BUDAPEST – Significant strides have been made in Hungarian men's ice hockey this decade, with the highlight so far being its senior national team playing in the top division of the IIHF World Championships in 2009. In order to try and raise the bar for next generations, the Hungarian federation are putting their hopes to the Molodezhnaya Khokkeinaya Liga (MHL).
With the MHL expanding westwards ahead of this season, two teams from outside the former Soviet republics were added to the Kontinental Hockey League's (KHL) junior league, with Energie Karlovy Vary from the Czech Republic joining the Western Conference together with a perhaps more eye-catching second entry, Patriot Budapest from the Hungarian capital.
Currently at number 19 in the men's world ranking, Hungary's senior national team will be hosting the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in April next year. But with its U18 and U20 national teams competing at a lower level, a number of the country's prospects have been joining junior teams abroad to develop their skills. So when the opportunity arose to start up a MHL team in Budapest, the Hungarian federation welcomed the initiative with open arms.
"We only had four covered ice rinks in 2002, and today we have 17, so our hockey is still very much on the developing side. For us, the MHL is a very special opportunity to step into the very highest level of junior hockey and we are very grateful for having been given this chance," said Zoltan Kovacs, General Secretary of the Hungarian Ice Hockey Federation.
Despite having had very little preparation time, Patriot got off to a promising start in their inaugural MHL season. Winning their first ever home match in the Budapest Ice Palace against Loko Yaroslavl, they then followed it up with victories against Mytishi Atlant and MVD Balashikha during their first ever road-trip to the Moscow region in Russia.
Since then, life in the MHL has been much tougher and a string of defeats have since followed, most recently against Amurskie Tigry in the Russian Far East, and Patriot now find themselves languishing second from bottom in the Western Conference. But the experience has been a learning process for a team still in development.
"Playing in the MHL is very good for us because it will open up the eyes for young players to realise how much hard work there is to be done to reach the top level of hockey," said Patriot's Benjamin Nemes, who left his native Hungary as a 16-year-old to play junior hockey for Stockholm club Djurgården. Following three seasons in the Swedish capital, he returned home ahead of this season where he now enjoys the best of two worlds.
"Patriot is the perfect choice for me. I play in the best European junior league but I'm also in Budapest with my family which is what I missed the most in Sweden," said the center, who quickly had to adapt to a different style of hockey following his homecoming.
"The game is more complicated in the MHL, but in a good way. It is harder to read the play as the game is much more about your individual talent, and there is always an unexpected move coming up. In Sweden it was all about tactics. You either dump the puck deep or put it on the net and go for the rebound. Also on one-on-one situations the Swedish players' first thought would be to shoot, while the Russians always try to pass," he said.
Nemes epitomizes the type of player that Patriot are eager to add more of to its ranks. A quick look at the current Patriot roster reveals only a handful Hungarian players, which might not reflect the name of the team, chosen to encapsulate the fervent support by Hungarians and the love for their country.
"We only had roughly two months to get prepared ahead of the season," said Tibor Bial, PR manager of Patriot. "Not only did we have to try and get together a team, but also to meet the very high expectations and criteria that is required to play in the MHL. Because of the short notice we had when starting up the project, most players were already engaged."
With a main sponsor and a head coach both coming from the Czech Republic, and a team full of predominantly Slovak juniors, and more Czech and Russian players than Hungarians, it can be seen as a sign of the times of a modern Europe where borders and nationality play less importance. But adding more local talent may just simply be a question of time.
"We only have three Hungarian players on the roster at the moment, but we are still searching for new Hungarian talent and we know that within two-three years we will have a lot more Hungarian players in the team," said Bial, who also hope that working together with fellow Hungarian junior clubs can lift the next generation to a higher ground.
"We are at the beginning of a club life, but the cooperation should also be between all teams in Hungary. We are not a team that will play in the Hungarian leagues, so for all of us involved in Hungarian ice hockey we know this is a big chance for us which in the end can help all of us. Our goal is to stay here for a long, long time and establish a base for a very high quality ice hockey culture in Budapest," he said.
"They (Patriot) had turbulent times at the start, and there should in my opinion be more Hungarian players in the team in a few years time, otherwise it does not make any sense,” said MHL managing director Dmitri Yefimov. ”But what is very important at the moment is that the Hungarian ice hockey federation shows strong support for the project."
Establishing a MHL team can often be seen as a first step towards a future KHL team. However, the Hungarian ice hockey federation remain realistic about such prospects and reveal that adding another team to the Austrian cross-border league, EBEL, to join fellow Hungarians Sapa Fehervar from Szekesfehervar, looks more likely once the project of Patriot has been given time to prosper.
"Patriot Budapest is a long-term project for us, that needs more time to attract more spectators and media coverage. For next season we hope for an improvement with hopefully more Hungarian players," said Kovacs.
"As for a future KHL team we would need a big enough hockey-specific arena for that, as the Laszlo Papp Sportarena we have here in Budapest is often used for concerts, exhibitions and is also expensive. Also when it comes to players there would only be two or three in our national team ready to play at the KHL level right now, but I hope that can change in a few years time."
"More realistic for us would instead be to add another team to the EBEL who have stated that they would like to have a team from Budapest in their league," he said.