BUDAPEST – If the word loyalty had to be given a name, Viktor Szelig would certainly be a candidate. The 37-year old Hungarian defenceman only served his hometown team Dunaujvaros AC for well over a decade before he moved to France, where he has been rock solid for Briançon since 2006.
Despite his veteran age he still is a mainstay on the national team as well. Where more and more players of his generation hang up their skates, Szelig is still going strong and his leadership on and off the ice is of great value to the Hungarian national team.
It was back in 1993 that Szelig made his international debut at a men’s world championship. The tournament was hosted in Ljubljana and Szelig played three games. He still remembers the event as if it was hosted yesterday.
“I was really young at the time and the Hungarian Ice Hockey Federation gave younger players a chance to gain experience,” Szelig says. “I remember we were playing a huge game against Spain, and I took a stupid penalty late in the game with the score 6-5 in our favour. In the end we managed to win the game and we didn’t pay for my penalty but when sitting in that penalty box I was so nervous that it was probably the longest two minutes of my career.”
At that time Hungary was a marginal C-pool country ranked 26th in the world, a far cry from their status today.
“Hockey changed a lot since then. We used to be a bottom team in the C-pool to become a team that is trying to get back to the A-pool.”
Asked for the reasons behind the Hungarian hockey revolution, the defenceman points out the positive effect of the appointed head coaches that were brought in by the federation.
“We’ve had a lot of good coaches that really helped us in our development. For instance Pat Cortina was very important for us. Not only did we recruit an experienced head coach but also one that had a clear vision on where he felt we should be going to, something that perhaps was lacking at the federation at the time,” says Szelig.
“That was the problem and still is in several countries. You need a clear vision in order to improve and for us it was the turning point that skyrocketed us. After Cortina we had the luxury to work with coaches like Ted Sator, Kevin Primeau and now Diego Scandella. All of them are coaches that coach with passion and want to help us reach the maximum level possible.”
With all that knowledge gained through the years, Szelig himself is becoming an icon in the locker room as well. When he had just joined the national team as a rookie his role was simple:
“be quiet, don’t talk too much and just do your job and know your role.”
Now things have changed and he is the one who the youngsters listen to. Whereas some players feel the burden of spending time travelling all over the world with the national team instead of sitting at home with their families, Szelig has not missed a beat since his debut, meaning he has been representing the green, red and white for two decades now already. Each time he receives the call-up he is filled with pride.
“Every time I put on the jersey I feel special. Nowadays we’re allowed to play with Magyarorszag on our jerseys instead of Hungary which is really meaning a lot to me and all the other players,” he says. “The fans are also very passionate and support us immensely and all that contributes to the fact that I try to dress up for every national team call-up I receive.”
One of the highlights of his career is obviously the participation of Hungary at the elite level in 2009. Although relegation immediately followed it was an experience Szelig and his teammates would love to relive sooner rather than later.
“We strive to go back to the top level but it’s getting harder and harder each year and promotion rules have not changed in our favour meaning every year we’ll have to beat at least two teams who, on paper, are superior to us. But in hockey nothing is impossible and we’ve done it before so why can’t be we do it again,” says Szelig. “Hopefully 2013 will be our year where we can play in front of our home fans in a packed arena.”
The Dunaujvaros native is less optimistic about Hungary’s chances of reaching the Olympic Games, for which he’s currently playing the Olympic Pre-Qualification tournament. “This morning I read our last Olympic participation was in 1964 Innsbrück , Austria. Although we will do our utmost to win this group and the last qualification round as well we have to be realistic that is will be very difficult for us to make it to the top 12 teams of the world.”
The Olympic Games are one of the few things missing on the extensive resume of Viktor Szelig but there are no signs of him thinking of waving goodbye to the game any time soon.
“As long as I’m healthy and got appetite for the game I’ll continue playing, at least for the next few years although I probably won’t be around by the time we will have reached the Olympics,” he jokes. “After my active career I’d love to pick up a coaching job. I’m currently coaching kids in France and I really enjoyed it, opposed to what I thought five years ago. In my opinion hockey development starts with junior hockey. Hungary should focus on that and thus become less dependent on one single team forming the main supplier to our national team.”
Thousands of Hungarian hockey players that grew familiar with the man wearing #5 on the national team won’t have to worry about not seeing Szelig when he quits. Just like many Hungarian players of his generations he is intending on sharing experiences with the future generation.
“I received a lot of good things in life from Hungarian hockey, I’d be grateful if I would be given the opportunity to give something back in return.”