ROUEN – With Polish hockey hoping to make a step forward to past glory, the success of GKS Tychy – unmatched by Polish clubs in modern days – comes at perfect timing.
Although it often gets overlooked, Poland has a rich hockey history. Between 1928 and 1992 the Polish national team qualified for all Olympic Winter Games except 1960 and 1968. And between 1930 and the late ‘70s Poland was a regular top-division participant in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
The biggest single-game memory came in 1976 when Poland hosted the World Championship in Katowice and opened it with a 6-4 victory over the Soviet Union at the Spodek arena that will host the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A.
The modern-day reality looks a bit different. Since the 1992 Olympics the Polish men’s national team has only played in one top-level event with a one-year stint at the Worlds in Sweden in 2002.
At club level the results have been mediocre either. Poland has a 12-team league but only few teams –Tychy is one of them – average more than 1,000 spectators per game and in Continental Cup history no team has come higher than the last preliminary round until this season.
In late October GKS Tychy hosted the second-round event and won the deciding game against the Coventry Blaze from Great Britain 3-2 in front of 2,700 spectators. In a tough game with 100 penalty minutes the Poles came back from a 2-0 deficit with three third-period goals to win the game 3-2 and earn a ticket to the next round.
In the third round in Rouen, Tychy recovered from an opening-day loss to the hosts, 5-3, and then beat Shakhtyor Soligorsk from Belarus, 2-1, and Ukrainian champion HK Kremenchuk, 3-1, to advance to the final as the first team ever from Poland.
Back in Rouen, the history of Polish teams in the competition makes GKS Tychy the natural underdog – but one that likes to bite. On the opening day it defeated the Herning Blue Fox, unbeaten in the preliminary round, 2-1 with a strong defence and a rough style of play.
“It is very important for us to be here. It’s big promotion for hockey in Tychy and hockey in Poland. We want to represent our city and our country and make the best result here. We know that we have very tough opponents,” said Michal Kotlorz.
The 28-year-old captain is one of the most experienced players on the team. He has represented Poland in five World Championship Division I tournaments since 2010.
“I think that it’s going up with Polish hockey. We are in the final, we have a good national team and will host the World Championship Division I Group A for the second time in a row soon.”
Bartosz Ciura, who scored the game-winning goal against Herning, echoes his sentiments: “I’m very proud that we can be here. It’s a big success for our team, for our city and for Polish ice hockey. But it’s not the end. It was just our first game and we have games on Saturday and also on Sunday.”
Tychy won the Polish championship last spring only for the second time after 2005 but the city is enthusiastic about hockey and is again battling for gold in Poland being currently in second place behind Cracovia from Krakow, which like Katowice and Tychy is also located in the southern provinces closer to the border with the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
“I was born in Tychy, GKS is my club and ice hockey is the most important sport in Tychy. All town lives for hockey and I’m happy when we can give a lot of smiles to our supporters,” Kotlorz said about his club.
The defenceman started playing when he was eight years old and an ice skating teacher took kids from school to hockey. It was an easy choice since he liked the sport immediately and lived close to the rink.
GKS Tychy didn’t come to Rouen as a favourite but after their successful start against the Herning Blue Fox the team is hungry for more when it plays tonight against host Rouen Dragons and on Sunday against Asiago Hockey.
The strong showing comes at a good time since Poland eyes a spot in the Champions Hockey League and last year during the Word Championship Division I Group A, Poland got a conditional wild card depending on the development and progress of Polish ice hockey.
Nothing could show progress better than good results against teams from countries like Denmark, France and Italy, therefore the results at the Continental Cup will be closely monitored. And if GKS Tychy should go all the way to gold they would earn a spot in next season’s Champions Hockey League as the Continental Cup winner pending formal approval by the CHL board. But the players don’t think that far yet since there’s still much work to do.
“We started with a big win but it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning for us,” Kotlorz said.
While Polish ice hockey hopes to make a big step forward in European club hockey this weekend, all eyes will move to the national team in spring when Poland will again host the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A
, this time at the historic but refurbished Spodek arena in Katowice.
Last year Poland surprised its opponents as the promoted team and missed promotion to the top division on home ice in a tight final game with Hungary in front of over 12,000 spectators.
This year Austria, Slovenia, Japan, Italy and Korea will be the opponents in the battle for a spot in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Cologne, Germany, and Paris, France.
“We want to earn promotion to the top division. Last year in Krakow we were very close. It’s very hard but we can do it,” Kotlorz said about the other big international event for him what are exciting months for Polish hockey.