Lots of ambition, lots of passion, lots of competitiveness wrapped in excellent Swedish hockey education – that’s Cologne’s first line center Andreas Falk. In this interview he talks about the changes in his game compared to last season, why he had to take a detour on his way to the SEL und how the near future will look like for him.
For a german translation of this interview click here.
Andreas, the season is closing in on its third period – so to speak. Teams that are currently out of a playoff-spot start fighting for their lives. Iserlohn last Tuesday was a good example. How tough is it to match the intensity of these kind of teams?
It’s tough. If you’re in the top group in the standings and you play against a team that fights for the playoffs, they are actually like they hunt us. They feel they have nothing to lose. We have to prepare ourselves for every game. Every game we have to be really focused to win games and to stay in the top group. We have to have a good flow and a good rhythm in our season. I think it actually is fun, because that makes every game important. It keeps games special over the course of a 52 game season.
You guys still have an unbelievable low goals-against average. Head and shoulders above the rest of the league and also better than last year. What would you say is the reason? Is that something the team takes pride in?
We as a team like to compete. We look at the defense as a big part of our game. We have a good system, and I think we’re just reliable. We think it’s a good way to play defense. We let in the least goals in the league, yes, we take pride in that. Compared to last season I feel like we are more comfortable because we have played more games in that system. You have a little bit more routine, so you can read it a little bit better when something goes wrong. I think that’s the main thing, you have more routine.
This season you seem to enjoy scoring goals yourself a lot more than last year. What’s behind that?
(Smiles) Maybe I feel a bit more comfortable than last year. Last year I created some assists and helped the team that way. So, maybe I took a step back than trying to actually score myself. But this year I just feel like if I have a scoring chance, I try to take the shot. I’m a little bit more hungry in front of the net. I think it’s just that. I get bounces sometimes, I won’t say all the time. I think it’s about my instinct or what I want out there. I want to be in front of the net where the puck is. Sometimes it is just laying in your stick and you score. (smiles)
On the goal you scored in Düsseldorf the entire defense was backing away from you trying to take away passing lanes, which opened up lots of room for you to shoot. Could it be everyone in the league is so used to you being a playmaker and a pass-first guy that they basically don’t expect you to shoot?
Yeah, maybe. Maybe that’s true. I remember that goal. Last year maybe I would have looked up and have looked for a pass. But in that situation I knew the goal was there and I took the chance, knowing I have to shoot. Maybe that’s the difference. Last year I would have looked up and looked for a play and then shoot, but then it would have been too late. This season when I’m in front of the net, if I can shoot it, I shoot it.
It’s your second season with Cologne and it’s your second season with Chris Minard on your wing. I did an interview with him back in November and asked him about the chemistry you two obviously have. He recommended that I should ask you that question, because it’s much easier to play with you than it is to play with him. What’s your take on that?
(Laughs) I like to play with Mini. He has a good shot. If he gets the puck in front of the net or in the slot, he scores goals. This year it’s a little bit tougher because everyone knows that he is a good scoring guy. For me it has become a little bit difficult to find him because he usually has one guy on him. Now we made some changes in the play to set him up for scoring more goals. I hope it turns out good. I rely on Mini because he is a hard worker and he wants the puck. He doesn’t just stand there. He wants the puck, and it’s my job to get the puck to him or to get the puck in front of the net. I can’t complain, really. (laughs)
So what do you think of using him as a blueliner on the powerplay? With his slapshot probably not the worst idea, I guess?
No, especially since Holmqvist is injured. We need a guy that can shoot the puck. And Mini can shoot the puck, so we’re trying to use him a little bit more there.
One of your teammates here said that nobody on this team hates losing as much as you do. Would you agree?
(laughs) I will say this: It’s easy to get pissed off by losing, but to be a winner it takes a little bit more. So I will say, I’m not a bad loser, I just want to win. I like to battle, and I can take that I lose sometimes. You have to admit sometimes, that you didn’t have your best day or that the opponent was better than you. I can take that, but I always try to do whatever it takes to win. I think that’s a difference.
So, how long did it take you to digest losing in last year’s finals?
I lost one final in Sweden, and now I lost again. Of course it’s no fun. You’ve been battling the whole season. We lost to Berlin, which was the better team in a best of 5 series. I think we should do a little bit better if we played best of 7. I would have liked to win, but we lost against a better team. I went home to Sweden one week later and started working out. I didn’t think too much about it. I kept the silver medal in my locker-room, just to remind myself that it’s not that good looking. (smiles) I look at it every day. Not that I think about. It’s just a little reminder that it would be fun to win.
I also heard that whenever there is a Germany-Sweden encounter in soccer, the outcome has a huge impact on your mood the following day. True?
(laughs) Yeah. I’m a patriot. Torsten, Mo, Gugi, we have a couple of guys, that are really, really German. Maybe I’m a really, really Swedish guy, that really likes Sweden to win. So, it’s fun in the locker-room. We can laugh about it a little bit, but of course when Sweden lost against Portugal, it hurt me.
You are one of the players that noticeably crank it up a notch when a game is on the line. Is that something that’s always been in your personality or did that kind of mindset develop over the years?
I think it’s always been there. I like to play hockey when it’s like that, when it’s about winning or losing, when each game and each shift is really important. That’s when I think I play the best. In the middle of November it’s a little bit tougher, but now or in the playoffs you have to raise your level, because the opponents are raising their level. I think it comes just naturally. I just like to win. To win those games, when it’s an overtime game or a one-goal game, those games are really fun to win.
But even in the middle of November, when you were trailing in a game, you are always one of the guys to step up and try to make something happen.
I like my job. That’s why. I can’t say anything else. Once I got asked, how do you motivate yourself? All I could say was, I have a pretty good job. Whenever I wake up in the morning I like coming to the rink. A lot of people don’t have that. My dad is a truck driver. He works twelve hours a day. He just says to me, enjoy every moment when you play hockey and be happy. Because when you’re forty, you will have to start working again. Your head wants to play hockey, but your body can’t. So, I just try to enjoy the time that I have left.
I tried to dig up if there has been any hockey in your family, couldn’t find anything. Who was your role-model growing up?
My dad played a little bit hockey, but he didn’t play in the highest league, just in the second tier league. My role model, well, of course we have tons of hockey players in Sweden. Näslund, Forsberg, Sundin, Börje Salming – tons of guys that have been good role models for me, but I didn’t have one in particular. Alright, but I will say, the Swedish King. (laughs) Just kidding.
You’re not the biggest guy around, but you’re hard to separate from the puck once you get going along the boards. Would you say that’s rather due to physical strength or is it a question of mindset?
I think it’s both. Because I’m small, I’ve been practicing every day. I try to use my strength when they don’t expect it. I had to change my way to play. I don’t have 95 kilos to put in there. I have to use my brains a little bit. I can’t go first into the corner every time, because then I would be injured every second week. So I just try to use my strength when I need it, and use my brains when strength doesn’t help.
After the 2003/04 season when you were 21 and ready to make the step from your hometown team Huddinge out of the Allsvenskan into the SEL, it just so happened that the league was flooded with NHLers due to the lockout. What was the situation like for you as a young player trying to break into the SEL?
As you mentioned, that year, when I was supposed to go to the SEL, was the lockout season. A lot of teams would have liked to sign me, but then they would have put me in their second team. So I looked at different options. Skelleftea, the team that I went to, they have always been in the top in the second division. They were more than happy to take me in to try to take the team up to the SEL. So, I took that risk rather than sign with an SEL-team and then get sent down to a worse team that’s maybe just struggling in the middle. So I went to a team that was a little bit better. And then I got injured the first year, so I signed with them for another year. And that year we made it into the SEL.
So, was the plan all along to make it to the SEL kind of through the backdoor?
Just because of the lockout. Otherwise I would have played in the SEL right away. Due to the lockout I had to change my plans. I was happy about the decision, actually. It was fun. The team, that I went up with, they had been struggling for years. They had been really close to going up. It’s a real small hockey town. Only 40,000 or 50,000 people. So, when we went up, the GM, everybody was crying. It was really emotional, because they had been struggling for a lot of years. And actually that’s the hometown of Hardy Nilsson, the former Kölner Haie player and coach. He played in Skelleftea when they won the Swedish Championship for the first time. It’s a good hockey town. But after those two years I wanted to move further down south in Sweden to be closer to the family, so I signed with HV71.
Skelleftea would have loved to keep you. And after signing with HV71 you were quoted in a newspaper saying “I’m getting the chance to play for one of the top-teams in Sweden. If I don’t take this opportunity now, it might not return”. And you’re saying what an emotional ride it was. To me that sounds like you were a little bit torn about your decision to leave Skelleftea. Was that the case?
Definitely it was a tough decision. It was. But like I said, HV71 was a great club. They have good hockey culture, they were in the top of the SEL. So I knew I was going to come to a club that has the ambition to win the championship. It was a tough decision. But I felt I had to take the next step in my career. So, I don’t regret it.
How much did playing for a team that’s supposed to be a contender each and every year have an impact on your development?
I was playing and practicing against the best players in Sweden at that time. We had four nationals from Finland, I think three or four from Sweden. And we had a really good group. The competing level each practice was really high, but still in a good way. There were never fights or anything. We were eating lunch together. Even on in our spare time the whole team would go take a coffee together. We had a really good connection together. I think that’s why I stayed, too. The environment around – not just the hockey but everything – was really good.
You got married in 2011. HV71 would have loved to sign you to another extension in 2012. Looking at your situation in life at that point, it seemed like you could have settled down, start a family, plant the proverbial apple tree. You decided to leave Sweden, give it a shot in a different country and basically start all over again. Why?
I always dreamed about playing outside of Sweden. For the first five years with HV71 we were playing really good. We were successful, we were finishing first or third in the regular season. We won two championships, made it to the finals two more times. After that we won the regular season but lost in the quarter finals. And then in my sixth year we struggled a little bit. We had key players getting injured. We lost two players to the KHL. We lost the good Finnish guys, and the Swedish guys, too. A lot of things happened. My friend passed away in the Lokomotive Yaroslavl flight accident. We played together for your years. A lot of things changed. I felt like the club and me had to try something different. Like you said, they wanted to re-sign me, I was a key guy there in the defensive work that I did. But I felt, for me personally and hockeywise I needed a break. Almost like a break-up. I needed to try something else. Thomas Eichin and Sunny [Niklas Sundblad] wanted me, and I felt like, ok, let’s take this chance. Sweden won’t disappear. I can always go back. If I don’t take this chance I might regret it. I talked to Sunny a few times. He said, well, we finished eighth in the league, we lost in the quarterfinals against Berlin, but we’re gonna start over this year with a different system and so on and so on. And I was like, okay, let’s go, let’s do it.
Was Germany on your radar from the get go when you started considering playing outside of Sweden or were you hoping for a chance somewhere else?
Of course you hope for the KHL, but of course I know what kind of player I am. That’s the second best league in the world. I’m good, but I’m not that good. (laughs) Kölner Haie has a good reputation around Europe. Good fans, good city. I talked to Johan Akerman, who played here. He said, good environment, good guys on the team, good organization, good fans. So I thought, try it out and see if you like it. And I love it. (smiles)
Back then you said in a Swedish newspaper, that you were considering playing outside of Sweden because you were looking for a new challenge, wanted develop your offensive game and to play a new role on a team.
In Sweden I was a third line center because the first two lines were just national players that are really skilled offensively. Those first two lines would play powerplay, no matter what, and the third and fourth is going to kill penalties. So, my two wingers and me were playing against the best lines every game. Our coach was sending us in every time they changed the lines. We were matching up with their best offensive players. So, after six years in that role I wanted to see if I can try and develop my offensive skills. I never had any regrets that I played defensively. I like to do it. I just felt, that I needed to take one more step. It might help me in the defensive way, too. But I wanted to improve my offensive skills a little bit.
After you signed with Cologne you got roses and a German dictionary from your wife – a gesture of supporting your decision, I guess?
So how is your German coming along?
I try. I tried to learn a little bit German, but for me it’s difficult, because I didn’t have German in school. My wife studied German in school for six years. I chose to learn English. So, I try to pick up words and try to learn. My German will be better, I promise. It will improve.
Apparently you’re the prototypical hockey-pro when it comes to off-ice activities: you golf, you go on the occasional fishing trip. Do you have any hobbies out of the ordinary?
In Sweden we have a lot of snow, so I like to go snowmobiling. When I was playing up north I had a snowmobile. I love to be in the nature. Now I’ve started to hunt a little bit. I hunted in Sweden. Since I came here, me and Tjärnqvist are looking up where we can hunt. Other than that, I can sail. I like to be on the ocean. I can play a little bit drums and guitar. On my mom’s side of the family we had fishermen, and on my dad’s side we had music. My dad’s grandpa was building guitars and violins. So, maybe that’s where I got it from. I got the good things from both sides of the family.
I can’t wrap up this interview without asking about the future. Your contract expires at the end of this season. Everyone from fans to managements would love for you to stay. Is this team in danger of losing you?
I like it here, but me and my wife are expecting a baby in one month. So, that’s what I’ve been waiting for. If everything is alright and everything is okay, we’re going to make a decision if we stay here or move somewhere else. If it is Sweden or someplace else, I don’t know. I would like to know whether I’m going to stay. I know there is interest from both, Sweden and Kölner Haie, but now I focus on the baby and see if everything is alright there. Then we make a decision. Like I said, I like it here. I can’t say anything negative about Kölner Haie. We’ve been successful, the organization, everything is really great, and they are taking care of both, me and my wife. So, we’ll see.
We would like to thank Andreas Falk for this interview.
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