ZAGREB – Since Croatia’s Medvescak Zagreb joined the Austrian EBEL league last year, the hockey landscape in Croatia has changed drastically. Last year the club was 35th in the European attendance ranking and now Medvescak took another step, selling out games at a 15,200-seat arena.
One could argue the purpose with an all-seat arena when the Medvescak fans were standing to cheer on their team against the Vienna Capitals, in the second of four games held in the Arena Zagreb, a venue normally used for concerts or the typically Croatian team sports basketball and handball.
However, for the games against Klagenfurt, Vienna, Ljubljana and Villach the arena that was opened shortly before the 2009 World Handball Championship was transformed into a state-of-the-art ice hockey venue.
It’s surely something nobody was dreaming of some years ago when the club was drawing a few hundred fans to their games in the Croatian and Slovenian leagues. That changed dramatically with the expansion of the Austrian league to first Slovenia, then Hungary and in 2009 Croatia. (See last year’s story
It was a remarkable comeback of professional ice hockey in a country that seemed to have lost its passion for the sport with the breakup of Yugoslavia 20 years ago, and, consequently, of its hockey league.
The attendance figures jumped to an astonishing 5,843 in the first EBEL season when the club moved to the 7,000-capacity Doma Sportova. This season the number increased to 6,560 prior to the Arena Ice Fever campaign, which featured four games in the city’s premiere multifunctional arena.
The first two games were sold out (15,200 spectators) and the same could happen in Tuesday’s game against Olimpija Ljubljana and on Friday against Villach. It would certainly not be a bad figure in a country that lists just 85 senior hockey players.
Apart from mostly Canadian imports, Medvescak Zagreb has 13 players with Croatian passports on the roster, although many of them are dual citizens returning to their ancestor’s country from North America. One example is Joel Prpic, who played 18 NHL games before moving to Japan and now Croatia. Some of them could eventually become eligible for the Croatian national team, maybe as early as next year.
The crowd figures in Zagreb are the fifth-highest single-game attendance in Europe for an indoor league game. Only Berne, Cologne, Prague, and London during the 2007 NHL Premiere were able to fit more hockey fans into their arenas.
The organizers also had other attractions ready during the intermissions, one including former NHL star Joe Sakic addressing the fans from the video cube. Sakic’s parents emigrated from Croatia, making “Burnaby-Joe” a first-generation immigrant growing up in Canada.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be there. It would have been amazing to be part of this,” Sakic said in a video message. “It’s tremendous news that so many fans are following the greatest game in the world in Croatia!”
With the games at Arena Zagreb, the Croats will likely crack the IIHF’s Top-15 list over attendance in European club hockey.
Only on the ice it doesn’t work to perfection as Medvescak Zagreb lost both games and the club is currently in eighth place in the ten-team league, and with several players sidelined due to injuries. But that doesn’t stop the festive hockey atmosphere in the Croatian capital.