Tom Coolen on scheduling, injuries & what he’d have done differently at Fife Flyers

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By general consensus, Tom Coolen has been a breath of fresh air in the EIHL this season - from podcasts to tasting stovies, he’s engaged with fans and media alike and brought his enthusiasm to every rink.

At the halfway point of what has been a tough, and a times, challenging first year in UK ice hockey, he was in reflective mood

“I got lots to say” he joked when we met in his office after Wednesday morning’s training sessions. As the dressing-room buzzed in the background, he picked over the key issues of a campaign which is heading towards its business end, and a push for the play-offs.

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“Experience is a great teacher even although I’ve been coaching a long time,” he said. “Every time to you go to a new country and a new league you learn something. There are differences in every league and how you approach things.”

Tom Coolen has been a breath of fresh air in British ice hockey (Pic: Al Goold)Tom Coolen has been a breath of fresh air in British ice hockey (Pic: Al Goold)
Tom Coolen has been a breath of fresh air in British ice hockey (Pic: Al Goold)

For Coolen, the positives certainly top the balance sheet - “I am happy here and my wife and I like Scotland, the people and the club“ - even with applying some hindsight.

“I came in cold and had six to eight weeks to build a team which is tight, but our home games have, by and large, been exciting and fun. We wanted to get fans excited and I think we have done that with guys they want to watch.”There’s a ’but’ hovering - bench depth and scheduling two key issues that he has had to get his head around.

“Moving forward we have to find a way of adding more depth,” he said. “I didn’t know that coming in, and various factors have also come into play - for example, when Reece Harsch decided to leave I felt we brought in an upgrade, but that took time to fill that spot. Changes don’t happen automatically I’d maybe have looked at emergency cover - that’s maybe one I’d want to re-live.”

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Scheduling has certainly been an eye opener for Coolen even after four decades coaching across the globe. He isn’t the only coach to touch on the topic of games being condensed into tight timescales.

“I hate bringing it up, but the scheduling is just so demanding. There were two significant moments that hit us. In October we went to Sheffield, then Nottingham in midweek and, two days after that it was Manchester away, getting home in the early hours each time with no recovery time,” he said.

"That doesn’t happen in any league I have coached in. Some teams in this league fly or stay the night before and I’m fine with that – we drive, and that was far too challenging. Over 50 hours on the bus wears you down.

“Then we come to November and post four wins in a row, but go into December where we play 14 games in 28 days. That’s insane. Manchester United or Glasgow Celtic wouldn’t tolerate that sort of schedule - and ice hockey is a much more physically demanding, contact game. When that happens and injuries hit, you can’t recover. We were icing four defenceman. That’s 30 minutes a game every night - unheard of.

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The coach described the scheduling as “ a game changer” and added: “We have DOPS. Maybe it should look at the impact on players’ safety by playing so often. In the NHL players have a union with stipulated rest days. Players are not machines. If you are soaking up so much ice time you don’t recover and that opens you up to injury.”

National team breaks were also on his radar - something other leagues do, but the EIHL does not.

“No league does things this way,” he said. “ I guess it has always been this way, but we all lived in caves until someone came along and said ‘let’s build a house’ - the calibre of the Elite League is really good but we can make better decisions on how we present the product.”