Russell swapping glory for the garden

Pete Russell has made the difficult decision to join his team in Latvia for the World Championships this week (PHOTO: Ice Hockey UK)

He should have been in the middle of a good play-off campaign, all going well and starting to look ahead to the World Championships, but Pete Russell has been working on his garden instead.

The coronavirus has certainly done its bit in decimating sport in 2020, with all the top events lined up this year falling by the wayside.

But it allowed Russell, the head coach of German DEL2 side EHC Freiburg as well as being the Great Britain Men’s coach to reflect on his maiden campaign abroad, a year after leaving Glasgow Clan.

But he spoke of how his season came to a premature end, revealing when the German ice hockey season was cancelled, he knew the World Championships wouldn’t be far behind.

“When the regular season ended, I came back to the UK to enjoy some time off with my family for five days while the teams between seventh and tenth played each to see who goes through,” he said.

“I returned on the Tuesday morning to start looking ahead to our first round and by Wednesday, the announcement came through that they were shutting Germany down and the season was effectively finished.

“All the events were getting cancelled as they wanted to control the spread of this virus.  From there, it was a whirlwind and by Friday, I was in a team car driving back to England.

“It was disappointing, but I certainly think we had a chance.  We had a solid structure, everyone was healthy and there was a lot of belief in the team and I think the play-offs are about how you are defensively and we were very good at that.

“When Germany was shutdown, I knew the World Championships would be off as well.  Where Freiburg is situated, it’s near the border with Switzerland and France and you were hearing a lot of whispers that Switzerland weren’t letting anyone into their country.

TWEET: DEL2 announced they were shutting their league down before the start of the play-offs

“They had already started shutting things down and you could it feel it building over time.  With so many countries bordering Switzerland, it would be like knowing someone up your street had the virus, you wouldn’t let them into your back garden so they had to move quickly.”

As for the domestic campaign, Russell led Freiburg, a relegation threatened team a year ago to an impressive third place finish in the regular season standings.

It set up a first round play-off meeting with Ravensburg Towerstars, coached by former Nottingham Panthers coach Rich Chernomaz, but the shutdown was announced prior to the start of the post season.

His exertions led to him being voted DEL2’s Coach of the Year as he gave his insight into why his team did so well with one of the lowest budgets in the league.

Plus, Russell was also taken by the attitude towards the league and how it was spoken of in a wider context compared to the UK.

He added: “I enjoyed it.  It was a different style of hockey and one of the reasons I wanted to go.  It went really well and Freiburg enjoyed their best finish in 20 years or something like that.

“The guys were fun to work with and there was a different structure for the team, with six guys all under 24, which was good fun to see them improve. I think it was a big part of why we did so well in the regular season and made the team better at the bottom end.

“The atmosphere at games was amazing and totally different too.  They were one of the relegation favourites for sure after just surviving the last couple of seasons and one of the smallest budget teams as well.

“We played and worked hard every day to get better.  We brought in good imports and had the best goalie in the league and the defensive system worked brilliantly for us and everyone bought into it.

“We were right there until the last couple of games and six games from the end of the regular season, we started picking up some injuries.  

Netminder Ben Meisner was a standout for Pete Russell at Freiburg last season (PHOTO: Patrick Seeger)

“The big thing is there’s no pressure to come first and as long as you’re not in the bottom four, it’s all about play-off hockey and I think that was an interesting factor.

“The one thing I found was there was no constant chatter about who’s going to win the league.  For me, that was great and it let us play the kids and watch them get better with every game.

“I never really thought about the award.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s really nice to be thought of that way by other coaches and GMs.

“A big part of that was the players and they helped massively by getting the results and pushing the club on, creating a buzz among the fans.

“To go to a new country, as a British coach and win that, considering it was a big gamble to leave a great club like Glasgow to go and try it, it’s went really well.  It was a great first year and I think it’s made me a better coach.

“It’s helped me pick a few things up, change in some areas and when the day comes when I return to the UK, I’ll come back all the better for the experience.”

Uncertainty over when next season could start continues and it’s no different in Germany, but Russell hasn’t let the grass he’s done well to cut during this enforced sabbatical grow under his feet as he looks ahead to 2020-21.

“Next season, we’re well ahead of the game and have only two more players to sign,” he revealed. “We kept all our imports and did deals early and a big part of the German guys sorted out as well as they were getting some interest from other teams.

“Right now, we’ve got 11 forwards, six defencemen and a goalie just now so we’ll have to wait and see what happens with that.  There will be a season next year, so it depends when it starts.

“If it starts later, there’s possibly more Tuesday games and makes for a shorter season, with the games condensed into it.  I’m positive about it and if people are buying into it and staying in the house, we can get through this and look to being back in action in September.”

Russell left Glasgow Clan a year ago to move to Germany (PHOTO: Dean Woolley)

So, now that what was meant to be a busy few months has turned into something more sedate for the Scotsman, how has he occupied himself during the lockdown?

He’s certainly enjoying the family time he’s missed in the last couple of years after moving back to Scotland with the Clan then to Germany, commuting home to see his wife and daughter when time would allow.

But Russell is interested to see how things start to ease off in the future once the coronavirus pandemic eases off and people can start to move freely again, including attending sporting events.

He said: “The way I look at it, it’s probably come at the right time for ice hockey, if you think about it.  The seasons were starting to come to an end and it’s not been like football where there’s still 10 games to be played.

“The biggest thing will be how they put us back into the community and if they’ll let us go to games in their thousands again straight away.  I’m hopeful and the Elite League needs it.  People need sport to cling to.

“As much as people are enjoying the time with their families right now, it’s nice, but people are missing sport and it’s a great thing that brings all sorts of people together.

“My family and I live in a nice area on the edge of Swindon and we’ve had some home schooling for my daughter and that’s been an eye opener where my wife and I have had to be creative as well.

“We’re going out little walks as well and I need to be starting on my fitness again.  Maybe I’ll come out of it in better shape than before it started.

“My grass has been getting cut as well, but if it’s shown anything, it’s that you don’t need to go out as much as you do.  

“There’s plenty you can do at home and you do miss people coming to see you or you going to their houses.  You certainly miss that interaction, but it’s cool to have this extra family time.”

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