BELGRADE/BUDAPEST – A growing number of Serbian junior prospects have recently moved to Hungary's capital Budapest. With the cooperation between the two neighbours growing at all levels, Serbia hope it can give its domestic game a much welcomed boost.
From the centrally-located seventh district of Hungary's capital Budapest, Slavic voices ring out in the air as another day comes to an end at the Nikola Tesla school with students dispersing from its gates. Named after the country's world-famous inventor, the pulling power of this Serbian school has of late played an influential role in attracting the next generation of Serbian hockey stars to the city for an education both on and off the ice.
A glance at the rosters of Serbia's junior national teams during last year's IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group B reveal telling facts: Nine out of 22 players from the Serbian roster at the tournament played for clubs from Budapest, while the respective figure for the U18's roster was seven. Eight players joined the team currently competing at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group B in Jaca, Spain, from club teams in Budapest.
Pavle Podunavac featured for Serbia in all of those tournaments. The 16-year-old defenceman is currently in his second year in the Hungarian capital and thriving to be in an environment where he has had to step up his game.
"In Serbia the league is weak and some teams can't even get ice time. Here in Budapest hockey is much more serious. We have intense on- and off-ice practices each day and we play up to three games every week," said Podunavac, who left Belgrade-based club Crvena Zvezda to enrol at the Nikola Tesla school in Budapest while signing up to play hockey for one of Hungary's oldest sports clubs, MAC, Magyar Athletikai Club, established way back in 1875.
His U18 teammates and fellow compatriots Sinisa Pajic, Ivan Anic, Uros Bjelogrlic and goaltender Jovan Feher were already in Budapest by the time Podunavac joined up. They helped to ease him settling in a team currently fighting at the very top end of the table of both the Hungarian U18 championship and the competitive Erste Bank Junior League, which features U18 teams from Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia.
But the exodus of top quality talent from Serbia is also coming at a price. Its impact is felt 370 kilometers down the road from Budapest, where the General Secretary of the Serbian Ice Hockey Federation, Djordje Ljoljic, mulls over the effect it is having on the domestic game.
"Serbian juniors moving to Hungary increased around four years ago. Earlier it used to be around a couple or three players leaving each year, but now we see groups of players leaving," said Ljoljic from his office inside Belgrade's Hala Pionir, one of three covered rinks in Serbia and where ice time is a sparse commodity, with four hockey clubs competing with figure skating, short track, curling and public skating for available slots.
"Parents pay big money from their own pockets as they see a move to Hungary for their kid as a chance to improve the skills not only as a player, but also at a school which can open up more doors for universities abroad. For the future development of the national teams it is ok, but when we are speaking about ice hockey here in Serbia, we only have a limited amount of players to work with, so when we now have 22 players moving in one year it is a problem and we feel the effects of it for sure," said Ljoljic.
With over 3.5 million Serbs living outside their country, emigration has been a familiar matter for its people throughout the history. As for the movement of Serbian hockey prospects to Hungary, its beginning can be traced back to around 2007. Back then two clubs from each side of the border, Spartak Subotica in Serbia and Tisza from Szeged on the Hungarian side started to play with joint teams in both country's junior leagues. Soon after this joint team effort opted to put all their efforts playing in one league, the one in Hungary.
Then in 2009 Belgrade-based Crvena Zvezda began to take part in the Hungarian junior league. Starting off with one junior team they later participating with three teams in the U16, U18 and U20 age groups. The initiative was scrapped last year. Jovica Rus, who coached most of those juniors and also led Serbia's U20 team during the last two World Championships recalls Crvena Zvezda's foray into Hungarian junior hockey.
"The agreement was also meant to get Hungarian teams to come to Serbia, but it didn't happen so the project stopped. By then Hungarian teams had already got up their eyes for Serbian talent, while Serbian kids also made contact with Hungarian teams. The effect is now that we lose kids at a much younger age to Hungary, some even as young as 12 or 13, so there is a problem in the system," said Rus.
So what can be done in order to try and turn the tide of promising players choosing to leave the country? "The only thing we can do here in Serbia is to try and increase our number of players," said Ljoljic about a Serbian game feeling the constraints of lack of financing and available ice time.
"We are taking part in all available camps and programs organised by the IIHF. We have also started with both inline and women's hockey, so overall the numbers are improving," he continued and also highlights that a combined 500 kids are currently picking up the game in Novi Sad and Subotica. Another promising sign is the arrival to Belgrade of an inspirational former NHLer with Serbian roots, Dragan "Dan" Kesa, to Belgrade who since August last year has put in a big shift coaching juniors of all ages at capital club Beostar.
"I've seen the players improve straight away, but results won't come overnight," says Kesa. "We need to continue to work hard and then there will be a reward. However, we also need to get the Serbian government involved. Look at countries like Hungary and Turkey where a lot of ice rinks have been built of late thanks to governmental support, so we need to invest in hockey and to get better organised."
As for the continued Serbo-Hungarian links, U8, U10 and U12 teams from Subotica are today playing in the Hungarian leagues, just as mixed teams with players aged between U12 to U16 from both Novi Sad and Subotica take part in the league system of Hungary. But perhaps the more significant step between the two countries has recently been taken on a senior level.
With the Hungarian second division having been scrapped, Tisza from Szeged are as of this season competing in the Serbian league, with further negotiations already underway between the two respective national associations to improved and extended the cooperation for next season. For Serbian hockey this could develop into an extended regional cross-border competition, following the disbandment of the Slohokej league, played between 2009-12 and including teams from Austria, Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia, which during its short existence was won by the Belgrade club, Partizan on two occasions.
"The more teams the better for Serbian hockey. I am glad we have a Hungarian team playing in the senior league, but I would like to see more countries join in too, says Kesa whose Beostar team is one of the contenders aiming to win the Serbo-Hungarian championship. "We really need to play more competitive games, as this is how you will develop as a player, but I would also like to see this cooperation extended even further so that also 13-16 year olds in Serbia will be able to play more games against stronger opponents."
Kesa, eager to get the "ball rolling" in his work to develop Serbian hockey is committed to stay in Belgrade. He was recently rewarded for his work so far when being appointed head coach for Serbia's U18 and U20 national teams.
Meanwhile in Budapest, Podunavac, a stalwart in Serbia's U18 and U20 national teams, harbour hopes of "playing in a good league and making a living out of hockey" as he and his Serbian teammates at MAC:s U18 team are flying high in both competitions. Perhaps one day, taking one small step at a time, that could also mean a move back home to Serbia.
The 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group B in Jaca continues until 17th January. Apart from Serbia and host Spain it also includes Australia, China, Iceland and Korea.