Roar Of The Lion: Doug Christiansen Prepares For Battle With GB

Today on Chasing Dragons, we’re delighted to speak to Team GB’s Doug Christiansen as he prepares to lead the Lions into battle for the first time as head coach at the World Championships in Vilnius, Lithuania next week.

Doug Christiansen is ready to lead the GB Lions in Lithuania

Doug Christiansen is ready to lead the GB Lions in Lithuania

The American was appointed as coach after GB’s relegation to Division IB last year, making the step up from assistant after two years in the role which he held alongside coaching at Belfast and Sheffield in the Elite League. I spoke to him about his time in the role, how he sees GB’s chances in Lithuania and his plans for the future.

The first thing you get from Doug when talking to him is that, as GB’s full-time national team coach, he’s very much looking forward to leading the team into battle, and is both very honest and very clear about his pride in being chosen to do so:

It’s a great honour to be national team coach for GB. It’s something I’ve been working towards since coming to Britain, and I’m really looking forward to the challenge both in Lithuania and in building something special for GB hockey in the future.”

While this World Championships will be Doug’s first tournament as head coach, he’s spent several years involved with Great Britain, including the Olympic qualifying campaign last year, which he sees as one of the highlights of his career so far:

Being part of the GB team for Olympic qualifying was incredible. Getting to travel with the squad to Japan & experience an exotic place and new culture was great, and then being part of GB beating the host nation in a sold out arena on national TV to get to the next stage was something I’ll remember for a long time. I’m truly proud of what we achieved and GB hockey should be, too.”

Christiansen’s first squad as head coach is notable for the amount of new blood and young British talent included for the first time-young players like Paul Swindlehurst & Sam McCluskey of Dundee, James Griffin of Coventry and Jonathan Boxill of Nottingham are all being given the chance to shine at training camp before the final squad is announced next week. For Christiansen, the promotion of the “new generation” of British talent as early as possible is a key part of GB’s progress on the international stage.

Young players are developing much faster nowadays-with all the hard work and off-ice training they do they’re reaching their potential much quicker. It’s important that we get this young talent into the system quickly and allow it to progress-also that we do our best to find the next Ashley Taits and Jonny Weavers while the older guys are still around and can help them. All the young guys are going to play both games (v Netherlands) this weekend & they’re all competing for a place on the plane. If they earn a place, they’ll go to Lithuania”

Looking ahead to the weekend, Doug says this GB team will be one of the best-prepared in a while, and GB’s warm-up games against division rivals Netherlands is a key part of that:

These games v the Netherlands are excellent preparation-they’re a great chance to bring together a group of guys who’ve been playing under different coaches and systems, get them working and get our plans and system battle-tested under flying bullets. But these bullets don’t count, so if we find problems we’ve got next week to work on them and fix them before we go to Lithuania.

It’s not an opportunity we’ve had over the past few seasons, and we’re happy because it’s something that we definitely knew we needed to do. It also gives people a chance to see the GB team in action before they head off.”

When it comes to the World Championships themselves, it’s very clear that Doug is going in with one objective-gold. But it’s also clear that he has already identified what he thinks is the biggest threat to GB’s chances, & that he’s not taking any team lightly despite GB being the top seed.

GB can definitely win gold, and that’s what we’re aiming for. This is a tough group, though. Poland are definitely the biggest threat to us. They’ve played two tournaments together already this season and beaten teams like Italy and Belarus, so we know they’re going to be a very tough test. Depending on how we play GB could be anywhere from first to fourth-we need to be aware of the hosts (Lithuania) too. But we’re going in as the top seed, and we need to live up to that.”

Looking beyond next week, it’s very obvious Doug has already thought at length about where he wants to take the GB squad and how he wants to get there-on being asked about his ambitions, he goes into depth:

We want to develop GB hockey to a higher level. Back when I first took the job, I sat down with IHUK and together we set out a detailed plan & goals for the short, medium and long term. We need to follow countries like Norway, South Korea and Switzerland, all countries who’ve seen massive development and improvement over the past few years-that’s what we want to aspire to. Most importantly we need to keep progressing up the ladder and re-evaluate and set goals every time we make a step up.”

But he is also clear on the need for focusing on long-term goals and also the graduated steps GB need to take even before they can consider jumping up to the elite international level:

“It is a process. We cannot jump to Pool A without climbing from Division 1B to 1A. We know that we have a huge task ahead of us but we are excited and ready for the challenge. Our goal is to move up and solidify ourselves in 1A with our new crop of players coming through.”

Talking to Doug you can see this is a man who’s more than ready to take on the hopes of GB hockey fans and the sport in the UK and (hopefully) carry them to new heights.

You also get the sense this is a man who not only knows what he wants for Great Britain’s hockey team, but knows what it needs from himself, his players and the governing bodies of team GB to get it. The Doug Christiansen era has begun for team GB, and it looks like it could be an exciting time ahead both for him and UK hockey fans, starting next week in Lithuania.

Finally, I’d like to take this chance to publicly thank Doug for giving his time to talk to me for Chasing Dragons, and of course the very best of luck to both him and the GB team in Lithuania next week.


Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things: A Post-Mortem on The 2013/14 Blaze

(note-before anyone gets panicky, the title of the blog is the title of a “Game Of Thrones” episode. Not a dig at anyone. This article also appears on the “Bleed And Blue” Blaze fanzine)

The fading flower/The passing hours/They fall like sand through the fingers”

The Birthday Massacre: “Burn Away”
“You’re not the big fish in the pond/You’re the one they’re feeding on”
Paramore, “Ain’t It Fun”
There is a creeping sickness in Coventry.
After three seasons of mediocrity, excuses and constantly telling themselves “it’ll be fine, we just need to keep positive” in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary all this season, last night the Blaze organisation and ownership was finally forced to face the fact that, while the club may be the healthiest it’s ever been off ice, mainly thanks to the Trojan-like efforts of its office staff, the Coventry Blaze frankly just doesn’t cut it on ice any more.
The Blaze dragon, already with head bowed and wounded after a season that will be one to forget, was despatched from the playoffs execution-style by a ruthless Sheffield Steelers squad, who fired six shots to the head (two from Dustin Kohn, two from Rob Dowd and one each from Max Lacroix and Danny Meyers,  which made Ross Venus’ consolation goal the last dying breath of a thoroughly beaten, broken and bloodied corpse. .
It also once and for all exposed as meaningless any rhetoric of “responsibility” and “pride” from coach Marc Lefebvre, the Blaze owners and indeed the last few desperate defenders of this sinking ship of a team, that was left without a strong hand on the tiller pre-season by the organisation refusing to take a risk, began to founder seriously in October and was doomed ever since.
This team is sick. Despite those in the Blaze office giving 70 hour weeks to give the on-ice staff everything they could possibly want, despite promises every week that players would be “held accountable” and players were “fully committed to the cause”, the embarrassing lack of effort shown by many last night was only one more nail in the coffin of the once-proud Blaze tradition of “finding a way to win”.
Defenders of the squad will point to injuries. And there have been those, certainly. Several of them, in fact. But every team has injuries. Every team has “tough patches” of sticky going that they have to gut through. This team didn’t have “sticky patches”. It just stepped as one into the quicksand and was then too apathetic or uncaring to pull itself out.
This is a team that has shamed a city. A team that, if you believe the assertions from the ownership (and, unlike some teams, say in South Wales, there’s no reason not to) has been handed everything it ever could’ve wanted. A team whose off-ice staff have met and exceeded every financial target they were given-have managed to make sponsorship income the highest ever seen at the Blaze and managed to keep average attendance rising despite the frankly dire product on show at times this season. A team, let’s not forget, who had the league’s top points scorer (who scored 14 more points than any other player), the top British point scorer,  the fourth best goalie in the league and some of the best young British talent out there.
It’s a team that SHOULD have been challenging for trophies.
But instead, it was a team that coasted through large parts of the season. A team that never looked anything more than a disparate collection of individuals who wouldn’t fight through a crowd at the bar to buy each other drinks, never mind go through walls. Individually there were some excellent efforts-Cale Tanaka won the hearts of Coventry with his work-rate, Ryan Ginand found goals the way a squirrel finds nuts, and Ashley Tait had an Indian summer of a season, proving that like a fine wine, he just gets better with age. And Mike Zacharias in net often carried those in front of him on his back on far too many nights in a desperate attempt to hold the Blaze dragon’s head above water when others were hanging lazily off it like human anchors.
The trouble is, the flashes of light only show up the darkness more clearly. This is a team that, collectively, saw everything they were given as a right, not a privilege. A team that took everything the fans and organisation had to give them, all the support, all the passion, all the ticket money, all the rabid defences of their efforts when things started to go wrong, and every single last chance and benefit of the doubt they were given, and collectively threw it back while laughing in the faces of those who paid their wages, night after night.
It’s a team that cost a man his job, while keeping their own.
Stuart Coles speaks in his article on “Bleed And Blue” (a companion piece to this) of the Blaze “losing their identity”. They’ve done more than that. Constantly given everything they want and with owners who’d rather stick to what they know than take a risk, the Blaze have no identity left. The Blaze “brand” is nothing more than a mish-mash of platitudes about “accountability” and “getting behind the team”. With the ownership trying to make the Blaze everything to everyone, all they’ve succeeding in doing, slowly, is ensuring they’ve become nothing.
The Blaze as we knew them through the successful years of the early and mid 00’s are richer, stronger financially and in a better position than they’ve ever been in their body, but the soul and heart are dead, like a particularly healthy-looking zombie.
This season is a wake up call. Or it should be.
After a year that has dishonoured the legacy of players like Dan Carlson, Sylvain Cloutier, Joel Poirier and countless others, this off-season is a time for the Blaze not so much to rebuild as to burn the whole world down and start again. Marc Lefebvre has had his 6-week job interview. It hasn’t worked out. Matty Soderstrom has had his chance. That didn’t work out either. We’ve had the era of “believing in blue”. That belief was well and truly betrayed for the final time in Sheffield last night.
This off-season, it’s not up to the fans to “believe in the club” any more. It’s up to the Blaze owners and players to earn that belief back.
Starting with a new, experienced coaching appointment. If there really were applications from “all over the hockey world” for the Blaze job, let’s see them again.
When that coach comes in, it should be made clear as a condition of the job that he’s expected to come in with a new identity that doesn’t try to make the Skydome one big, happy, joyous family-a message that doesn’t give players a free ride or a ticket to the country club, but makes them earn every paycheck with blood, sweat and tears, just like some of the Blaze greats such as Danny Stewart and Cloutier did.
And when he does, that mythical coach should be left without any outside interference  to build a team and style of play that combines the youthful skill and talent of James Griffin, Ross Venus and Matt Selby with some genuine muscle, fire and sheer “f**k you” attitude. A team that makes teams fear the Blaze again.
It’s time to throw away everything from the past few seasons, and stop relying on past glories to kindle support, the old boys’ network to provide free jobs for coaches and most of all, to finally put down the tired calls of “bleeding blue” to keep fans coming through the door, and actually bloody stand for something.
It’s time to feed the dragons, the owners to turn up the fire under the players’ hot seats and turn the Skydome into a place which is heaven if you want it to be, and hell if you’re not prepared to work for it.
It’s time for the Blaze to stop pretending that they’re from anywhere other than Coventry, and embrace the chippy, nasty, vicious side of a city and people who create heaven for those who respect and love them and hell for those who don’t. Because it doesn’t matter who pulls on that jersey-they should know they’re pulling it on to represent the people and city of Coventry.
Coventry is a city that’s been destroyed and rebuilt before. It’s a battle-scarred, cynical, hostile, unwelcoming place. It’s not pretty. It’s not refined. But it gets the job done. It doesn’t care what other cities think of it, what accusations of “ugliness” or “craft” are levelled at it. It just sticks a finger up to the rest of the world, gets its head down, and bloody works.
Maybe it’s time the Blaze team was demolished, and rebuilt in its home city’s image. Maybe it’s time the organisation stopped pretending to be bigger than it was, stopped living on past glories, and went back to its roots as a close-knit club that was proud of where it was.
And maybe it’s time that every player who walked through that door knew that they carry the pride and trust of Coventrians with them. A trust that isn’t given, but one that has to be earned in blood. And more to the point, they should know that if you betray that trust, even for a shift, Coventrians never forgive, and they never forget.
Your move, Coventry Blaze. The Skydome is waiting. But it won’t wait much longer.