LJUBLJANA – Slovenian ice hockey players had to forget their Olympic success from Sochi very quickly. Their main goal this season is in front of them: They have to win first or second place at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Korea and find themselves among the elite again, otherwise their seventh place in Sochi will be practically worthless.
The task will not be easy since the team will have to play without eight top players that are still playing in their clubs’ championships. But this is not the only and biggest problem of Slovenian ice hockey in the last years.
Slovenian head coach Matjaz Kopitar is missing some of the most important actors at the Olympic Games and last World Championships. Anze Kopitar is heading to the NHL playoffs with Los Angeles Kings, Ziga Jeglic, Robert Sabolic, Ales Kranjc and Rok Ticar will play in the finals of the German DEL, Robert Kristan is playing in the finals in Slovakia and even before that it was clear that defencemen Klemen Pretnar and Sabahudin Kovacevic will not be able to go to Korea due to injury (Pretnar) and playing in the finals of the Russian second-tier league VHL (Kovacevic).
“We are left without some important players, but this is the team we have for the World Championship. We showed at the exhibition games that if we play responsible, we can win each game. The younger boys relaxed and played well, which gives us the broader range and the older players may have a little more time to relax during the game. It will be a very difficult tournament,” said Kopitar.
“We are not superior, we do not have a complete team in which every player knows what his job is. Some players will have new, more important roles in Korea and they will have to believe in themselves and in what they need to do. And of course they will need to do it well.”
Slovenia played two exhibition games in recent days and won against two opponents that will also play in Korea, Austria and Hungary.
“We played very positively in these two games and we have to play the same at every game at the World Championship in order to progress to the elite again. My role will be different than in the past, I will be among the leading players,” said forward Ales Music. “I will do my best and I hope that the coach will be pleased with my game. In the World Championship we will have to be really careful, we need to minimize the penalties, because this is the question of winning or losing.”
Captain Tomaz Razingar agrees: “We played two good games during preparation and for the time being we can be satisfied. But the championship will be a different story. The most important and decisive will be, as always, the start. We must be aware that we will play without eight great players that were bearers of the play until now. Therefore, the championship will be far from easy.”
One of the players in very good shape is Bostjan Golicic, who recently won the French title with Briançon. “This is the biggest success in the history of our club. Nobody expected that we will win. It is a sensation. But now the only goal is the return to the elite of world hockey with the national team.”
The last players to join the national team are Luka Gracnar and Ziga Pance, who played in the finals of the Austria-based EBEL. Pance scored the decisive goal for Bolzano, which became the first non-Austrian team to win the Austrian league while Gracner is Salzburg’s goalkeeper.
The EBEL is, in opinion of Gorazd Drinovec, head coach of the club Triglav Kranj, one of the better things that happened to Slovenian ice hockey in recent years: “With the EBEL league, Slovenia gained quality games with ten teams, which was good for our professional teams Olimpija and Jesenice.”
But there are problems in Slovenian clubs at many levels – there’s little sponsor money, media coverage and ticket revenue. Players in the domestic league are amateurs and coaches earn little money, in the best case. Despite all the problems, Triglav Kranj is doing very well under Drinovec’s leadership. Every year five to eight players are enrolled in Slovenian U18 and U20 teams, which is an evidence of the quality of work of their coaches. “But we are especially proud of our players Ziga Pavlin, Andrej Tavzelj and Anze Kuralt, who were a part of Olympic team this year.”
The domestic championship was won by EBEL club Olimpija Ljubljana, the only professional team in the country. And also this club is struggling financially with players and coaches waiting for the recent monthly salaries. Players had to borrow each other’s sticks in order to practise and the club didn’t have luck when picking import players.
“You need four or five quality domestic national team players or quality foreigners from which the young players can learn. This season we only had one proper foreign player. That was MacAuley, who came from Zagreb. In my playing career I always had someone to learn from and progress,” believes Ivo Jan, one of the best former Slovenian players, who was Olimpija’s head coach in the past season.
But Jan thinks all the players have to think positive even about the last events. “For us it was a beautiful lesson. For me as a coach and them as players. They must remember what has been positive this season. But I knew what I was getting into, and such opportunities I would not get abroad. I always look at everything from the positive side. I got the opportunity in Ljubljana, but the first chance I got to progress, I took advantage of it,” says Jan, who will be assistant coach in Graz in the next season.
Meanwhile the Slovenian players from Olimpija and elsewhere want to continue the Slovenian national team’s miracle despite these problems.
Andrej Hocevar, Epinal Dauphins (FRA)
Luka Gracnar, Red Bull Salzburg (AUT)
Gasper Kroselj, Sparta Sarpsborg (NOR)
Blaz Gregorc, HC Pardubice (CZE)
Ziga Pavlin, Troya-Ljungby (SWE2)
Andrej Tavzelj, Rouen Dragons (FRA)
Mitja Robar, Krefeld Pinguine (GER)
Matic Podlipnik, Dukla Jihlava (CZE)
Luka Tosic, Villard-de-Lans Ours (FRA)
Miha Stebih, Dukla Jihlava (CZE)
Marcel Rodman, Schwenninger Wild Wings (GER)
David Rodman, IK Oskarsham (SWE2)
Jan Urbas, Red Bull Munich (GER)
Bostjan Golicic, Briançon Diables Rouges (FRA)
Ziga Pance, Bolzano Foxes (ITA)
Ales Music, Olimpija Ljubljana (SLO)
Tomaz Razingar, Troja-Ljungby (SWE2)
Jan Mursak, CSKA Moscow (RUS)
Miha Verlic, Olimpija Ljubljana (SLO)
Anze Kuralt, Epinal Dauphins (FRA)
Gal Koren, HKm Zvolen (SVK)
Jaka Ankerst, Briançon Diables Rouges (FRA)
Rok Leber, Olimpija Ljubljana (SLO)