ZAGREB – Croatia’s leading hockey club, Medvescak Zagreb, is set to compete in Austria’s cross-border EBEL next season after four campaigns in the KHL.
The team, which also played in the EBEL prior to stepping up to the KHL in 2013, was officially accepted as a member on 15 March.
Towards the end of last season Medvescak faced some well-documented financial problems and, after a fire sale of players in the closing weeks of the campaign, suited up just 14 players in its last games. With the team heavily reliant on sponsorship to provide a sustainable budget, the decision to return to a league closer to home than the pan-Eurasian KHL was anticipated some time before this week’s announcement by both Medvescak and the EBEL.
Erste Bank Eishockey Liga president Peter Mennel welcomed the team back to the competition. “Medvescak was part of the league for four years and left lasting memories,” he said. “I’m happy that our current teams have voted in favour of the return. Fans can get ready for some more great games at Dom Sportova.”
Club president Damir Gojanovic talked up the prospect of a bright future for Medvescak in the EBEL. In an interview on the club’s website he said: “We will have an opportunity to compete against the best teams from Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. I believe we will be able to gather a competitive team and that our fans will enjoy good games and good results. I am grateful to the EBEL clubs and league Presidency for accepting our application.
“The EBEL was the starting point of the revitalization of Medvescak and without the league, the new-look Medvescak that we have today would not exist.”
Gojanovic also confirmed that the club was working hard to resolve various outstanding debts and – despite criticism from some quarters – insisted that the long-term future was secure.
“We will meet all the obligations,” he added. “I'm sorry some are delayed, but that is the reality we live in... But, I can assure you, the club will not collapse or disappear due to those obligations. Furthermore, supported by our partners we will enter EBEL with a clear and viable financial plan.”
Medvescak’s four seasons in the KHL saw the team – and its enthusiastic fans at Zagreb’s Dom Sportova – win friends across the competition. However, results on the ice were less impressive, with the team making the playoffs just once in four seasons. Gojanovic, though, regarded the experience as a success and was thrilled to have brought some of the world’s best players to Zagreb.
“Dom Sportova witnessed the best possible hockey we could see or imagine and there is nothing better than it outside of North America,” he said. “Medvescak welcomed some of the biggest and best in world – clubs like SKA, CSKA, Dynamo Moscow, Spartak, all true institutions of hockey, and players like Radulov, Kovalchuk, Mozyakin or Cheechoo, to name but a few. We brought some great players to Zagreb. If someone had told me we could do something like this in Zagreb, I’d have laughed in his face. But we did it, and our fans got to see top-class hockey.”
Alexander Medvedev, then the KHL president who welcomed Medvescak into the league, also felt that the club offered plenty during its time. “Medvescak created a competitive team in a North American style and offered a good test for our teams,” he told championat.com. “Let’s not forget how Medvescak started out, hammering CSKA 7-1 in its first game.
“But the Croatian business community could not generate the kind of money to help the team compete effectively in the league, and trying to subsist on bread and water isn’t a realistic way forward for any team. The way Medvescak had to sell off almost all its players to clear its debts, and played the last couple of games with just two lines, is far from ideal. On the one hand, the club fulfilled its obligations and completed the season; on the other, the necessary foundations to play in the KHL, sadly, disappeared.”
For the KHL, the news comes at the end of a season where the league’s future has been the subject of much debate. Last year, comments from KHL President Dmitri Chernyshenko about the possibility of reducing the number of teams in the competition prompted a flurry of speculation, although the league was quick to point out that this was merely one of many options under consideration as the organization looked at how to develop in future. Meanwhile, other reports from Russia suggest that Medvescak’s place next season might go to a second team in St. Petersburg, a representative from Estonia or an ambitious new franchise based in London, England.
Although the club announced to return to the Central European competition, Medvescak head of media, Ranko Vucevic, told Russian website championat.com that there was still a possibility of KHL action in Croatia.
“The deadline for clubs to submit applications [to play in next season’s] KHL is 30th April,” he said. “Any application for Medvescak to play in the KHL... depends on the responses of our sponsors and especially on whether there will be further cooperation with our partners in Russia.
“This week’s confirmation of participation in the EBEL in no way effects our plans for the KHL. The competition in which Medvescak will play next season will be announced by the end of May.”
However, Mennel’s statement on the EBEL website continued: “The participation of Medvescak Zagreb stands firm.”
Prior to joining the KHL, Medvescak spent four seasons in the EBEL. On two occasions, it reached the playoff semi-finals and in 2012 it finished second in the regular-season table. The club’s youth team still plays in the junior section of that competition.