that the national team coach Vitolins has to see the players and just practicing isn’t enough - you have to go out there and play games so that you can demonstrate your capabilities. The dream of playing at the Olympics is understandable but if we say that we’re more important… it’s just now how it works.’’ he carried on explaining that hockey isn’t granted for the rest of your life - ‘’Your hockey career can end tomorrow and you won’t be able to live your dream".
While being all for players having their Olympic shot he also addressed the tough part of having an extended time of break for his KHL side.
"It’s a challenging situation that we play and all of a sudden there is a hole in the calendar for almost a month and then four games at the end that could be important in the playoff chase. We have to think about everything, how to plan that month to prepare. First, you get to relax, and then you have to build your condition back up and go forward. If the season ends in early March there is another issue - but the World Championships are in May there is another bump in there. It’s a weird situation from the administrative and sporting side. But we’re ahead of things already - considering our options to play some games during that period, we won’t sit with our hands crossed on our lap and do nothing. The global pandemic situation also affects things".
"Another goal we have is that we would want to see our HK Riga players progressing so that next season we could take some of them and put them on the main roster. Patriks Ozols is a great surprise. He has taken his spot and it doesn’t look like he’s willing to let it go. We really hope that we can also bring back the spark into some of our 2001 born youngsters that are talented and could be a boost shortly".
Last but not least - How have the current Covid restrictions such as lockdown in the country have affected the team?
"The hardest part is that there are no spectators. My heart hurts and so do the players' hearts. Having fans in the Arena, even the tiniest amount gives us a whole different atmosphere. You know that you’re playing for someone and you get that great feeling back with the support of the fans. It’s like that for the second straight season and I miss that aura. Given how I’ve worked at the Arena Riga before, it was a lifestyle for me, you can’t work at a venue like that if it’s solely your job. It doesn’t have specific working hours and the hard work that you do before an event pays off and elevates you when you see the people that are arriving at the Arena and that is the best thing that you can get in return. The technical part isn’t as meaningful, countless tests and managing other things that are related to the virus are exactly what they are - technical things that we have to take care of".
"Some things are better or worse but having no spectators is emotionally the hardest thing. I hope that the fans will be allowed to return soon. Even if it’s 300 people - it will be great. At the end of the day who are we playing for? We are playing for the spectators, the hockey fans that are still quite a lot here in Latvia despite Dinamo’s lack of results in previous seasons. Dinamo hasn’t gone anywhere and I’m convinced that in the morning when people read morning news they also read about us if they haven’t seen the game the night before. I hope we will be able to hear our fans before the end of this year. I hope that the Covid situation will improve. And more than anything I hope to experience 10,000 people in the building for our first playoff game".