ZAGREB – The sight of the Croatian flag flying bravely alongside the KHL’s established hockey powerhouses might raise eyebrows, but Medvescak Zagreb’s combination of North American know-how and Balkan fervour is already yielding results. A Saturday evening at Dom Sportova gives an indication as to how the newcomer is testing the best.
Behind any great sports team is an impregnable home fortress. And, after overcoming CSKA and SKA in its compact, atmospheric Zagreb arena, Medvescak has laid the foundations of a Croatian castle to ward off would-be conquerors in its debut KHL campaign.
Backed by vocal support, the team has steadily improved after an early winless streak – and victory over high-flying Barys Astana last Saturday, a first KHL shut-out to down Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg on Monday and another one yesterday against struggling Avangard Omsk puts Medvescak on a five-game hot streak and on sixth place in the Western Conference.
The most eye-catching of those wins saw SKA St. Petersburg – Ilya Kovalchuk and all – shut down in a shoot-out after Kovi himself led a recovery from 3-1 to force a tie. The former New Jersey Devil fluffed his lines at the last, though, seeing his penalty shot saved by Mark Dekanich as the home side took a famous scalp. Soon after, free-scoring Eastern Conference leader Barys also succumbed – with its swashbuckling offense stymied in the face of a determined performance.
Kurtis Foster, the defenceman whose slap shot opened the scoring in the 3-2 defeat of Barys, believes his team is going to get a reputation, especially on home ice. “There isn’t a lot of time to think [between games] in this league, but other teams already know that coming to this arena is going to be tough.”
That wasn’t always the case. After a fairy-tale opening game in which big-spending CSKA was sent back to Moscow on the wrong end of a 7-1 scoreline, Medvescak struggled for points. Heavy defeats to relatively modest opposition – 5-1 at home to Dinamo Riga, 6-2 at Severstal Cherepovets – suggested that Zagreb’s elevation to Europe’s toughest league might have been a little premature.
Foster agrees, but also sees evidence of rapid progress: “At the beginning of the year we were getting off task and going off the game plan. Now we’re playing as a team more.”
Greater togetherness on the ice mirrors the impressive unity in the stands – and throughout the city. Downtown, in one of the streets off the main Jelacic Square, the club’s fan shop has been busy since the start of the season and in the run-up to games the streets around Dom Sportova are lively with supporters donning their colours and thronging the local bars. Maybe the hockey team cannot yet match the profile of Dinamo Zagreb’s footballers, but many would hope that the lack of Medvescak graffiti daubed around town reflects the lack of a lawless ‘ultra’ culture among hockey fans.
Certainly it’s a family atmosphere inside there arena, where the famed “Sektor B”, with its banners and drums, dominates the atmosphere. When the action hots up, it’s far from child’s play, though: the crowd, young and old alike, rises as one to roar for its heroes – or at least berate the officials on the team’s behalf. In an age where sleek modern venues are steadily replacing the basic, yet characterful ice barns of the 50s and 60s, it’s a colourful throwback to an earlier, no-frills age; a venue for supporters, rather than spectators.
The team’s enhanced new status in the KHL also has a hint of ‘Back to the Future’ about it. Medvescak was a fixture in the old Yugoslav league, but enjoyed its greatest success in the final years of that competition when Soviet star Vyacheslav Anisin was among its key players. Now, after a 20-year absence, the Russians are coming back to play – albeit in opposition to a team which draws heavily on North American talent.
The intervening decades weren’t easy: the money disappeared as abruptly as the former Socialist state; the amateur Croatian National League failed to provide much of a challenge. The solution lay abroad; initially in the Slovenian Championship, then Austria’s revamped cross-border competition EBEL, before finally exploring new frontiers in the KHL.
Immediately that begged questions of the roster, few of whom had much experience of a competition of that size. For head coach Mark French, a former Calder Cup winner with the Hershey Bears who took over the Zagreb position in the summer, there was self-confessed uncertainty.
“Some of the guys have done a tremendous job,” he said after the Barys game. “There were a lot of questions, including from me, about some of these players. A lot of them had never played at this level. I’m very proud about the way they adjusted to a league of excellent quality.”
And French is in no doubt that the league’s short history has already proved itself to be a worthy part of the world of hockey. “The KHL in its own right is a very good competition,” he added. “You get guys wanting to play at a higher level than maybe the AHL and this is a good first step towards that.
“It’s hard to compare the two leagues, but at the same time all the guys have been pleasantly impressed with the quality of competition here.”
Tim Bourcier, an American expat who runs the English-language Bears Hockey Blog, is also impressed with how the team has adapted to that higher quality.
“You could see how they were making progress. First they got a game to overtime, then they started picking up wins,” he said. “Penalties were a problem to start with, but that’s getting better.
“You look at them, and you look at the play-off places, and you think ‘why not?’. Lev did it last year, Slovan did it. Even if it’s in seventh or eighth place and the team has to go to SKA or Dynamo Moscow, you have to aim for these things.”
Coach French has the same ambitions. “The long term goal is to reach the play-offs,” he stated. “That would be a nice compliment for the entire organization. We’ll continue to get better, to make strides as a team and look to see where that can take us.”