Small country, big heart

Slovenia looks to take a bite out of the big dogs

28.01.2014
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Slovenia's succesful qualification campaign helped to bring together a team with great chemistry and passion for the sport. Photo: Jan Korsgaard

LJUBLJANA – Slovenia is a first-timer to the Olympic Games, but that doesn’t mean this tiny nation will be a pushover when it hits the ice in Sochi.

Slovenian ice-hockey players have in fact been around longer than their own country, having played for Yugoslavia at the Olympic tournament numerous times, the last time in Sarajevo 1984. Exactly thirty years after that Slovenian team will play in the preliminary round in Sochi against Russia, Slovakia and the USA.

Slovenia is a country with only 148 registered senior male ice-hockey players and seven rinks. Almost every sixth of Slovenian registered players will represent his country in Sochi. There are more indoor rinks in the Czech Republic (158) than registered senior male players in Slovenia. In Slovakia, an ice-hockey giant that will be playing in the same group as the Slovenes, there are almost five times more senior male players than in this 2014 Olympic debuting country.

But that can also be an advantage. As one of the most experienced Slovenian players Marcel Rodman says: “Our strongest weapon is a good atmosphere. We are a very specific team, because we know each other very well, we are friends, who meet every couple of months and play together. Since there are very small changes in the team, we can really improve our game. This is our advantage over the others.” Top Slovene defenceman Mitja Robar agrees: “The great atmosphere in our team is not trumped-up. It is actually true. Not many players have changed in the national team, some of us have played together from our youth, some still play together in their clubs. This created a strong bond, which is definitely important in a team sport. And this distinguishes us from other teams.” Although nobody expects Slovenia to score many points at the Olympic Games, the creator of Slovenia’s qualification fairy tale, coach Matjaz Kopitar, says they are not going to Sochi to surrender: “What happened in Vojens was really great. But that does not mean that we will go to the Olympic Games only to have a good time. It is an honour and a privilege to represent your country at such a big tournament and we will do our best to be competitive. We have some hidden desires, however we know each point will be a big success. Nevertheless, we will not surrender. We know against whom we play, but we will have our top players in Sochi and let’s hope for the best.” Coach Kopitar will take the best possible team to Russia, together with Slovenia’s biggest star, his son Anze Kopitar, who is one of the best forwards in the NHL. “In Sochi we will try to present ourselves in the best possible way,” said Anze Kopitar. “We will play our game and try our best and we will see where that leads us. We will lay all our cards on the table, but we cannot predict anything yet. Given the fact that I am the only player from the NHL it is expected that my role is to be a team leader. I will try to be the lead of our game and will try to show my best. That is all I can do.” A player that used to play in the NHL and is now a member of CSKA in KHL, forward Jan Mursak, knows that it will not be easy in Sochi, but believes they have some chances to overcome their opponents: “It is true that our preparation will not be long and we will only play one preparatory game, but other teams, which consist mostly of the players from the NHL, will have even less. In our team all the players know each other, so we have no problem in functioning together as a team. Of course other teams have more quality, but we will represent Slovenia with all our hearts and we will try to sour our opponents’ day as much as possible. I believe that if we play as a team and we leave our hearts on the ice, we will not be easy to overcome. I guess the best options we have are against Slovakia, but still, they have a very competitive and experienced team.” Nevertheless, Slovenian team knows, they will be underdogs in all their games in Sochi. “The fact that we play against the favourite teams is nothing new. In the elite division we encounter this almost every game. The only thing that is new is that all three teams will play with their best players. To some extent we have to respect their quality, but on the other hand we have to believe in ourselves and our qualities and that we can win,” says Rodman. Robar adds: “On the other hand, we will also have our best team with Anze Kopitar and Jan Mursak, which will give us extra confidence. It is difficult to predict, who we may surprise, because usually inferior teams play much more energetically, while the favourites sometimes underestimate their opponents.” Not only will Slovenia play amongst the best 12 countries in the world, the team’s captain Tomaz Razingar will also had an honour of being a flag bearer at the Opening ceremony: “This is a nice recognition. All the guys, who were in Denmark, would deserve this honour, as well as the rest of Slovenian athletes traveling to the games. I will bear it with great pride. Everybody can hardly wait to get going in Sochi. We will try to surprise any of the big teams, even though we know it will be difficult, as we will play against the ice-hockey giants.” Projected Result: Qualification to the Olympic tournament is more than anybody expected from the Slovene team. They will face three ice-hockey giants in the preliminary round, all of who are openly predicted to play for medal. Slovenia will be the underdog in all of its games, but judging by the last results and its play against the best teams in the past, it can sour anybody’s life. Top-3 Players: Anze Kopitar: He is the first Slovene to play in the NHL. He was drafted in 2005, 11th overall by LA Kings. He won the Stanley Cup for the first time in June 2012. Due to playing in the NHL, he cannot play for the national team as often as he wants, but is more than ready to help his teammates and friends when he can. A big star is making sports history for the country. His numerous successes have triggered real euphoria in Slovenia, and hopefully it will continue in Sochi. Jan Mursak: In the last year’s lockout in the NHL, Mursak played for Slovenian team Olimpija in ErsteBank Eishockeyliga and was the best player in this tough competition. After an unfortunate experience in Detroit in the NHL, he relocated to KHL and played for Amur Khabarovsk before moving to CSKA in the mid-season. In 12 games played in the national team he scored eight goals and five assists. Mitja Robar: One of the best defencemen in Slovenia has a lot of experience on national and international level. Since 2012 he plays for Krefeld Pinguine in DEL, they were third in the last season and will surely miss him during the Olympic Games, when DEL will enter the final stage of the regular season. Dark Horse: Luka Gracnar: He has been a remarkably accomplished goaltender during his career, both with clubs and on the international stage. With only 20 years of age he is the youngest in Slovenian team, but already plays in Austrian club Salzburg since 2010. He had high expectations for the 2013 NHL draft, but no team opted for him. Hopefully he will have more luck at his last chance in 2014. In this season's Erste Bank Eishockeyliga his save percentage is 92.1% in 30 games and his star is slowly rising in the senior national team as well. MATEJA VODISKAR

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