BRASOV, Romania – 88 years have passed since the Romanian city celebrated its sole domestic league championship. Having already rekindled the passion for hockey, ASC Corona Brasov now steps up their trophy hunt while keeping one eye firmly on the future.
On the face of it, having to settle for a single piece of silverware during a season that finished with a double heartbreak might appear as scant consolation for Corona Brasov. But instead of licking its wounds following a dramatic ending to last season which saw the Transylvanians first miss out on the MOL Liga play-offs during the final game day before suffering defeat in the Romanian championship final series, the 2012/2013 season will be forever cherished in the annals of the young club's history.
An Attila Borsos game winning 3-2 goal on the road against HSC Csikszereda in Miercurea Ciuc just before Christmas last year saw Corona being crowned as 2012 Romanian Cup winners. The epic turnaround following a two-goal deficit won the team its first major accolade, which is soon hoped to be followed by a steady stream of cups adorning the club's trophy cabinet.
"We have big plans for this team," says Corona's club president Emilian Cernica referring to a strategy which was drawn up by the management team during the summer of 2012. "First year: one trophy. Second year: two trophies. Third year: three trophies."
With the first hurdle already accomplished, the challenge for this season is to keep hold of the Romanian cup but also bring the national league championship to Brasov. For the 2014/2015 season the bar will be raised yet another notch, as domestic glory aside, Corona will be seeking victory in the MOL Liga, the cross-border league which currently is made up by four teams from Hungary, two from Romania and one from Slovakia.
Home of a quarter of a million people, Brasov, with an picturesque medieval centre adorned with colourful architecture and cobbled streets overlooked by the lush Southern Carpathian mountains has historically been an stronghold for a wide array of winter sports. Ice hockey first arrived here in the 1920s with the now defunct Brasovia Brasov winning the first Romanian national ice hockey championship in 1925. With four outdoor ice rinks during the 1950s and ’60s - the city experienced a hockey boom coinciding with Romania's national team Olympic debut in Innsbruck 1964 - before interest gradually waned in the city.
By the time the first edition of the MOL Liga went underway during the 2008/2009 season, six teams from Hungary and four Romanian teams took part. While Brasov was noted by its absence, hockey on a higher level had by then already awoken from its slumber. A Brasov based team joined the MOL Liga the following season, and in 2010 they became Corona which had coincided with the inauguration of the city's shining 2,000-seat ice arena, Pationarul Olimpic, in February the same year.
Strategically perched between two historical powerhouses for hockey in Romania, with Miercurea Ciuc, 100 kilometers up the road, and capital Bucharest 180 kilometers to the south, Brasov's resurrection for hockey arrived at a time when hockey in Bucharest had fallen on hard times. With the new kid on the block Corona arriving on the scene, strongly backing by the municipality, they appeared a well-equipped contender that with given time could threaten the absolute supremacy held by Miercurea Ciuc, home of 38,000 people, whose team, today renamed as HSC Csikszereda, had turned the Romanian national championship into a one-horse race.
Trying to find its feet while building up a project from scratch, a strong stream of know-how from coaches and players alike initially seeped through from Miercurea Ciuc to Brasov. But as the newcomers performances out on the ice were blowing hot and cold, Corona's management team went back to the drawing board in an attempt to stamp their own authority on the development, which coincided with the appointment of Greger Lindqvist arriving as the club's new head coach in the summer of 2012.
Of solid northern Swedish stock with vast coaching experience from the continent, Lindqvist had most recently guided Hungary’s Miskolc to a surprise MOL Liga final during the 2011/2012 season, before being wooed to Brasov excited by long-term ambitions of a team forming the southern outpost of the MOL Liga. Settling in with ease in his blue and yellow surroundings he quickly committed himself even further to Corona's cause by signing a two-year extension to his contract in October last year.
Under Lindqvist's tutelage a more stringent professionalism on and off the ice has been installed while trying to cut down the average age on a roster which in due course is expected to come with a much stronger local flavour.
Spearheaded by Yevgeni Pisarenko, head of the junior set-up at Corona, work is now underway to develop the next generation of players between 8 to 18 years. 33-year-old Kyiv-born Pisarenko, a naturalised Romanian with three World Championships under his belt for his adopted country, signed up with Corona from Steaua Bucharest last year and he was been kept busy ever since. Still pulling a shift as a rugged defenceman for Corona while overseeing the work of his junior coaching staff, a prosperous future for the game in the city is hoped to be secured by a new hockey academy seeing its light, a much welcomed initiative following the decay of once prosperous hockey centres across the country in Bucharest, Galati and Gheorgheni.
"The hockey academy could turn into something very good," says Lindqvist on a project where players from near and far can combine playing hockey with receiving an education. "There is already talent, who will be 16-17 next year and the goal is to start moving up one or two of them up to the first team as of next year until we one day are able to field a 'real' Brasov team," he continues, hoping that it might not take too long before the curious case of Ion Tiriac will be replaced as the most well-known hockey player to have come from the city.
Tiriac, who played for Romania's national team during the 1964 Winter Olympics, metamorphosed soon after into an international tennis Hall of Famer winning the French open double championship in 1970, before making another drastic career-shift later in life as he turned into a widely successful businessman and the first Romanian to enter Forbes' List of billionaires in 2007.
With the MOL Liga now underway in its sixth season of existence, reigning champions Hungary's DAB Dunaujvaros and HC Nove Zamky from Slovakia have considerable strengthened their respective rosters in a cross-border league that appears stronger than ever. Corona, who together with HSC Csikszereda currently are Romanian only two participants in the league, locked horns already in the opening fixture of this current season as Corona recorded a morale-boosting 4-2 road win in Miercurea Ciuc, a rivalry intensified by the seven players featuring for Corona in this season's opener who originally hail from Miercurea Ciuc and with a vocal section of HSC Csikszereda support accuse for chasing the quick buck following their move 100 kilometres south.
"I only play hockey, it is my only mean of income and we have a very short career," says Zsombor Antal, born and brought up in Miercurea Ciuc and a stalwart in the current Corona team. "As players we have better conditions here in Brasov than in Miercurea Ciuc. Better food, training, salaries, coaching and accommodation," he continues.
Having lost their two last consecutive Romanian champions finals, Corona Brasov may still live in the shadow of HSC Csikszereda, who has lifted seven Romanian national championships in a row. But with the new kid on the block quickly catching up, exciting times are looming around the corner for Corona with only the sky being the limit.
"To win the national championship would mean a lot for us," says Cernica. "Everything - starting with the fans to the sponsorship - would then grow even faster. We would have the potential to increase the ice rink capacity if needed so when the city's airport is planned to be ready in 2015 anything could be possible in terms of the future development of the team."