By Martin Merk – IIHF.com
The Polish Ice Hockey Association (PZHL) has signed a two-year contract with Tomek Valtonen as new head coach of the Polish men’s national team. The signing comes one month after the decision to part ways with the former duo of Ted Nolan and Tom Coolen following the relegation to the third tier of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
The 37-year-old was born in Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland, to a Polish mother and a Finnish father but didn’t have touchpoints with Polish ice hockey until now. The family moved to Kitee in eastern Finland when he was four. There he became an ice hockey player and also played nine years pesapallo, a Finnish sport similar to baseball, where he won three junior championships before focusing on ice hockey.
After starting to play in Kitee, he later played his junior hockey at Joensuu and Ilves Tampere where he had his professional debut. He played three IIHF World Junior Championships for Finland winning gold in his first participation in 1998 and was drafted in the second round by the Detroit Red Wings the same year. He left to practise with the Red Wings and spent one year of junior hockey with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers before continuing his professional career with Jokerit Helsinki in Finland where he won one championship in 2002 and retired as a 28-year-old in 2009 due to a shoulder injury and moved into coaching.
Valtonen worked his way up in Jokerit Helsinki and moved to the senior team first as an assistant coach in 2012 and the later part 2013/2014 season as head coach. At the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia, he also had a brief return to international ice hockey as assistant coach of the Finnish U20 national team. The last four years he was the head coach of Vaasan Sport in the Finnish Liiga before the decision to part ways in March.
Now Tomek Valtonen, introduced under his more formal Polish name Tomasz Valtonen by the association, returns to his motherland and gave his first interviews in Polish. He was presented to the press in Nowy Targ close to the Tatra mountains and the border with Slovakia both as head coach of club team Podhale Nowy Targ and of the Polish national team. In Nowy Targ he will be assisted by Marko Ronkko, who worked with him at the Jokerit Helsinki U20 team. The coaching staff of the national team has not been named yet although Valtonen mentioned new Automatyka Gdansk coach Marek Zietara as a candidate.
One year ago Ted Nolan was introduced in the Polish capital in splendid fashion and with the goal to get back to the top level. This year things are different with a news release of three sentences and a press conference organized by the local club team in Nowy Targ’s city hall. The Polish Ice Hockey Association had a big financial loss that ended with a change of leadership in spring with Piotr Demianczuk as new President and a possible legal aftermath. Few weeks later the association also suffered losses on the ice. After narrowly missing out on promotion to the top division in 2015 and 2016, the team was last in the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Hungary and was relegated to the third tier of world hockey.
Having a young coach from the top level in Finland move to Poland and working there for two organizations was an ideal solution for the national team also considering the financial situation. He was selected among several applicants by the PZHL board.
“He has a good CV. Tomek is willing to co-operate. He followed us, he knows a lot about us. He’s a coach of the young generation who has willingness, plans and ambitions. The Finnish association also praised him very much,” PZHL Vice President Miroslaw Minkina told Polsat.
“The association is in a tough financial situation. We would not be able to afford the salary of a coach of this class even with the situation that the amount of the salary was not the main thing for him.”
His first tournament will be the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge tournament on home ice 9-11 November. The PZLH managed to get strong opponents to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Poland restoring independence with the Independence Day on 11 November as Denmark, Norway and Austria will come to play at a Polish venue to be determined.
“I’m aware what hockey in Poland looks like, it absolutely doesn’t frighten me. I know what to expect and I know that I can help,” Valtonen told hokej.net and looks forward to his two assignments in Poland.
“Coaching players is a 24/7 job. If someone is not ready for that there’s nothing to look for in this sport. My players have to be ready for this.”
Valtonen saw three games of the national team at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A live. “I can say with all confidence that the results were worse than the game. The players have skill but they were not a team,” he said and hopes to bring a positive influence to Poland with his demand to reduce the number of import players from ten to six but also hopes that with his Finnish connection and exchange he can help educate Polish coaches.
The goal for the season will be to return to the Division I Group A. Poland will play the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Tallinn, 28 April to 4 May 2019, against Japan, host Estonia, Ukraine, Romania and the Netherlands.