HÄMEENLINNA, Finland – He came to age in Finland's top division last season, but Borna Rendulic says more is to come as the 21-year-old looks to continue his upward trajectory.
"My future ambitions are simple; I want to be a great hockey player. Playing in Finland is a dream come true for me, and maybe in a few years or so, I would like to play in North America, in the AHL or even try to play in the NHL," said HPK Hämeenlinna's Croatian forward Rendulic who is about to enter his seventh season in Finnish hockey.
Minnows in terms of population, but giants in producing high-calibre athletes. With one foot rooted in Central Europe and the other firmly placed on the Balkans, Croatia, home of just 4.4 million people, is glowing with pride over the success its football, basketball and handball players have produced over the years.
But just as Rendulic turned his back on the three aforementioned team sports and instead opted for hockey, hopes are on the up that the arrival of a Croatian team, Medvescak Zagreb, in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) will be able to enchant a wider audience that could lead to a growing pool of players soon trying to emulate the success of Croatia's brightest shining star.
With 37 games for HPK Hämeenlinna in the Finnish top division, SM-Liiga, the 2012/2013 season marked Rendulic's definite arrival to the big stage. Despite HPK’s disappointment to build on their solid regular season form and instead be ousted at the first hurdle of the SM-liiga play-offs, Rendulic’s personal development was at least a small consolation for the lanky Croat in a fledgling career where Finland has played a crucial role so far.
At the age of 14 and following his first ever visit to Finland, Rendulic returned back to his native Croatia with all smiles and a contract offer to boot. Having attended a IIHF Hockey Development Camp in Vierumäki, the Croatian youngster's raw talent had firmly stood out against his peers, which saw him being rushed to a one-week trial with traditional Finnish powerhouse Ilves Tampere before another team, S-Kiekko from Seinäjoki offered him a chance to continue his development in Finland.
Eight years after he first picked up the game in Zagreb's legendary open-air skating rink Salata, Rendulic’s development had despite his tender years reached a critical stage, and the easiest way to try and compete with the best, was to join them.
"Although I was very young at the time, I was still very mature for my age, which was the reason my parents let me go to Finland," said Rendulic on his move to S-Kiekko's C-junior team while still only in his mid-teens during the 2006/2007 season.
"For the first time in my life I was going to live without my parents, take care of myself and to live in completely new environment. It was very hard to leave everything I had back in Croatia, but I knew what I wanted and that was to play hockey and to be successful in it, so I was not at all scared or worried, only excited."
Danijel Kolombo, the current head coach of Croatia's U18 and U20 national teams, has followed Rendulic's development at close quarters since an early age: "I first saw him at the age of ten and already then I realized that he would be a different player than the others."
Kolombo's glowing testament was widely shared within the Croat hockey community as sponsors teamed up to financially take some of the burden as Rendulic packed his bags and departed his native Zagreb, a bustling Central European capital city for the more tranquil environs of Seinäjoki, a Finnish town with 60,000 people surrounded by forest, lakes and silence.
"The adjustment to Finland and life in a small town with new friends and culture was not easy," Rendulic recalled. "But I also realized that I had a lot of work to do in front of me as everything was different in Finnish hockey compared to in Croatia. Although we were just kids, everything was so much more professional in Finland, so it was very good for my progress," he said.
Keeping his eyes and ears open while working relentlessly hard out on the ice, Rendulic soon began to feel more at home in Finland as he enjoyed a productive first season with S-Kiekko's C-juniors. It soon caught the eyes of the big guns when Ässät Pori came calling and signed up the then 16-year-old Croat for its junior set-up on a 2+2 year contract during the summer of 2008, a move which not only meant a step up in quality but also the first time Rendulic was to get paid for playing the sport he loved.
But the road from a promising junior player to forcing your way into the senior team can often be long and winding. For Rendulic there was another obstacle - his Croatian nationality - which meant he also had to fight for one of only three slots open for non-EU players, all occupied by big-name imports playing key-roles in the team. He was farmed out to join his parent club Medvecsak during the latter part of the 2010/2011 season and also had a spell in the Finnish second-tier, Mestis, where he settled in with ease.
But Rendulic did not give in. Then in December 2011, following an injury to Canadian Ryan Caldwell, came his long-awaited reward as he was called up for the seniors. An excited 19-year-old Rendulic made his debut in a fiery SM-liiga clash for Ässat Pori against their arch-rivals Lukko Rauma, an important milestone in Rendulic's career he will never forget.
"It was fantastic feeling for me, one of my dreams came through and I was ecstatic," he remembered from a debut game which finished with a convincing win for Ässät Pori and where Rendulic got ample of playing time. "But I was ready for that debut much earlier. But since I was non-EU player back then, there were already other foreign players in the team. But I was patient and I waited for my chance, and when I got it, I have never let it go. I managed to stay cool after that and just continued to work, perhaps even harder after that game, in order to be a better player."
Rendulic featured in three SM-liiga matches for Ässat Pori during his debut season of 2011/2012, but being unable to force his way into a regular starting place saw him instead join SM-liiga rivals HPK Hämeenlinna in the summer of 2012. In his new enviroment, playing for the one-time Finnish champions, he soon became a regular starter, yielding eight goals and four assists in 37 games, and is held in high regard on and off the ice.
"Borna is well-liked by his team mates off the ice and as a player his strengths are his perseverance, fine shot, bravery and cheekiness out on the ice,” said HPK Hämeenlinna General Manager, Risto Korpela.
"The aspects on his game he still needs to develop is his tactical side and ableness to read the game. Also the explosiveness in his skating needs to be developed, but that will come with physical practice and time," he said.
On July, 1 this year, Croatia became the 28th nation to join the European Union. For Rendulic the direct effect has been that he no longer needs to compete with non-EU players for a starting berth, which also in the longer run can benefit budding Croatian hockey prospects to find their way out across Europe trying to emulate Rendulic's success.
Meanwhile, as the Croatian hockey fans got a rare glimpse of Rendulic in action in April this year as he played an integral part in guiding Croatia to promotion to the Division IB level of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program, it appears they will have to wait just a little bit longer for their prodigal son to return to regular action in his home city, despite the impending arrival of the KHL.
"Croatian hockey is slowly getting better and I think it will grow with Medvescak in the KHL," he said. "Of course I would like to play in the KHL and for my parent club. They’re always going to be in my heart, and I would love to end my career with them in my hometown, but everything at the right time – and that’s why I want to play in Europe and North America now, before I return home."