VANCOUVER — Don’t be fooled by his actions behind the bench — the coach of Switzerland’s junior hockey team is all about love.
Christian Wohlwend has earned a reputation at the world junior hockey championship for being intense, emotional and highly entertaining.
But he isn’t apologizing, saying instead that some of his deepest values are being authentic and honest.
“Being like a robot is one of the worst thing you can be as a human,” Wohlwend said Thursday. “We are humans! We are love! We are energy! So be honest and share love with the people who surround you.”
The coach, who turns 42 on Friday, said he’s simply a passionate, energetic guy in all aspects of his life, from coaching to playing with his two young sons.
His players love that passion.
“He’s not just a coach, he’s also a friend for us,” said Nando Eggenberger, who’s currently playing his third year for Wohlwend on the national junior team.
“It makes us feel better and get confidence and play better.”
Video emerged this week of the coach screaming at a player during the final minutes of Switzerland’s stunning 2-0 win over Sweden.
The footage raised eyebrows online, with people questioning whether Wohlwend was being too harsh with his teenage athletes.
Eggenberger admitted that his coach can be a bit intense behind the bench.
“But it makes us just better. He wants us to play better and get better and it’s good for us,” said the forward.
Swiss defenceman Nico Gross said he likes that Wohlwend is always honest and says what he’s thinking.
“He can be a really nice guy on the bench if you do a good play but if you do a bad play, he gets pissed off sometimes, too,” Gross said. “But I think that’s good for a coach, to be honest with you.”
The honesty seems to be working. Switzerland is set to meet Finland in the tournament’s semifinals on Friday.
The Swiss have only ever won a medal once at the competition, taking bronze in 1998. They have never played in a gold-medal game at the world juniors.
The entire team believes that could change this year.
“We have a good team and we have a lot of confidence now and we can beat anyone,” Eggenberger said.
That hasn’t always been the case.
Wohlwend has been open about the challenges facing the Swiss national program, including the limited number of players available for international competitions.
Last year he made headlines for saying there weren’t a lot of great hockey players born in 1998 and there was “no chance” his squad could beat Canada. (They didn’t.)
Things are different this year, said Wohlwend, adding that everyone in the program has worked over the last few years to bring in a new identity to Swiss hockey.
“We want to play big and feel big and believe in ourselves. And it works, obviously,” said the Montreal-born coach, who spent about a decade playing professional hockey in Switzerland before turning to coaching in 2006.
Still, this year’s tournament hasn’t been easy. Switzerland’s only win in the round-robin came against Denmark, which failed to score a single goal before moving on to the relegation round.
Canada beat the Swiss in a pre-tournament match up, prompting Wohlwend to say the Canadians should win every time the two teams meet.
“But if you guys would come to a yodel competition you guys would have no chance. No chance against us,” he said.
Switzerland gave Canada a challenge in the round-robin, though, clawing out a pair of goals in a 3-2 loss.
Performances like that gave the team new confidence, Wohlwend said.
“Then you start to believe in yourself and say ‘Wow! We can compete against the best and we’re just as good!’ This is how we went into the quarterfinal and this is the reason we won against Sweden — we believed in us,” he said.
Wohlwend is surprised that his group will be battling Finland instead of Canada in the semifinals. He watched Wednesday’s quarterfinals game and — like many — couldn’t believe the dramatic 2-1 overtime finish that eliminated the defending gold medallists from the competition.
“Hockey spirits wanted differently this year,” he said.
Preparing for a semifinal is no different than preparing for any other game in the tournament, Wohlwend said.
“Everybody knows now what we have to do,” he said. ”Everybody knows even more and believes that it works, what we do.”