ZAGREB – It’s been a fantastic hockey week in Zagreb. The IIHF’s new divisional structure with tighter games has been a complete success in the Croatian capital. Some higher-seeded teams ended in a relegation battle while others proved to be a pleasant surprise.
Fans in Croatia’s capital saw 15 entertaining games and the decision about the promotion was made in the last game. After having spent the past three years in Division II, Croatia ended up as winner of the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A and will be promoted to the Division I Group B.
Coach Donald MacLean’s men fully deserved the gold, with Croatia dominating and winning all five games at Dom Sportova. The grand finale was against Belgium, a team of underdogs that had just been promoted to this tier last year. But Croatia outplayed its opposition as fans and players celebrated a 6-0 victory.
The final game painted the picture of the whole tournament. Borna Rendulic, John Hecimovic and Joel Prpic dominated on the ice. In five games, Hecimovic scored six goals and added six assist while Rendulic and Prpic finished with 11 points each.
“If this is the end of my career, I couldn’t imagine a better way to retire. I’m very tired; it wasn’t easy to win five games in just a week. This medal is dedicated to my daughter Anja, who is celebrating her birthday on Saturday,” said the 29-year-old forward Hecimovic. After spending two years in Croatian hockey powerhouse Medvescak Zagreb and stints in the Asia League and the Austria’s Dornbirn, he has decided to pursue other endeavours: “I might return to play for Croatia’s national team, but I’m most likely done with club hockey. I will never forget the fans in Zagreb, they are without a doubt the best in the world.”
Hecimovic would love to become a police officer in his native Kitchener, Ontario. His teammate Joel Prpic, a fellow Croatian Canuck, has already followed a similar path. A few months ago, he became a member of the Kitchener Fire Fighting Service. The former NHLer hung up his skates last summer, but is still winning face-offs in a Canadian senior hockey league.
“Had I not come back to Canada with the gold, my fellow fire-fighters would never let me hear the end of it. I got what I came here for, even though I didn’t believe that we could play so well,” said 38-year-old captain Prpic, who was named the tournament’s best forward.
The best defenceman was another Croat from North America, Minnesota’s Andy Sertich. Next year, with the help of more than a few dual-nationality players from Medvescak, Croatia will aim for a medal in the Division I Group B, but first they will celebrate their success, as will Iceland.
Being the third-best team in the Division II is the highest achievement in the history of Icelandic hockey. Their national team debut was in 1999 and since then the Nordic team has improved gradually.
“The result is very good for us, it was a great tournament. We are a young team, a few key players were missing and we didn’t play any exhibition games before the World Championship, so we are very happy with our medal,” said one of the key Icelandic players, goalie Dennis Hedström.
Belgium was also a pleasant surprise in Zagreb. Their netminder Bjorn Steijlen was selected for the best goalkeeper. Belgium started strong with three wins versus Iceland, Serbia and Spain, but lost to Australia and Croatia. With 14 players from the same club (HYS Herentals), they arrived well-prepared. The Dutch league experience did them well.
Another goalie was highly praised; Milan Lukovic was the star of the Serbian team. The loss against Iceland in the last round made them drop to fifth place.
“Many thought we would get relegated. I wasn’t one of them. Despite all the setbacks in our hockey, we managed to survive,” commented Lukovic, who got a huge applause from the crowd during the closing ceremony, which is something you don’t see too often for a Serbian athlete in Croatia. But the game of hockey can bring people together.
The first-seeded Australian team had a relegation scare but managed to avoid it with a huge win over Belgium (4-1). Combined with losing a point versus Iceland they reached safe waters. Their last-round win against Spain didn’t carry much weight.
The only team that left Zagreb with a bitter taste in its mouth was Spain. Last year they were silver medallists, now they got relegated without a single point.
“We had too many problems this year, too many players were injured, especially the goalie. Also, players that came to this tournament had injuries in the last couple of months,” said Spain coach Luciano Basile, who plans to come back with a vengeance next year.
“Our goalie Ander Alcaine hid a lot of our problems and mistakes in the past. Without him, we saw the level of our team. We didn’t belong here, we weren’t at the level.”
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