ZAGREB – With an incredible 22 world championships under his belt, he is one of ice hockey's truly great unsung heroes. But the 2011 IIHF World Championship Division II Group B in Zagreb is set to mark the end of the remarkable career of the 46-year-old, who is Bulgaria’s undisputed first-choice goaltender: Konstantin Mihaylov.
"This will be my final year and my last world championship with Bulgaria," says Mihaylov, who made his World Championship debut 26 year ago in 1985.
Earlier this week, Bulgaria was on the back end of a 17-2 drubbing against hosts and favourite Croatia in the Division II event. It was a one-sided affair where Mihaylov faced a barrage of 97 shots and conceded 14 goals before giving way to his young deputy, 20-year-old Teodor Asenov with 5:36 remaining of the of the game.
With Bulgarians heads down following a big score line, Mihaylov got a minor consolation being awarded the Bulgaria's man of the match accolade, but perhaps more heartwarming was the long and rapturous ovation he received from the knowledgeable attendance at Zagreb's Dom Sportova. A fitting tribute to man whose contribution to Bulgarian hockey has been nothing but extraordinary and his impending retirement will leave a legacy which will be hard for future Bulgarian custodians to live up to.
Hailing from an ice hockey loving family in Sofia, Konstantin Mihaylov took up the sport at the age of 13. His father had himself been a player until the age of 40 and his brother, Boris, was for many years the stalwart and captain of the Bulgarian national team.
Mihaylov's idol as a youngster had been Atanas Iliev, who himself played in goal for Bulgaria between 1969 and 1982, and who was like "a father and mentor" to the young Mihaylov. The teachings stood him in good stead over the years and Mihailov carried on the tradition of historically solid Bulgarian goaltending over the years, playing for Levski-Spartak, Metalurg Pernik, Akademika Sofia and most recently for Slavia Sofia, while also spending a number of years abroad in Serbia, Turkey and France.
Mihaylov made his World Championship debut for Bulgaria in a 11-3 defeat against Romania on March 14, 1985, in Mégève, France. Since then he has been the mainstay between the pipes for Bulgaria, not bad for a man who himself claims he peaked in his mid-20s at the end of the 1980s. But since then the hockey world has changed, and Mihaylov recalls how he himself, moving along with times and trying to develop as a goalkeeper, also made him seriously injured for the first time in his career.
"The goalkeeping technique I was taught was to stand up, but I changed to butterfly three or four years ago, which then gave me big problems with one of my knees."
Martin Milanov, forward on the Bulgarian national team, and son of Bulgarian head coach Georgi Milanov, sings his praises for Mihaylov, but also points out the problem of bringing through a new generation of players in Bulgarian hockey, which indirectly had led to the extension of Mihaylov’s international career.
"The level of the juniors that come into the senior team are not anywhere near the level of the older generation of players we have in Bulgaria,” Martin Milanov said. “Mihaylov might be 47 years old, but he is still our best goalkeeper.”
And with Bulgaria slowly preparing for the unthinkable but now inevitable, a life without Mihaylov in goal after their final World Championship game on Saturday against China, Milanov hopes Bulgarian hockey makes the most of their veteran goaltender's know-how in order to continue carrying on the strong Bulgarian goalie tradition to yet another generation.
"Konstantin Mihaylov started coaching our other goalies this year, so perhaps during next year's World Championship he will come along as our goalkeeping coach instead,” he said.