ZAGREB – The Olympic Qualification began on Monday with the first of three stages in Zagreb. The two favourites, host Croatia and Serbia, remain undefeated after the first day while Israel and Mexico struggled to keep up with their opponents.
All four teams still have the chance to make the next round and, theoretically, to qualify for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi if they don’t only win this event, but also tournaments in the second and third stages.
But most participants know they’re underdogs and live the Olympic motto “taking part is what matters”, even if the campaign might end in Zagreb’s Dom Sportova rather than at Sochi’s Bolshoi Ice Dome.
Lack of ice in Serbia
The first face-off was between Serbia and Israel. And the Serbs kept up with their role as favourite in this game with a convincing 7-1 victory. Serbia’s first line was responsible for five goals, including two each from defenceman Aleksa Lukovic and forward Nenad Rakovic.
But General Secretary Djordje Ljoljic, the team leader of the selection, is sceptical whether his team can challenge host Croatia hard enough.
“We are realistic and we know exactly that our target should be the second round if we are in full strength and with normal preparation,” Ljoljic said. “Croatia and Serbia are very close in the World Ranking of the IIHF, so that would have been a realistic goal.”
The only problem is the “if”.
“We have a lot of problems, especially with the ice,” he said. “The first ice rink opened the season on Saturday in Belgrade, so we just had two ice practices. We don’t have the best conditions to participate, but this is not a reason to resign our participation.”
On top of that, he said, some players are missing, which gives the opportunity to rejuvenate the squad. “We have a young team with several players joining from the U20 national team.”
Serbia has 564 registered players. Ljoljic estimates that 750 to 800 people play hockey in the country with eight clubs.
“But we only have three indoor ice rinks in Belgrade and Novi Sad, and an outdoor rink in Subotica, which we also share with figure skating, speed skating and short track,” Ljoljic said.
“We have approximately one rink per 2.5 million people. If we compare with other countries, that’s 15 times more. So the basic problem is the rinks.”
Building an ice rink is not easy in Serbia with soaring real estate prices.
“We can manage to build a rink, but not if you have to pay €1.5m for the land. That’s a serious problem. In Serbia an average monthly income is €350.”
Next winter a classic outdoor rink in Belgrade should be renovated to extend the capacities for ice sports.
Another problem is competitiveness. To play at a higher level, Partizan Belgrade participated in the Slovenian league for the last three year and even won twice.
“It was a serious project, let’s say a small Medvescak Zagreb,” said Ljoljic. This year they had the ambition to play in the Hungarian-Romanian MOL Liga, but had to cancel this idea due to the lack of ice. Now all teams play only in the Serbian league.
Hockey in Israel’s periphery
If you ask the Israeli players, they’d be more than happy to have Serbia’s rink problems. Their only ice facility is located far away from the urban areas at the border with Lebanon.
“We have just one rink in Metulla in the most northern part of Israel,” said Daniel Mazour, who is one of the most promising forwards on the team already at the age of 20.
Two seasons earlier Israel fell down to the lowest level of the World Championship program, but Mazour contributed with 11 goals and 18 points in the Division III campaign. Last season he scored six goals and notched ten points at the Division II Group B tournament. But being a hockey player is not so easy in Israel.
“It’s kind of hard for us. The majority of players live in Tel Aviv and it takes two-and-a-half hours to get to the rink,” he said. “Then you play two hours and go back. So it’s more a league played at weekends.”
Ranked 40th, the Israeli are the lowest-seeded team in the Olympic Qualification. But that doesn’t prevent the team from dreaming.
“I’m always dreaming of Sochi. We definitely have to dream big and focus on moving forward,” Mazour said.
Some years ago the Israelis managed to play some of the better teams in the world. Coached by Jean Perron, the team gained promotion to the Division I level in 2005 where they played teams like France and Germany. But the team was demoted without a single win and has yet to return to that level. But Mazour remains confident.
“All teams are on par here and we need to focus and hopefully we can advance to the next round,” he said. “But we have a lot of players who couldn’t make it here.”
Notably missing is Mazour’s teammate from last year, Eliezer Sherbatov, who became a YouTube star for a spectacular goal he scored against Greece in 2011 (see video) and plays for Neuilly-sur-Marne in France.
Mexico wants to learn
Another underdog at the tournament is Mexico, which lost its opening game to host Croatia, 9-2.
Captain Fernando Ugarte is realistic about his team’s prospects.
“We want to try to reach the next round, but we know we’re at an inferior level than other teams,” the defenceman said. “We’re here to learn rather than to make it to the Olympics.”
Mexico is usually not the first place you think of when you hear ice hockey, but the country has dedicated players and teams that can fill the tribunes at their small arenas when Mexico hosts IIHF tournaments.
Recently a new league was created. Rather than having two clubs in the city competing, several teams were created through a player draft and the squads got Mexican names like reigning champion Aztec Eagle Warriors. The goal is to make it a semi-professional league.
“Right now we have to spend money that we can play, but we don’t get paid. It’s more like a hobby right now. We play every weekend, but we try to get practice two or three times a week,” Ugarte said.
“We’re trying to make a semi-professional league to be more competitive, and maybe once a professional league, and who knows, maybe after a few Olympics we’ll be there too.”
The games are played in Mexico City and as of this season a team from nearby Puebla will take part. “We’re five teams and we’re trying to get one more next year,” said Ugarte.
For him and his teammates, the tournament is also a learning experience and an opportunity to play.
“I’d like to play more international games,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of practising before the tournament. We went to Dallas for a camp, but unfortunately we didn’t manage to have exhibition games there.”
New era for Croatia
The favourite on paper is the team that earned the hosting rights. Although Croatia has similar problems like Serbia when it comes to the number of ice rinks, it doesn’t face the same challenges when it comes to the time the rinks open or lack of professional clubs. At least, not anymore.
Between 1991, when Medvescak Zagreb won the third straight Yugoslav championship just before the break-up of the country, and 2009, when it joined the Austrian league EBEL, club hockey was most played at an amateurish level in front of a couple of fans.
Now the club is highly professional and being courted by the Russian KHL. Many players from the Croatian diaspora in hockey countries in Europe and North America joined the club, and some of them are eligible to reinforce the national team.
The Croatian roster includes a few players who played the games at the Roman amphitheatre in Pula on Friday and Sunday. Among them is Minnesota-born Andrew Sertich, who didn’t play against Mexico and will join the team on Tuesday.
Although he still feels more American since he has just spent three years in Croatia so far, he feels more and more integrated in the country of his ancestors, also thanks to the national team.
“It feels good to play for the national team. I’m getting a better and better relationship with the country and feel better each time I play. It’s fun representing a country and to play against teams that I’d never get to play against usually,” the 29-year-old defenceman said.
“We were in Iceland last spring [for the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A]. It was a new country for me. It was a little bit disappointing that we didn’t win, but it was a good time for me.”
The winner of this event, which will likely be decided in the Croatia vs. Serbia game on Wednesday evening, will advance to the next round and face Hungary, the Netherlands and Lithuania in Budapest in November.
Can Sertich imagine his team play in Sochi?
“It’s tough to tell because I don’t have any experience with these teams and don’t know how good they are and how we match up against them,” Sertich said. “Obviously it would be amazing if we could make it, but I don’t realistically know what our chances are.”
Whether a team makes the next round, or surprises the world by making it all the way to Sochi, they will at least try their best and show the Olympic spirit in Zagreb. And if they won’t be rewarded this time, it will at least be an experience to take home and use for the future.