MIERCUREA CIUC, Romania - After the doom and gloom at the end of last season, optimism is back in a Transylvanian hockey town.
On November 26, SC Miercurea Ciuc – also known as HSC Csikszereda in Hungarian – will be the first Romanian team ever to play in the third round of the Continental Cup as they take on reigning Danish champion SønderjyskE Vojens in Asiago, Italy. The other teams in the four-team tournament are hosts HC Asiago and Sokil Kyiv from Ukraine. The winner will qualify for the Continental Cup Super Final played in Minsk, January 14-16, 2011.
Confidence and spirits have been high with hockey lovers in Miercurea Ciuc, some 260 kilometres north of Bucharest, after the Romanians’ wins over Sary-Arka Karaganda from Kazakhstan and Slovenians HDK Maribor in the previous round of the Continental Cup, which paved the team’s way to Asiago.
The historical success follows a hectic pre-season where Sport Club Miercurea Ciuc (SC) not only changed its team name in the Hungarian-Romanian MOL Liga to HSC Csikszereda, but also underwent far more fundamental changes in terms of structure and organisation of the club.
Despite being crowned Romanian champion, the 2009-2010 season had been burdensome for the club in blue and white. A disappointing fourth place in the MOL Liga and mounting financial difficulties meant drastic measures were urgently required.
Robert Kalman Raduly, Mayor of Miercurea Ciuc, announced that the town would cover part of the club's debt in return for a big say on its re-building process. With the survival of the club granted, new sponsors soon entered the fold to play their part in moving the illustrious club formed in 1929 forward.
The next step was to recruit a new coach to replace the departing Swede Ulf Weinstock. Fellow countryman Charles Franzén - with previous coaching experience at IK Oskarshamn and the juniors of HV71 to name a few - checked in as head coach and was joined by a second Swede, Michael Larsson, whose main responsibility is to develop the coaching in the youth department.
Despite having the bulk of their first team full of home-grown players - where players such as for example Ervin Moldovan, Csanad Virag, and 17-year-old prospect Zsombor Molnár - stand out against opponents in both the MOL Liga and the national championship – Miercurea Ciuc is very much a team relying on its foreign spine of the team. The Slovak pair, goalkeeper Stanislav Kozuch and defenceman Jozef Hrubý, is already part of the furniture after long careers at the club. This season they have been joined by another two compatriots: Lubomir Hurtaj and Ladislav Sikorcin as well as the Czech Václav Novák, a former two-time Czech champion.
"We have more home-grown players in the team while the level here has to be raised, but it's difficult as we don't have a U20 team," said Franzén. "The players aren't allowed to develop at their own pace and have to be ready at 18 to step into a senior team and how many are able to do that? It's very, very few. In team's like Steaua and Brasov they might have more such players, but here we have had quite a lot of senior players over the years, which had meant that the juniors would have to be very, very good to take a place in the first team. So if we would have had a U20 team here, then it would have been much better and the gap between junior and seniors would be smaller."
At the beginning of this century, a farm team, HC Csikszereda was set-up in Miercurea Ciuc to offer fringe players of “SC” competitive games. But soon the amicable partnership turned into a fierce rivalry as “HC” rebelled against the old system to challenge for hockey hegemony in the town. Boosted by wealthy backers, they soon made big name signings while SC did their best to follow suit leading to spiralling costs for both clubs operating in a small market.
The rivalry reached its nadir during 2008-2009, a season when HC won the joint Hungarian/Romanian MOL Liga while SC was crowned Romanian champion. Soon after, the financial situation become intolerable and HC folded while SC had since struggled to pay up for the lavish expenditures which in the end resulted in a new club name.
But with efforts now united and with highlighting the town name in Hungarian, Csikszereda, to appease its population of over 80% ethnic Hungarians, the ancestral club of SC is now aiming to consolidate its position as the dominant force in Romania and the MOL Liga.
Once there was a time when hockey in Miercurea Ciuc lived in the shadows of the teams from Bucharest, at least in terms of national championships won. Although the ancestral club of Miercurea Ciuc won five Romanian championships until 1963, a long fallow period followed which lasted until 1997 when they once again won the domestic crown.
The story of Bela Nagy is telling for what it was like being a player during the barren years for hockey in Miercurea Ciuc, when the big two from the Romanian Capital, Dinamo and Steaua held a duopoly on the Romanian national championship winning every title between the years 1964-1996.
"We didn't win any championships at that time, as it wasn't allowed for us to win as a so called Hungarian team," said Nagy, born and bred in Miercurea Ciuc and today on the coaching staff of the team.
In 1976 Nagy was one of the brightest shining stars at his hometown club and also playing a big part in Romania winning promotion from the B-group of the IIHF World Championship in Switzerland. The Interior Ministry-controlled Dinamo liked what they had seen and soon Nagy received a call-up to the military service in Bucharest. Between the years 1976 to 1980 he wore the red jersey of Dinamo where he was joined by other national team players from Miercurea Ciuc such as for example his older brother Zoltan and defenceman Sandor Gal.
Following Nagy's return to Miercurea Ciuc in 1980, hockey was in slow decline in the country with the ageing of a fine generation and the financial hardship during Ceausescu's final decade in charge. After the 1989 Revolution, the level of the game got even worse when players left the country en masse to mainly Hungary and Austria. Bela Nagy himself moved to Italy in 1991 and spent two separate spells and eights years in total in Northern Italy before returning back home to Miercurea Ciuc in 2008.
With Dinamo's ice hockey program having long since folded and Steaua showing a far more human side on the ice these days, Miercurea Ciuc is very much the dominant force in Romanian ice hockey today, having won the national championship four years in succession. But the past counts for very little to current head coach Franzén as he tries to move the game forward while instilling a share of Scandinavian level-mindedness into Eastern Transylvanian hockey.
"There is a strong desire in this area to be leading. But at the same time you need to move forward all the time and never think that what you are doing are the best. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times as you cannot use to same style of play for ten years," said Franzén.Notebook:
- With an impressive 40 league titles - a world record for national championships - traditional powerhouse Steaua from Bucharest announced earlier this year a link-up with New York Rangers. While the supporters are eagerly awaiting any visible impact of the deal, Canadian pair Cam Severson and Brian Soso have departed since the end of last season.
- After making his IIHF World Championship Division II-debut in Narva, Estonia, earlier this year, 17-year-old Roberto Gliga, one of the most promising young prospects in Romanian hockey today, left Steaua Bucharest this summer to continue his career at the junior ranks of Tingsryds AIF in Sweden, where he has had enjoyed a solid start to the new season.
- With a new arena, lofty ambitions and established names such as 30-year-old national team player Szabolcs Szocs signed up during the close season, SCM Brasov has had a promising start to the new campaign and looks like the best suited candidate to challenge Miercurea Ciuc’s dominance in Romanian hockey both this season and beyond.