For two years now, Bob Mancini has been shuttling from the United States to South Africa to help grow that nation’s hockey program.
Mancini, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, has been working with South Africa’s national federation primarily to establish a coaching education program.
Essentially, Mancini — with an extensive coaching background and a strong role in the ADM designed to develop and nurture players from youth leagues on up — is working to “coach the coaches.”
“They really like the USA Hockey coaching education program and they wanted to mimic it down in their federation,” he said earlier this month.
But as he met officials and coaches in South Africa, Mancini’s role grew a bit more. Ronnie Wood, coach of the South African national team, asked Mancini to work with him to bring in a fresh voice and some new ideas, and Mancini jumped at the chance.
Mancini SAThen, earlier this month, Mancini (pictured at right with son Victor) got a major surprise.
When he arrived in South Africa for his latest sojourn, he learned that Wood suddenly had been forced to withdraw as national coach because of an illness. The news came just before the start of the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division III tournament that was being hosted in Cape Town.
The South African federation asked if Mancini could pinch hit for Wood in the tournament.
After getting clearance from his bosses at USA Hockey, Mancini took over and promptly coached the South African team to a 5-0 record in the six-team tournament, and a world championship trophy. South Africa downed North Korea in the title game, 4-1.
“It was tremendously gratifying, because it’s hard to win a championship at any level, no matter what level it is, no matter what tournament it is, especially in a short-term tournament like this,” Mancini said. “It was exciting.”
Though Division III hockey in the IIHF is far below the World Championship level in which teams such as the U.S., Canada, Russia and the Czech Republic play, Mancini says the South African national program is gaining ground.
“There are some good players,” he said. “They’ve developed their players and done a nice job. It certainly wasn’t one of those things that I came in and all of a sudden they were good. I mean, their players were there before me. I think it was just one of those situations where I worked well with the players, the players worked well with me, I trusted them to do the right things and I was lucky enough to have a rapport with the majority of players [from previous interactions].”
Other teams in the tournament were Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates.
“The players did a great job,” said Mancini, whose players ranged in age from 17 to 33. “I give them a lot of credit. They embraced the direction I wanted and they played very hard. We had some unbelievable performances. … It went exactly as coach would hope and plan for it to go.”
By winning the tournament, South Africa has earned a promotion to the IIHF’s Division II Group B for 2014.
Though hockey in South Africa remains a niche sport, Mancini said South Africa has had a national hockey federation since the 1930s. The passion for the sport is strong, he said, but confined to a small number of players and fans.
The federation there has admired the USA Hockey model of development and has sought its help through Mancini and others to grow both its base and level of play.
Since 2011, Mancini has been making about two trips a year to South Africa, usually for about a week each time.
“It’s a very intense schedule when I’m there,” he said. “It’s nothing for us to be on the ice with the national team, be on the ice with the women, be on the ice with juniors and young players, have a coaching Level 1 clinic and then another one the next day, kind of thing. Spend three days in Johannesburg and do that and then go to Cape Town and do it for another three days. We try to make the best use of a short amount of time as possible.”
He hopes to continue working there and loves the fact that it’s not only good for the growth of South African hockey, but it shows USA Hockey is willing — as a global leader in the sport — to give back and help others.
Plus, he says, South Africa is a beautiful country and he’s eager to return.
“The people are incredibly friendly and warm,” he said. “That’s the one thing that keeps coming back to me. What an incredibly friendly, warm, inviting place. The people have made me feel very much at home.”