VILNIUS – He first wore the red-and-white chequered crest of Croatia on his chest in Andorra in 1997. 15 World Championships later Igor Jacmenjak is a newly crowned silver medalist in Division I Group B while still patrolling the blueline with a wooden stick.
As surprise package Croatia shot down Lithuania 3-2 in front of a partizan crowd in Vilnius during the closing game of the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B, it was a motley crew of players that carried the newcomers up to a sensational second place following last year's promotion from Division IIA.
While the match-winner against Lithuania, 22-year-old Zagreb-born Borna Rendulic finished his season as top scorer for HPK Hämeenlinna in Finland's top division, Croatia's prowess had also been bolstered ahead of the tournament with the arrival of newly eligible players to the roster. Diaspora Croats, Dario Kostovic and Sasa Martinovic were two of the new faces, while a couple of Canada-born defencemen, Geoff Waugh and Alan Letang, the latter voted as the best defenceman of the tournament in Vilnius, injected further quality to the Croatian roster. But while Rendulic and the dual nationals got most of the headlines, little credit was left for a player such as Jacmenjak, a rugged and skilled blueliner doing his business out on the ice with minimal fuss.
"Igor has vision, is good on the power play, hits beautiful passes, can carry the puck and also showed that he is one of the best ones when it comes to penalty shots," said Ivo Ratej, Croatia’s assistant coach, on Jacmenjak following their game against Romania during day three in Vilnius. Trailing 0-2 against the Romanians, it was Jacmenjak who instigated Croatia's fightback as he steamed down into Romania's defensive zone and calmly picked out Rendulic, who pulled a goal back for Croatia. With the game going on to penalty shots, Jacmenjak stepped up to slot home the game winning shot high past Adrian Catrinoi Cornea in the Romania net. Not a bad feat considering the 34-year-old Croatian veteran's limited preparations during the last few years.
"I am out on the ice just once a week and that is how it's been for the last four years or so," said Jacmenjak, who plays for KHL Zagreb in the Croatian domestic league where matches come few and far between. "All players in the Croatian league are in the same situation, so there are around ten players who were on the team in Vilnius who hardly play on ice."
Jacmenjak's services for the Croatian national team goes back a long way and his memories from his first senior world championship dating back seventeen years are hazy: "I can remember that it was in 1997, we played in Andorra and Spain were hosts. I had been called up from the junior national team, but I didn't get to play as I was still just a kid," said Jacmenjak.
Ratej, the current Croatia assistant coach and four years Jacmenjak's senior has more vivid memories from that D-pool World Championship in Canilla where Croatia finished top ahead of Korea: "I played for Croatia at that World Championship and I remember Igor being the youngest d-man," he said. "We were a bunch of older guys sitting at the back of the team bus but Igor started sitting with us during that tournament and that is how it all started as Igor soon developed into becoming the leading defenceman in Croatia," he said.
Blossoming into Croatia's defensive mainstay, Jacmenjak was at his own accord at the peak of his powers at the 2003 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Zagreb, which to this day remains his favourite memory from all his years representing his country. "We played against Norway, France and Italy then and although we lost almost all of our games, we played good ice hockey in front of a full arena at home in Dom Sportova, so that is probably the highest level I have played at during my hockey career," said Jacmenjak.
Since then Croatian hockey has experienced dramatic changes, with Medvescak Zagreb being at the forefront in pushing the game forward to new frontiers since the turn of this century. Having first spread their wings to play against Slovenian opposition, Medvescak soon stepped up yet another notch during the 2009–10 season when joining the Austrian-based EBEL-league, before last season's groundbreaking move into the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) got a whole new dimension to the level of hockey on offer in the Croatian capital.
"The KHL is popular with big crowds so it's good. People are coming back to watch hockey," said Jacmenjak. "The only worry is that there is nobody from Croatia playing there. There are one or two Croatian kids on the Medvescak roster because they have to be there and that's it, but we don't have enough good players for that."
As Medvescak showcases Zagreb and Croatian hockey across the KHL, closer to home, below the tip of the iceberg, the reality is drastically different. While a severe lack of competitive matches on offer for players in the Croatian domestic league is a major concern, capitalising on the exposure generated by Medvescak is the most pressing challenge in order to build a more prosperous future starting from the bottom.
"The interest for hockey is growing and now we have lot of kids that want to play, but we have problems with ice and practises, because we only have two rinks and one of them is open," said Jacmenjak.
It is a sentiment shared by Ratej who is seeing some positive steps being made, but is urging for more: "It think it's very good that Medvescak now have both U18 and U20 teams playing the EBEL-league, but in order to develop our kids and also to develop our league we need to build another rink in Zagreb and more rinks in surrounding areas. Also we need more financial support because ice hockey is still a very expensive sport in Croatia," he said.
With the lack of ice time being a major problem in Croatia, it has instead contributed to the growth of inline hockey of late. Jacmenjak and a former national team player, Marko Lovrencic, who last year scored 11 points when Croatia won promotion from Division IIA in Reykjavik, have been on the forefront of ice hockey players who now put their efforts into an increasingly popular sport.
"I played inline for the last eight years," said Jacmenjak who is one of the pioneers for the sport in the country having constructed the very first inline rink in Zagreb four years ago. "Inline is on a high in Croatia, and I play every day and it suits me better as I am too old for ice hockey," he said, while still not ruling himself out to weave his magical wooden stick for yet another world championship on ice come next season.
"I will be 35 this year, but I still want to play so we'll see what will happen," Jacmenjak said.