Sean Finn (left) working with a player in the Avangard Omsk hockey team youth development program in Russia. Finn created the program and has worked to advance it, to help redefine player development in professional hockey. (Avangard Omsk photo)

Sean Finn (left) working with a player in the Avangard Omsk hockey team youth development program in Russia. Finn created the program and has worked to advance it, to help redefine player development in professional hockey. (Avangard Omsk photo)

Kitimatian in Russia: how a former Kitimatian is changing the hockey world

Sean Finn runs one of the most successful hockey development programs in the world

A former Kitimatian has made it big in the hockey world with the creation of a successful hockey development program in Russia.

Sean Finn was born and raised in Cable Car, the subdivision just outside of Kitimat proper. Finn grew up playing hockey in Kitimat and the team was a good one.

“We had a culture of winning. We didn’t lose back then,” Finn said. “To be honest, I think I only lost [two games] in my life: [one] to Terrace and one…to Prince Rupert.”

Finn stopped playing hockey after graduating high school, due to several chronic injuries he had sustained throughout the years, and he moved to Calgary a few years later.

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Finn didn’t take up anything to do with hockey again, until several years later when his younger brother moved in with him and needed Finn to drive him to his hockey practices. While there, Finn met the league’s General Manager, who offered him a coaching job. A while into the job, Finn realized that he missed the game and wanted to work towards becoming a professional coach.

“With no professional contacts, with no network, with no professional playing career, [I decided to become a coach] just because I wanted it.”

From there, it was several years of learning, training, practicing, and coaching a variety of teams. Then, one day, just by circumstance, Finn managed to get a position as a coach for Geneva’s professional team at the Spengler Cup, the world’s oldest professional hockey tournament, held annually in Switzerland.

READ MORE: Canadian men’s hockey team sets record by capturing 16th Spengler Cup

Once in Europe, Finn managed to get an agent, who got him a job with EC Red Bull Salzburg, a professional hockey team based in Salzburg, Austria. This was the first time where coaching was a paid job for Finn, which was exciting for him.

“You know, it was like, wow, I’m getting paid for this,” Finn said. “All these years I did it for free, and now I’m getting paid. How cool is this?”

Finn got to work with many big-name coaches, including George Kingston and Pierre Pagé, and said it was intimidating at first working in the professional hockey world.

“When you’re kind of a naive, little, small-town Canadian boy, it’s a different path.”

A few years later, Finn took at job as a coach mentor in Budapest. He worked at a couple of different hockey clubs in Budapest until he met Yuri Karmanov, the Vice President of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, a professional KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) team based in Yaroslavl, Russia.

Karmanov was impressed by Finn’s team and his coaching style, and the two developed a professional relationship. Finn shared many of his coaching thoughts with Karmanov, in particular, how he develops a practice plan for the entire season and sticks with it, to ensure his players are getting an adequate amount of time working on all the different skills they need.

“I realized that most coaches are ‘reactionary coaches.’ They coach what didn’t go well last time, and lots of coaches spend too much time on the power play, because the power play’s so important,” Finn said. “And so they spend way too much time on the power play, which is really only coaching the top half of their players, and the reason the power play doesn’t work is because the coach can’t teach it well enough.”

However, Finn said, many coaches will simply continue to keep working on the one skill anyway, believing it to be the team’s weakness.

“It’s a vicious cycle of just reacting to what’s going on, and not focusing on the global development of the players.”

Finn showed Karmanov his planning and how he stuck to the plan for the entire season, and Karmanov was impressed with and interested in Finn’s methodologies. Karmanov offered Finn a job with Lokomotiv creating a development program for their players, and two-and-a-half seasons later, Finn was there.

READ MORE: Canada beats Russia 4-3 in world juniors hockey tournament to take home gold

When Finn first got there, there were no development programs in Russia. The coaches did what they wanted, and the thought was that the good coaches knew best. Initially, they wanted Finn to build practice plans for every coach at every age level, but Finn didn’t believe in that, as he felt the coaches wouldn’t listen to such a structured plan.

However, Finn’s idea for the program worked a little differently. Finn would provide every skill and tactic that needed to be taught each week, with a certain percentage of time allotted for each skill during the practice. This way, the practices would be jam-packed with activities, but the coaches would have to be creative in how they added different skills to different drills, and could combine skills and drills differently to work on various things. This taught the coaches how to teach better, to not waste time during practices, and to work on activities with higher exercise rates to keep players moving.

“By doing this, practice became much better,” Finn said. “And in a very short amount of time, Russia understood that Lokomotiv had something that nowhere else had, and our results followed.”

Lokomotiv won the junior championship in their first year, and in the four years following, they won three major junior championships, three world cups, and they had eight NHL draft picks in the last draft, amongst other things.

“The results after four or five years, they were up, you couldn’t deny them,” Finn said. “And Russia went through sort of a Renaissance where, programs are now starting everywhere.”

Finn had a number of offers to move to different clubs, and earlier this year, took a position as the Director of Youth Development with Avangard Omsk, a professional hockey team in Omsk, Russia.

“After five years of being somewhere, almost no professional coach stays anywhere for five years, the relationship grows stale…you just become another person, whereas I’m there to make an impact,” Finn said.

Finn said he’s excited for where the move is going to take him in his career and grateful for the experiences he’s had while in Europe.

“I get to live in Siberia which, sounds really bad, but when you think about what this lifestyle is, it’s about experiences…I couldn’t imagine turning down these things I’ve done in my life,” Finn said. “Since I was 32, I’ve lived a whole lifetime since moving to Europe. It’s been eight years, five cities, and a whole lifetime has passed.”

With the newly modernized training facility in Omsk, Finn has been able to continue advancing and expanding his development program. His hope is to someday be back on the ice, coaching, but said the opportunities he’s getting appear to be directing him towards more of a General Manager position.

“I keep trying to take steps one way, and I keep getting opportunities in the other direction,” Finn said. “My strength ends up being my weakness.”

But Finn is incredibly proud of his work and how far he’s come, and is excited to continue working his program with new players going forward.

“I want a new challenge, I want a new opportunity, I want to make players’ lives better, I want impact. That’s what I’m here for.”

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