BUDAPEST – For the better part of the past decade the strength of the Hungarian national team has always been the depth of defencemen, whether it was coached by Pat Cortina through Ted Sator or now Rich Chernomaz.
Making up that unit for most of those years has been a list of six players, Balazs Kangyal, Andras Horvath, Tamas Sille, Bence Svasznek, Viktor Szelig, and Viktor Tokaji. The captains of these teams also came from this core group of players that were leaders on and off the ice with the “C” being passed from Kangyal to Szelig to now the only one left from this group, Tokaji.
Horvath, Szelig and Sille ended their international careers last season and Tokaji has become the most experienced defenceman. That gave Hungarian head coach Rich Chernomaz and his staff the task of rebuilding a part of the team that was the backbone for so many years.
During the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A on home ice in Budapest, Chernomaz decided to build his team based on a 1-3-1 setup in which he would pair an experienced player with a young quick defenceman with the veteran being the one in the back. During the 2-1 upset win against Kazakhstan the team switched to a 1-1-3 and has stayed with the system ever since.
“We kind of stuck with the system because we felt that due to the lack of depth and the lack of experience back there this would fit for us better,” said Chernomaz.
Because of the change in philosophy, Chernomaz needed to find defencemen with some size and stick reach. “Any coach will tell you when building their team you want to have good size on defence. It’s not just the size but the stick reach. Tall guys tend to have a longer stick, stick presence is always very important.”
The team already had Marton Vas, who checks in at 189 cm and 92 kg and was already moved from forward to defenceman last year, along with Adrian Huffner (186 cm, 95 kg), Attila Orban (190 cm 100 kg), and Arnold Varga (190 cm, 95 kg).
A couple more big experienced players would be needed and this was when Chernomaz turned to two 33-year-old forwards, Arpad Mihaly (188 cm, 99 kg) and Tamas Groschl (190 cm, 95 kg).
Mihaly and Groschl have had excellent careers both in Hungary and abroad as forwards. Groschl was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 1999, played in the ECHL and the Swedish Elitserien whereas Mihaly spent the better part of a decade playing in the AHL and the ECHL before returning to Europe. With the Hungarian national team Groschl was part of the team that earned promotion in Sapporo in 2008 but had not been on the team since and Mihaly, born in Transylvania, was a staple of the forward unit since he received Hungarian citizenship.
Unfortunately neither of them had played on the blueline in their careers up until this season. Groschl finished the last month and a half as a defenceman with his club team in the MOL Liga, Dunaujvaros, because of a rash of injuries that plagued the team. Mihaly has even less experience as a defenceman. During the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge tournament in Gdansk, Poland, in February he took a couple of shifts on the blueline during each game. Both players were informed by Rich Chernomaz that from there on he was counting on them as defencemen instead of forwards.
Both players were surprised but had no problem with the decision but overall liked the idea. “I’ll do whatever is needed for the team, it’s a new challenge, I get to see a different side of the game of hockey,” said Groschl. “I’m very proud that the coach kept me on the squad because of this, both Arpad and me have some size and we can play physical and clear some room in front of the net.”
“I was surprised at first. Usually they move a centre back to defence since they usually play down low,” said Mihaly. “I talked to Rich. He wanted physical presence on defence, maybe try to move the puck up and skate with the puck a little bit, try to help with the offence.”
Last week, leading up to two exhibition games held in Budapest, both Groschl and Mihaly put in a significant amount of time both on the ice and in meetings trying to pick up what other defencemen have experienced and learned throughout a career.
“It’s obviously not an easy adjustment. They have the size and the strength to solve certain situations. In the defensive zone, they have an advantage in both in front of the net and the corners. Their speed is a bit slower but they can take care of what they need to on the ice,” said assistant coach Gergely Majoross. “Of course they need some help since they have been playing the game from a different point of view as a forward. But a player who has experience and understands the game can make the adjustments that are needed.”
Captain and fellow defenceman Viktor Tokaji gave his own point of view as to what he saw on the ice of the transformation from forwards to defencemen.
“We have an attacking style of a defensive system. They have the physical characteristics and the experience that is needed. Of course if they had question they have turned not only to me but also all the other fellow defencemen on the ice. We have somewhat of a new system that is being installed on defence that other guys have not played at their club teams and therefore are try to make them get used to it.”
During the two games that were played against Austria and Slovenia, two teams that they will be playing during the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Korea, Mihaly’s defensive partner was Huffner and they were working mostly with the third and fourth forward units whereas Groschl was paired with Bence Sziranyi on the first unit.
Rich Chernomaz gave an analysis after the two games: “I was satisfied with Mihaly. It was his first full game where he played in the back end. I thought both him and Groschl were fine, they didn't struggle and tried to keep the gaps closed.”
Arpad Mihaly said after the game: “In Poland I played on the blue line. It was a little tougher since I only had the pre-game skate to get used to it and I have never played defence before. It was a little hard. This time around I had five days to work on it. It’s a totally different part of the game with the responsibility defenders have. The coaches helped me a lot. Actually my teammates and my defence partner helped me as well. I thought for playing good teams it went well but there is a lot still to work on.
“However I have not developed the instinct and capabilities that I have as a forward. I have to think fast and I have to be accountable for my decisions. I will have to learn fast in the last four or five days before the championship.”
Either way it will be interesting to see come the end of next week when we will know better how the two former forwards have acclimated to their new positions after playing five games against some hard competition.
Final roster not set
Rich Chernomaz has yet to set his final roster. There are still a number of question marks regarding the final 22 players. In net it looks like Zoltan Hetenyi will be the starter while the positions of the backup and the emergency goalkeeper have yet to be determined. Peter Sevela started in the 5-4 shootout loss to Austria where he looked a bit anxious. It will come down to who Chernomaz and goalie coach Gary Clarke feel would be the better fit between Sevela and Miklos Rajna.
Nine defencemen and 11 forwards will be in Korea for the start of the event although Marton Vas and Gergo Nagy were not among the players that landed in Seoul on Tuesday evening. Vas will be joining the team right before the championship starts whereas Nagy will join the squad if his team, the Quad City Mallards of the Central Hockey League, don’t make it to the second round of the playoffs, which would mean that someone else would be sent home. If the Mallards advance, Nagy will not be joining.
Zoltan Hetenyi, Fehervar AV19
Miklós Rajna, Fehervar AV19
Peter Sevela, Dunaujvaros
Tamas Groschl, Dunaujvaros
Adrian Huffner, Dunaujvaros
Arpad Mihaly, Fehervar AV19
Attila Orban, Fehervar AV19
Tamas Pozsgai, Fehervar AV19
Bence Sziranyi, Fehervar AV19
Viktor Tokaji, Fehervar AV19
Arnold Varga, Fehervar AV19
Marton Vas, Lowen Frankfurt (GER3)
Zsolt Azari, Dunaujvaros
Istvan Bartalis, Troja-Ljungby (SWE2)
Andras Benk, Fehervar AV19
Janos Hari, HIFK Helsinki (FIN)
Daniel Koger, Elmira Jackals (ECHL)
Csaba Kovacs, Fehervar AV19
Balint Magosi, Fehervar AV19
Gergo Nagy, Quad City Mallards (CHL)
Krisztian Nagy, El Paso Rhinos (WSHL)
Balazs Sebok, Karpat Oulu (FIN)
Istvan Sofron, Krefeld Pinguine (GER)
Janos Vas, Rouen Dragons (FRA)