Sean Finn was recently appointed as Avangard Omsk junior hockey development director. In this interview to Junior Hockey League media relations department he took a look back at the five years he worked with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, shared his thoughts on junior players making an impact in KHL and gave his opinion on whether Omskie Yastreby can duplicate Yaroslavl junior hockey program success in the near future.
“LOKOMOTIV FULFILLED MY DREAM BY DRESSING ONLY THEIR JUNIOR HOCKEY SCHOOL ALUMNI FOR THE GAME”
Sean Finn moved to Russia in 2015 when he was appointed the head of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl junior hockey academy.
“I was offered to work with Lokomotiv from Yuri Karmanov, the club’s vice-president,” reminisces Finn. “We met a long time ago, back when I was with Red Bull. We stayed in touch. I was following KHL teams closely before the offer and I took the opportunity to work in Russia.”
After Finn signed with Yaroslavl, the club’s major junior team Loko became the most decorated Junior Hockey League of all time, winning both Kharlamov Cup and Junior Club World Cup three times. The team also headed into the 2020 Kharlamov Cup Playoffs as one of the favorites but the season was cancelled due to pandemic.
“Academy’s secret lies in the synergy of multiple factors,” explains Finn. “It was a huge upside that there are two functioning schools in Yaroslavl [Lokomotiv and Lokomotiv-2004], which have a great system of intensive practices. It opens up a lot of exciting opportunities for young players to develop. Loko can basically put up two teams, notably for almost every age-group.
“It’s a good for KHL team to have two junior teams – Loko competes in the KHL, while Loko-Yunior in the NJHL. That allows 16 and 17-year-old players to gain the necessary experience, while the coaches get the roster depth, I had referred to. So Yaroslavl has a great platform and looking at Loko’s example we can see that you can achieve great results with that.”
However, the success of working with junior players is not measured just by trophies. Sean Finn believes that integration of junior players in KHL team is an important factor. At his watch Lokomotiv always had a consistent flow of Yaroslavl junior hockey school alumni, setting new KHL records for average player age. For instance, in Game 3 of the 2019 Western Conference semifinal series against SKA St. Petersburg the ‘railway men’ set a new record with 24.9 years, becoming the youngest team to compete in KHL Playoffs, and then beat that record again in the very next game with 23 years and 8 days. Moreover, in 2020 Lokomotiv beat their own record another time as in the last regular season game against Vityaz Moscow Region Yaroslavl players’ average age was 21 years and 184 days!
“I’m very proud of the game,” smiles Finn. “I learned about the lineup a few days prior to the game. It felt like my dream came true! Finally, what I was brought to Yaroslavl for began becoming a reality. Lokomotiv dressed the youngest team in KHL history and they were all exclusively local junior hockey school alumni. Moreover, 14 players were even born in Yaroslavl! I had the same feeling in 2019 when as many as eight of our alumni were drafted by NHL teams. Obviously, those were special moments for me and for the club, too, as a matter of fact. I was proud of the work we have done with the boys and the club but you have to understand that the players should get most of the credit. We just show them the right way and give an opportunity to put their skill on display. It’s great to realize that I was a part of their development.”
- Would it be possible to see a KHL team one day that would go through an entire season with just their junior hockey school alumni?
- It is possible and Lokomotiv is the proof. Young players looked decent in the game against Vityaz and the team matched KHL level. Besides, in the past few seasons Lokomotiv dressed a lot of its junior hockey school alumni, albeit it wasn’t a 100% of the roster. “But it’s not the right question. Is it possible to play exclusively with your junior hockey school alumni? Yes, it is possible. But is it possible to win the cup that way? Hardly. That’s why it would be much smarter to put young players in the lineup as they get older, following the dynamics of the team development.
- Why is it that many clubs open their academies and begin paying more attention to their junior projects now?
- To be honest with you, I don’t understand myself why Lokomotiv hadn’t done it before and why no one had seen the advantages the strategy provides. Now Lokomotiv’s success in that aspect is obvious and many try to follow it. It makes sense because it’s a win-win system. It’s good for the clubs, national teams and junior players themselves. This is why I would like to see that program in every KHL club – it could be a fantastic boost for the entire pool of Russian hockey players.
Lokomotiv set a certain trend in terms of developing junior players. After that Red Machine program came to life and then Omsk built a beautiful academy. While Lokomotiv were the only club to have a great academy, it’s changed now. Competition allows some to make progress, while others have to follow the suit.
“BOB HARTLEY IS INTERESTED IN DEVELOPING JUNIOR PLAYERS TO THE MAX”
The 2019-20 season was Sean Finn’s last in Lokomotiv system. Avangard Omsk announced in early July that Finn will be appointed as their new director of junior hockey development.
“I felt my time with Lokomotiv was coming to an end,” said Finn explaining his decision. “After five successful years in Yaroslavl I could have continued there but it was time for a new challenge and Avangard become one. I am grateful to Avangard management for their interest in my work. Management and I have agreed on general team and came to a mutual understanding of the direction we need to work in.”
One of the difficulties, encountered by Finn in Avangard system, is the distance between the teams of the club. While major junior team plays in Omsk, KHL team will be based in Balashikha, Moscow Region until at least 2022 when the Hawks expect to finish the construction of their new arena.
“Such a distance between the teams is a huge challenge for the club,” believes Finn. “It’s the first incident in KHL history. Communication between the two teams becomes very difficult under these circumstances. Unfortunately, right now we just have to deal with the reality and do our best until the situation improves. I’m certain that when KHL team will return to Omsk, we will look back at it as a gained experience. The return of the team is going to be a huge boost, it’s going to motivate players and it’s going to allow the club to improve the results of its junior players development program.”
Academy infrastructure in Omsk is great. Omskie Yastreby got comfortable at their new arena and practice facility last season. Sean Finn also notes the high quality of the infrastructure. Canadian coach put a special emphasis on the special IT system used at the club.
“We have developed a similar system at Lokomotiv four years ago. It allows to obtain detailed data on players and create a big picture for every player. You can see his upsides and shortcomings, details of his practice sessions and test results. The system’s priority is to save time for the coaches and provide them with maximum information every minute. The data allows to understand how to optimize your resources, how to use your time more productively and study tendencies to better predict the future.”
- While you worked with Loko Yaroslavl the team became the most decorated in Junior Hockey League history. Will Omskie Yastreby be as successful in the near future?
- It’s important to understand what success is. We have to focus on player development rather than on winning championship titles because winning cups at junior level does not guarantee success for the professional team. The logic has to be reversed. The team will focus on developing players, which in its turn will lead to trophies.
Putting emphasis on player development doesn’t mean that the team will trail at the last place in the standings. Quite the contrary. But success has to be attained through player development. Winning cups is great but the real value lies in player development. For instance, last season Loko were losing to Avto [Yekaterinburg] in Game 6 of the finals but managed to tie it up with a minute to play in regulation and went on to win the series. It was an awesome and unbelievable turn of events! But has it changed anything in terms of the ultimate goal, which is player development? No!
It is my opinion that a lot of people in Russia are dead set on winning. The question after the game should be not ‘why didn’t we win?’ but ‘why did we create so few chances?’ and ‘why did we allowed so many shots tonight’? It’s a whole different conversation, which is put on the players through coaches. We build a productive atmosphere within the team, which allows to address the questions and in the end win trophies.
- Have you spoken with Avangard head-coach Bob Hartley about integrating junior players in KHL team?
- Bob and I have discussed general details and expectations of the process. He’s very active and always wants to be kept posted about everything that goes on within the club. I like that it’s very important for him to have and understanding on the upcoming generation of players and youngsters. Our goal is to put forward a player development process, taking Avangard requests concerning game style, among other things. If the head-coach is interested so much in developing prospects, it means that these players will definitely get a chance to play for Avangard and be an important part of the team. As for the players, it’s vital for them to understand that. They are ready to work hard for the chance and are ready to prove themselves.