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Thursday, 1 October 2009

Ice Hockey Fights Its Way Back In Croatia

 Hokej Night In Zagreb

Well, this post is sort of right up my alley, being raised in Canada, playing league hockey as a kid and all. This article that came out a couple days ago from a Croatian sports site reports "SENZACIJA! Medveščak dovodi Joea Šakića u Zagreb!" which translated means "Medveščak leading Joe Sakic to Zagreb!"

Some background info on who is Joe Sakic?

Joe Sakic in his early days with the Quebec Nordiques.

Now those of you out there in internetland that were not raised in Canada or knowledgeable about the sport of hockey (hokej in Croatian), Joe Sakic, who is one of the best hockey players of all time and just happens to be of Croatian parentage, is being encouraged to play a part in hockey in Croatia. Anyway, I felt this was an an excellent opportunity to elaborate and let in be known that YES, (gasp!) we play hockey in Croatia.

 Joe Sakic in his Coloroda Avalanche days.

Actually, hockey has a long history in Croatia, dating way back to 1916. The Croatian Ice Hockey Federation was actually established on November 9, 1935 in Zagreb. However, with the political turmoils that rocked Europe in the last century, it never had a chance to become as popular as here. But nevertheless, Croatia's National Hockey team will be represented again at the IIHF 2010 Men's World Ice Hockey Championships in Germany, playing in Division 1. One step away from the top hockey teams in the world.

More information about hockey in Croatia at

 I don't think soccer in Croatia has anything to worry about being regarded as the national sport, but down the road, who knows how popular hockey will become? It seems to have really gotten a foothold with winter sports enthusiasts and seems to be growing in popularity.

Link to the Croatian page at

However, in the meantime, we still have our Croatian Ice Hockey Federation, and Zagreb Medveščak has been promoted into the Erste Bank Eisenenhockey Liga(Austrian Hockey League). This will put them in a league with teams from Austria, Hungary and Slovenia and will help tremendously with bringing exposure to and developing young Croatian hockey players.

Damir Krajač / Cropix

A Zagreb Medveščak game played in Zagreb this past month.

A short clip of the Croatian National Team playing against you know who, during the 2008 IIHF World Championships.
A short clip of the little guys (and girls) at hockey school in Zagreb.
...and this one I had to throw in because this 3 year old clip shows beginners hockey school in Pula. That's Pula as in the sunny Adriatic coastal resort town of all places. Amazing.

So just remember, that on Saturday and Sunday early mornings in Croatia, young boys and girls are waking up and getting ready to hit the blue line and do some slapshots, bodychecking and passing drills,(Been there, done that)and hoping someday to put on the checked hockey jersey of the national team and do their country proud. Svaka im čast.

Medvescak Bears Draw Sponsorships and New Fans; It's the Only Place Where We Can Drink Beer and Watch Sports


ZAGREB, Croatia -- Sports promoters in August plastered 77 billboards around Zagreb with the face of an unsmiling goalie, and an announcement in capital letters: Ice hockey is back. Croatia is fielding a competitive professional ice-hockey team, Zagreb's Medvescak Bears, for the first time in more than 20 years. Under the new ownership of four former Yugoslav-era players, the ice rink that previously drew just a few hundred fans has pulled in 6,000 or more spectators to every home game since the Sept. 15 opener.

 Even midweek games draw a capacity crowd. Medvescak teammates Thomas Guidarelli, left, and John Hecimovic in a game this month against Acroni Jesenice in Zagreb. "I don't think anyone expected the fans to be like this," said center Joel Prpic, a Canadian player with Croatian heritage. "They're singing, dancing -- it's a party the whole game." For the four new owners, revitalizing the Medvescak team is the first step in building up a national hockey program that began to decline with the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. During the Yugoslav era, most ice rinks were built in Slovenia, says Bears co-owner Markoantonio Belinic. After the conflicts in the 1990s, sponsors fled. Croatia was left with no funding and only two covered ice rinks. Mr. Belinic and his business partners, Damir Gojanovic, Antonio Zujic and Juraj Sinanovic, played for free in local games and on the Croatian national team that convened for world championships. Meanwhile, fans migrated to football, basketball and handball.

Unhappy with the state of Croatian hockey, Mr. Belinic and his former teammates decided to invest in turning around Medvescak -- named after the part of Zagreb where the city's first ice rink was built -- and building up a youth program on a total annual operating budget of around €1.5 million ($2.2 million). In a pilot program that began last year, the team played in the Slovenian national league and, after much lobbying, negotiated filling an opening in the competitive regional Erste Bank league.

The head coach, Enio Sacilotto, and general manager, Doug Bradley, both Canadians, had roughly three months to recruit players from the U.S., Canada and Eastern Europe, including star Slovenian goalie Robert Kristan, and prepare for a grueling season of 54 games, plus playoffs. "It's a very competitive league," said Mr. Bradley. "This is a big step up from where they played previously."

 Ice hockey faded as a spectator sport when the team lost sponsors and funding after the wars of the '90s. Croatia didn't have the money to recruit foreign players and the country lacked a strong youth program. The quality of play declined, and fans lost interest in local games. Now, the team's management is heavily marketing its return. Black-and-white photographs of Olympic squads from decades earlier line the ice-rink walls, and fans regularly refer to the glory days of the Yugoslav team in the 1980s. In the month leading up to the opener, Medvescak advertised on billboards, radio stations, Internet banners, street posters, leaflets and Facebook.

The first game sold out in five days. Mr. Belinic said sponsors initially balked at the idea of financing a hockey resurgence. But after the opener drew 6,500 people, corporate interest jumped. "Now we are overflowing with various calls from corporations and private sponsors,"

 Mr. Belinic said. Current backers include pharmaceutical company Pliva and food-production concern Agrokor, Croatia's largest private company. At a recent midweek game against Austria's Graz 99ers, fans packed the rink, with some perched on the orange railings lining the dome's highest row. Spectators sang along to music that alternated between AC/DC and ballads extolling the beauty of Zagreb. A scoreboard flashed when Medvescak player Aaron Fox scored to tie the game in the second period, though Graz won 3-2 in overtime penalty shots.

 Despite standard grumbles over referee calls, spectators remained largely good-natured. Fans said they appreciated the cheap tickets, which are priced at €4.50; most of the league's teams charge between €10 and €23 per game. "Last season there were a few hundred diehards watching hockey. We all knew each other," said Drazen Kramaric, co-founder of the Croatian Hockey Portal Web site, which launched in December.

 "For many of us, this is a dream come true." Hockey in Croatia enjoys one legal advantage over other spectator sports. Because of violent incidents, fans can't buy alcohol at "high-risk" events, which include many football, handball and other matches. Hockey games currently aren't considered high-risk, and the Bears are vigorously promoting it as a family sport. "It's the only place where we can drink beer and watch sports," explained 25-year-old Zagreb resident and geology student Mareinko Baica, drink in hand. Mr. Belinic conceded the $3 beers may be contributing to hockey's popularity. "We are one of the rare sports given the license to have alcoholic beverages," he said. "We have beer and spritzers, but everybody drinks beer."

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