Ruzicka was not to bid the ice and his beloved sport a lasting farewell, though, instead venturing into new territory by mastering the art of coaching. He has also triumphed in this new role and received international acclaim, becoming the most successful Czech coach of the 21st century. Under his attentive guidance, the Prague-based Slavia ice hockey team have twice been champions of the Czech Extraliga, and the Czech national team have also twice won World Championships.
How does sport affect your family values?
In our family, sport is of course number one. Competitions, training – this is the priority and the whole household gets this. So our way of life is for everything to be devoted to the common aim. I will say however, that our number one value is the health of all the family, and ice hockey is second.
Does that suit the female contingent of the family?
In that respect, I have been very lucky. I met my wife as a teenager, a fifteen year old, and even then she knew that ice hockey was and always would be a part of my life. As a result, my wife shared my passion, accompanying me to everything. Now it’s a little different, a different stage of life, children. But we don’t have any particular problems. My wife is very tolerant of my son and me spending the majority of our time on ice hockey. It’s her favourite sport so I can say that we are a true ice hockey family.
Can you specify what the main features and traits of an athletic family are?
For sportspeople, what plays a large role is passion for their craft. Families very often break up for the reason that one person wants to do something different, their own thing. If one half is a professional sportsman, then it is very difficult for them to find a free minute. Therefore, the main trait of an athletic family has to be acceptance of and enthusiasm for sport by all of its members. Otherwise there won’t be a family.
How did your son get into ice hockey? Did he want to follow in the footsteps of his father or was it something else?
He is now 26, he’s a grown-up lad, so he knows and can say for himself why exactly he chose to do ice hockey. But I believe that this is common in all athletic families. Children can’t help but learn from their parents’ example. They are in an environment with their parents from birth, and that includes the working environment. It doesn’t matter if they are footballers, basketball players, ice hockey players, actors or in any other profession, you take your child to work and they gradually become attracted to your craft. It was the same for us: when I was at the stadium, my son wanted to come with me. And that’s how it all started.
How does the working day of a sportsman and a coach compare in your eyes, since in your career you’ve done both?
The difference between the working day of a sportsman and a coach is huge. A sportsman gets a good night’s sleep then goes to training in the morning, trains for about an hour and a half and that’s it, they are free for the rest of the day. If it’s a period of intensive preparation for the season or meets, then perhaps there’s an afternoon training session. Sometimes there’s training in the morning and a match in the afternoon. But anyway, after that the player is free. A coach’s work is spread out over the entire day. It starts from the early morning with preparation for the morning training session, then it’s the actual training session, then preparation for the following sessions or working out tactics for the upcoming match and study of the opponent, whom we are about to face. After the daytime work, the coach has to analyse the training session or match in terms of what worked, what didn’t, who was playing well, who was playing badly. Generally, the players have more free time than the coach.
You have opened your own ice hockey school for children in the Czech Republic. You are the successful, self-taught head coach of HC Slavia Prague and also in the past, the national team. You have at your disposal the best players in the country. What motivates you to work with children and young people?
It is a part of my work at Slavia. I train the main team and am in charge of the young players. My position is that whoever wants to work with adults should also work with kids. It is good both for the club and for Czech ice hockey as a whole. But I of course don’t work alone. A few years ago, I teamed up with a group of coaches and we decided to try to work with children here at the club so that they don’t stray elsewhere. In the first year, we had 40-50 children coming to the school, the following year 100, then more and more. Then we made two groups of 100 children. Now there is a two-week training camp attended by 200 children.
What sort of training do the children get at the camp and do they really progress after a week at your school? Do you see in any of them a great future in Czech ice hockey?
With such young kids it’s difficult to come to such a definite conclusion. Regarding the training, those who spend more time on the ice seem to be better. But if we’re talking generally, then for young ice hockey players it is very beneficial to spend at least some of the summer holidays training. Firstly, they have more free time and their heads aren’t overloaded with their studies. Secondly, during the school year children of around 8-9 train let’s say 2-3 times a week, but here they get on the ice 10-11 times. Thanks to such intensity these players develop very strongly in their training. Furthermore, it’s also an international experience for the young people. We had kids here from the leading ice hockey nations: Russia, USA, Canada. We even had a Swede come and train with us.
We would love to hear your opinion on a more general ice hockey topic also related to children in sport. In recent years, the issue has frequently been raised about Czech ice hockey being in decline, that today’s masters are getting older and there are no suitable replacements for them. What are your thoughts on the matter?
That’s a difficult question. Ice hockey in the Czech Republic is developing in waves, i.e. rising and falling. For example, this year when we were recruiting for the national league we had 19 players, which isn’t bad. But the prognosis for the coming year is that for the stronger ice hockey world league, only 2-3 players will be entering from the Czech Republic. That’s one indication that shows that stability is a long way off. In my opinion, the main problem is a lack of adequate funding. Ice hockey is an expensive sport. The stadium, ice, equipment – it all costs a lot of money. In the leading ice hockey nations – USA, Canada, Sweden – they spend large resources on children. For example, in these countries, there are special ice hockey schools where children receive their normal secondary education but also train. Naturally, their learning programme is conveniently coordinated with training. Our youths in the majority are forced to rush back and forth between school and training. Obviously, eventually many give up one or the other. There is also another problem: modern technology. All these smart phones, iPads, computer games distract children, and break their concentration. I think parents should be resolute in their decision to limit their children in this and redirect them to the right path. But this is problem everywhere, not just the Czech Republic.
What is your recipe for creating a winning team?
The main ingredients are: a true leader, 2-3 truly great players and of course in order to win, you need a strong goalkeeper.
What role does the coach play in this?
A tactical role. Although I always say: it’s the ice hockey players who are on the ice. A coach can have brilliant tactics but out on the ice something can go wrong, someone gets injured or fouled at the wrong time. But if a tactic works, it is always to the credit of the coach of course!
What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?
Yes I certainly do. I am partial to a bit of tennis in my spare time. I really love football – only as a spectator, a fan. TV-wise again I exclusively watch the sports channels, my favourite again is football.
Is there anything else you’re interested in? Gardening perhaps?
My wife works on the garden. And we have two dogs.
Where do you prefer to go on vacation?
Nowhere! I don’t take vacations.
What would you like to tell young kids who are embarking on their first exploits in sport? How do you become successful? How do you become a top-level sportsperson?
That’s not an easy question. Firstly you need to really like what you do. You have to give sport all your time and love it with all your heart. Everyone does sport at some level anyway. But in order to become professional, you need to set yourself a specific goal from the beginning and not be distracted, and work on yourself. If you are into team sports then you also need to work on team work, because in football, ice hockey, basketball, you will not be able to shine without the support of your teammates.