The man with the hat

Longtime German national team player and national coach Xaver Unsinn passed away on Wednesday, January 4, 2012, in his hometown of Füssen at age 82. With 107 games at World Championships and Olympic Winter Games as a coach he was the coach with the second-most international games behind only legendary Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov.

One September morning in 1977, I was in a rush to read the sports pages of the Helsinki morning paper, even more than usual, because the Finnish SM-liiga had kicked off the night before. I turned to the back of the newspaper, and saw a headline about Lauri Mononen scoring a “Canadian hat trick”.

I had never heard of such a thing, but I learned that it was not just a regular hat trick, but a double one. Six goals.

A real hat trick.

Mononen had returned to Finland for that season, after two seasons with the Phoenix Roadrunners in the WHA, the other North American major professional league at the time. And he had returned with an even bigger chip on his shoulder than he left with, and he had put all his focus, all his energy into that first game, he told me later as I hung out at the sports store he and his partner, another Finnish SM-liiga player, Reijo Laksola, owned and operated close to our house.

He was fantastic that season, and scored 27 goals (and 39 points) in 36 games for Helsinki IFK.

Maybe he lost interest, or maybe he thought he could do the same without working in the off-season, but by the next fall he didn’t float like a butterfly, sting like a bee like Muhammad Ali, his favorite athlete, but neither did Muhammad Ali who had lost the heavyweight title to Leon Spinks in February 1978.

That was the summer I spent a couple of weeks at their cottage, jogging and playing badminton with him. Maybe I didn’t push him enough.

Ali regained his title in September, beating Spinks, just like Mononen had predicted to me in his store, in anticipation of the rematch but by then he had scored just one goal and was already on his way elsewhere again.

“And then I got a call. “Juuso” Wahlsten called me and told me that he had spoken with SC Bern’s coach Xaver Unsinn about an opening in Switzerland,” Mononen told me later.

“The management wanted an NHL player but Unsinn wanted Mononen. Money was not an object, Bern was determined to win the Swiss title,” he said.

“Unsinn wanted Mononen” may or may not be true because I spoke with Mononen about it years later when Unsinn had already become something of a legend in Finland, having coached the West German national team against Team Finland many times in the World Championships, and always wearing a hat. Back in 1978 Mononen may not have known who the coach was.

But in 1978, Mononen never spoke about Unsinn when I visited his sports store. The store wasn’t doing too well, even with two big SM-liiga stars behind the counter – literally – which may have helped him to make up his mind about Switzerland. But he needed help with the negotiations and he found my mother who was already helping the guys with the store’s book keeping.

Mom, who was and is fluent in German, negotiated the contract over the phone, and Mononen flew down to Zürich. A few weeks later, Mom, Dad, and I were also at the Zurich airport, on our way to Bern to visit the Mononen family, and so that Mom could go over some details in the contract.

It was one of my first trips abroad, and I remember arriving in Zurich late at night, and then driving to Bern. And the Alps. And small airplanes hanging from the ceiling at the airport.

And I remember that we visited the SC Bern’s office. Dad and I weren’t included in the negotiations, but when everything was clear, the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted, the door to the office opened, and we were invited in. It was just an office, with papers here and there, and hockey coach’s clipboard on the desk.

It looked like a regular office, except for one thing.

There they were. The man and the hat.

Unsinn had wanted Mononen to Berne, and Mononen had wanted the Pakarinens to Berne, so it was like we were there as guests of that hockey genius.

From that moment on, and especially after Mononen and Unsinn did win the Swiss title together the next season, he was a legend in our household. We followed his career all through the 1980s and 1990s when he was the German national team coach, and we were always happy when (West) Germany won.

I had SC Bern postcards on the walls of my room. Mononen, the tall, blond Finn stood in the back, and Unsinn, the head coach, sat in the front.

Some time later, my Dad, the coach, and a student of the game, even bought a hat just like the one Unsinn always wore. It wasn’t even called just a hat at our house, it was always referred to as the “Unsinn hat”. Dad wore it proudly, too.

How does that make you feel?