By Zachary Cormier
It’s a rowdy crowd of just over 9,000 at Hallenstadion in Zurich, Switzerland. The ZSC Lions watch as the traditional pregame light show finishes up before they skate out to face off against their rivals, HC Davos, for some exciting National League A action.
For the past three years, Rob Cookson has brought up the rear of this pack of former and future NHL players and European superstars, and tonight is no different.
As the team skates out onto the ice, a quiet, analytical person takes his usual place on the bench to the left side of Head Coach and friend Marc Crawford and prepares for another fast-paced Swiss league hockey game.
“I think in the National Hockey League, on a daily basis, you’re dealing with the best league in the world with the best players in the world. (The Swiss league is) for sure a different type of game than what you’ll find in a game played on a different ice surface with different levels of skill,” said Cookson, a Lacombe native who served as an assistant coach for the Calgary Flames for nine seasons from 2001-2011 before joining the Lions in 2012.
This year, Cookson has been selected to represent his country in one of the oldest club tournaments on the planet in the Spengler Cup, a five day, six team tournament that features some of the best teams from around Europe and a Canadian national team.
He’ll be serving as the assistant coach of the team alongside Head Coach Guy Boucher.
“It’s pretty exciting. I haven’t had the opportunity to attend the Spengler,” Cookson said, adding that while he’s no stranger to international events, it’s always an honor to represent his country.
“It’s kind of intriguing,” he said.
Cookson has been behind the bench as an assistant for almost every major international tournament, including the 2005 World Juniors, the U18 World Championships, the Men’s World Championship and the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. He also worked as a video technician during the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway.
“It’s a very prestigious tournament,” Cookson said of the Spengler Cup.
“It’s recognized all over the world as one of the best club team tournaments in the world and it’s certainly, I think, the oldest club team tournament in the world. Not only is it an event on ice, I think it’s exciting and well followed by the fans. During the Christmas period, it’s recognized as a Christmas celebration if you’re in that area.”
The tournament will be one of two major events that drop the puck on Boxing Day, the other being the World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland.
There are many paths into the world of coaching professional hockey.
Some, like Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche, are former professional hockey players who wanted to stay involved with the game at the end of their careers. Others, such as the ever controversial Don Cherry, work their way up through the minor leagues. But for Cookson that path was a little bit different.
Cookson originally broke into the world of coaching when he took a job at Hockey Canada in 1991 as a manager of video production. Basically, he was in charge of helping the coaching staff of the various Canadian National Teams use team videos to analyze and improve their teams.
“I started off not really looking at what I was doing as an opportunity to coach. I more or less enjoyed what I was doing, which was developing educational material, material for coaches when I started with Hockey Canada in the early ’90s and, you know, I think that grew into a real interest in coaching,” Cookson remembered.
From there, he worked his way up the ranks, coaching various teams including the World Championship and U20 World Championship teams, until he was eventually given the tap to serve as an assistant for the 1998 Olympic team.
He was hired by the Philadelphia Flyers as a video coach that same year.
“For me, it was getting into the game of hockey from a coaching perspective early and working at it and continuing to improve and creating a good network of contacts and just developing yourself in that career path,” Cookson said about his path to the NHL.
After spending three seasons with the Flyers, Cookson finally landed his first NHL coaching gig when he took a job working behind the bench of the Calgary Flames alongside some of the best head coaches in the business, including Red Deer Rebels’ skipper Brent Sutter.
“It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of focus. You’ve got to work hard at your trade and work to develop yourself and work to have a good connection with the people you want to work with,” he said.
He spent nine seasons behind the Flames’ bench from 2001-2011, winning a Western Conference Championship and coming within a single goal of the Stanley Cup during the team’s memorable 2004 season.
Soon after Cookson found himself on yet another adventure.
“A connection I made in the ‘98 Olympics to (former Vancouver Canucks’ Head Coach) Marc Crawford led me to come to Europe to coach with him,” Cookson remembered, adding the change has been a good one.
“The people (in Switzerland) are very similar to Canadians. Their values, I think, are somewhat similar. It’s a hard working group of people and they are seriously proud of their country and their sports.”
Cookson got to experience that pride firsthand during the 2013-14 season when the ZSC Lions won the NLA Championship, Cookson’s first with any club team.
“Winning like we did in 2013 -2014 was a tremendous feeling. I have been fortunate to win at a World Junior level and at a World Championship level but this was the first time I had won at a club team level.
“We had a great group of players who really played hard together and showed a championship attitude which was very gratifying as a coach. Regardless of where you coach winning is a important, it validates the ideas philosophically that you hold towards building a team and the necessary fundamental beliefs you have in how the game should be played,” he said.