BUDAPEST – When the puck drops this evening for the game between Hungary and Great Britain it will be the 19th World Championship at three different levels with the Hungarian men’s national team for Balazs Ladanyi.
Ladanyi is Hungarian for late bloomer. Before he was ten he neither knew what ice hockey was nor that there was an ice rink in his hometown of Dunaujvaros, at that time outdoor.
“Four of my classmates played hockey,” the 37-year-old said, including his team mate Viktor Szelig. “They invited me. I just went there and got stuck there. Our coach was really tough and yelling all the time but I just didn’t care and loved hockey.”
Nothing indicated Ladanyi would go on to having one of the longest hockey careers in Hungary during his first few years. Although he was with the team he wasn’t playing a lot.
“I was on the bench most of the time as a junior with just a few seconds of ice time until I was 16. But it didn’t matter because I just loved the sport,” Ladanyi said. “Later I got better and better year by year. The results came and I hit the level I’m at right now and I’m so happy about it.”
The results came very quickly, as Ladanyi went being benched on his club team to becoming a U18 national team player as a 16-year-old. In his third year with the U18 national team he had five goals and nine assists in the 1994 IIHF European U18 Championship B-Pool. On home ice in Szekesfehervar the team finished second behind a new nation, Belarus, but before Denmark, Austria, Italy, Romania, France and Spain.
When he was 19 he was already playing with the men’s national team in the 1995 IIHF World Championship C-Pool in Sofia, Bulgaria. From that moment on it went upwards with the Hungarian national team also thanks to Ladanyi, who two times reached the mark of 12 scoring points in a Division I tournament.
Since 2001 the country is an established nation in the second tier of ice hockey and in 2009 the nation even appeared in the top division in Switzerland for the first time in 70 years.
“I had many special moments but the most important one was when we beat Ukraine in Sapporo (Japan) in 2008 to get promoted to the top division. I think 11 of us were there and everybody will mention this,” Ladanyi said.
Everything seemed to work out as well as it could for the team in the Far East five years ago.
At that time Ladanyi played for Briançon Diables Rouges in the French league. After getting ousted in the play-offs he joined the national team in Hungary without having had the chance to participate in the training camp because the next day the team flew to Japan.
“We didn’t see a lot of Sapporo because we went there for business but I loved it. Everything looks nicely built and clean and controlled,” Ladanyi remembered.
“For our team we must have everything perfect to get to that level. I don’t know why but at that time everything worked out perfectly. We also had a Hungarian team entering the Austrian league that year which improved our level of play.”
For Ladanyi every game needs to be perfect if the team wants to have the chance to repeat the success it had in Sapporo. But it was a special year in Hungary. A year in which the major club team, Sapa Fehervar AV19, finished second from bottom in the Austrian EBEL in what became the team’s worst season since joining the league.
After a bad start in the season Kevin Primeau, who was also coaching the national team by then, was replaced by Jan Neliba. The chemistry didn’t work out well for Ladanyi. For him it was the worst experience in his career. In the end he had to leave and felt treated like a scapegoat because the club didn’t want to change the coach again.
“I was the luckiest guy on the team in this situation because I got fired,” he said frankly. “I went to Bolzano and I felt very well there. The team was good and the Italian league was good. But I know the guys who stayed [with Fehervar] weren’t so happy.”
In this situation Ladanyi’s experience from the past two decades will be helpful. In fact, he has never missed any World Championship tournament with Hungary since his debut in 1995.
“The experiences in the World Championships gave me many things and one is that I’m not nervous during the games no matter whether it’s 0-0, 2-2 or two minutes before the end of the game or the last penalty shot,” the forward said.
“I know that we have nothing to lose, we can only win with hockey because we play it and we love to play it. For me hockey is the first thing in my life and I know my wife is a little bit upset and has to live with that but she just has to stay calm for the couple of years and then things will turn for the rest of my life. My family supports me a lot in my career.”
But hockey will not stay out of his life totally since he might work as a coach in the future. He has a B-license as a coach and is working on the A-license.
“I like to help Hungarian hockey to get better with my experience if I can,” he said.
But that’s still years away. For now he wants to help on the ice and all that matters for him is the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A. On home ice in the capital of Budapest the Hungarians battle for the top-two spots to earn promotion to the top division. Italy, Kazakhstan, Japan, Great Britain and Korea will be the other teams at the Laszlo Papp Sportarena.
Like two years ago at the same venue more than 8,000 red-hot Hungarian fans will cheer on their team. Two years ago the Hungarians missed promotion due to an overtime loss against Italy. And in November the Hungarians missed out on advancing to the Final Olympic Qualification at the same venue when they lost the tournament to lower-seeded Netherlands.
“I don’t feel any pressure but it might be different for the young kids when they enter the arena and you have this goose-bump feeling when 9,000 fans sing for you. The atmosphere is amazing and you can tell people how great it is but one can never fully understand the feeling unless you experience it by standing on the ice in this situation,” Ladanyi said.
“For the young guys it might be different especially for the ones playing their first World Championship. They might be nervous but we hope they will get used to it and fight like a hockey player. They have to handle the pressure as soon as possible and use it for their advantage.”
The first challenge for Hungary will be Great Britain. The team of Tony Hand defeated Hungary 5-4 one year ago in a match that was only for the record for the Hungarians since they secured the bronze medals beforehand and didn’t have the mathematical chance to move up on the last day. This time there will be more at stake for the Magyars that are coached by Canadian Rich Chernomaz, who was hired to coach the national team in February.