KRYNICA – Ten years ago Poland played in the top division at the IIHF World Championship. Now the country is aiming for a quick exit from the third tier.
"We respect all the teams were are up against during this World Championship, but if we want to talk about improving the level of our game, it is a tournament we just have to win," says assistant captain Leszek Laszkiewicz on Poland's target for the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B played on home ice in Krynica, 15-21 April.
Making his 15th consecutive World Championship, Laszkiewicz is a living legend in Polish hockey. Only four players have represented Poland on more occasions than the 33-year-old forward, and with 73 national team goals, currently third in the all-time goalscoring standings for Poland, heavy shifts and important goals are expected from Laszkiewicz as pre-tournament favourites Poland quickly wish to be moving on up in the world of international ice hockey, starting with promotion to Division I Group A.
The restructuring of the World Championship format and the introduction of two separate Division I tiers to increase parity and competitiveness has seen Poland plummet to what is now the third level of the world championships. Laszkiewicz, who both featured and scored for Poland last time they played at the top division of the 2002 IIHF World Championship, admits that the drop of standard in the Polish game has been evident since he took up the game back home in the outdoor rink in Jastrzebie, south Poland.
"When I started out as a player, the level of Polish hockey was higher," says Laszkiewicz. "At that time the national team was going for the top division and we also had more players abroad."
"Today it's more difficult for both players and the national team to go higher and we also haven't worked hard enough with the younger players, which means there are fewer youngsters coming up to the national team that will make the team better."
A quick glimpse on the current Polish World Championship roster shows that five players – Laszkiewicz, Adam Borzecki, Marian Csorich, Piotr Sarnik, Damian Slabon –are all born in the late 1970s. The veteran contingent would have been half a dozen, had not stalwart defender, Jaroslaw Klys, been ruled out with an injury. These 30-somethings were all the result of the first crop of players graduating from the Szkola Mistrzostwa Sportowego or School of Sports Mastery, which was inaugurated in the southern Polish town of Sosnowiec back in 1994.
Poland was a regular participant in the Top Division of World Championships and the Winter Olympics during the '70s and '80s. Poland famously beat the Soviet Union 6-4 on home ice at the 1976 World Championship and toppled reigning world champion Czechoslovakia 2-1 in the 1986 World Championship in Moscow.
Back then, during socialist times, coal mines and factories shovelled funds into ice hockey and offered the players free hockey equipment. The collapse of the Iron Curtain brought with it drastic social changes both on and off the ice in Poland.
The creation of the School of Sports Mastery in Sosnowiec 1994 – in order to buck the trend of falling fortunes for Polish ice hockey – became a huge success for Polish ice hockey. At least during the first few years. Under the guiding eye of Sports Manager Andrzej Zabawa – a star player for Poland between 1974-1986 and still Poland's top scorer with 99 national team goals – the first pool of 33 aspiring players between the ages 16-18 who entered the school in Sosnowiec benefitted greatly from the hard and rigorous training, which seems to have left a long lasting mark.
"I think being in Sosnowiec was the best part of our lives as hockey players. It was the first year for this kind of school in Poland, and we had some really good coaches and soon the results were improving too as we qualified to the top division of the U20 World Championship," says Laszkiewicz, who later tried his luck playing in Germany, the Czech Republic and Italy and is now a celebrated star for Cracovia Krakow.
33-year-old defenceman Adam Borzecki, who first met Laszkiewicz at the School of Sports Mastery in 1994, is another key figure for Poland during the World Championship. Gdansk-born Borzecki, who himself has carved out a fascinating career, starting from junior ice hockey in Sweden and Quebec, clocking up 170 AHL games, attending a training camp for the Columbus Blue Jackets, returning to Sweden before moving to Germany where he is currently playing for Schwenningen.
Although the rugged defenceman with a fine slapshot has happy memories from his School of Sports Mastery years when the world was opening up and everything seemed possible, he also feels for the next generation of Polish players.
"When we older guys started playing, we had players to look up to. There were guys like Mariusz Czerkawski for instance. To see someone go out from Poland to first play in Sweden and then in the NHL gave everyone a boost. It showed us that it was possible," says Borzecki. "Today the reality is that we have a lot less top players, and nobody for younger people to really look up to."
Although perhaps not as profilic in producing the number of high-quality players as during its first few years, the School of Sports Mastery in Sosnowiec is still going strong under the guidance of Zabawa as Sports Manager.
"These days there are less players to choose from and it is harder to get the clubs to release the players to come to the School of Sports Mastery, but still roughly 80 per cent of our current national team have played there," says Zabawa. "But at least the problem with hockey in Poland is simple: It begins and ends with money. It is an expensive sport to play and not many can afford it."
In order to make the game more popular, the Polish Ice Hockey Federation have for some time worked effortlessly to spread the game outside its historic catchment area of Silesia and the mountains in the south, and are currently showing an increase in young players taking up the game.
The first line of Laszkiewicz, Sarbon and Sarnik is still pushing a heavy shift for Poland, but as the team showed in their 9-0 opening-day win against Lithuania, it was also a game where the performances from younger players such as current team captain Marcin Kolusz, Pawel Dronia, Grzegorz Pasiut and Krystian Dziubinski stood out, which delighted Poland head coach Wiktor Pysz as he intends to make the Polish eagle rise up again in the world of hockey.
"I am very happy not only with the result of the first game against Lithuania, but also that all four lines scored and played well, which makes it look good for the rest of the tournament," said Pysz.
The 2012 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B is played at the Krynica Ice Stadium, April 15-21. The other participants are Korea, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Romania and Australia.