It was one of the biggest sensations in Division I when Hungary won its group in Sapporo one year ago, beating out Ukraine and host Japan. The Division I gold medal has led to Hungary's first appearance in the top division of the IIHF World Championship in 70 years. They debut on Friday versus Slovakia.
Hungary was a regular participant before World War II. In 1939, coached by Canadian Edward Trottier, they finished in seventh place in the 13-team tournament. After that, hockey almost disappeared under the socialist regime.
In recent years, Hungary has come back step by step. Its 18th-place finish in the World Championship system last year was its best result since coming 16th in 1985. But this is considerably more impressive, since new teams came into existence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.
The juniors have improved from their experiences in Division II. The U18 national team won bronze in Division I some weeks ago, finishing in 16th place in the system. The program is starting to bear fruits.
Coming back to the World Championship for the first time in 70 years has resulted in a huge sense of euphoria and extensive media coverage in Hungary. It also means that Hungary is one of the names that comes up frequently when discussing the fight to avoid relegation. Can the Hungarians stand the pressure?
Levente Szuper is the man in Hungary’s net. Since 2002 he has just missed one World Championship. The 28-year-old is one of Hungary’s best known players and has experience from playing in various countries.
Szuper started his career in his hometown Budapest for Ferencvaros before moving on to junior hockey in Germany (Krefeld Pinguine) and Canada (the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s). A fourth-round draft pick of the Calgary Flames in 2000, Szuper played in the Flames' organization for three years, mostly with the AHL's St. John Flames.
In his last AHL season, he lost his spot and went back to Europe, where he played in Hungary, Italy, Germany and Sweden. After a year in Milan he joined Alba Volan Szekesfehervar, the best Hungarian club, which plays in the Austrian league. The team came second-last and allowed 178 goals in 54 games, but Szuper had a decent save percentage of 90.53.
Szuper could make or break Hungary's fortunes. He has never been very famous for consistency. Spectacular saves that earn him the nickname of “Szuperman” can alternate with weak goals.
Krisztian Budai and Zoltan Hetenyi are the other goalies with international experience who might get some playing time.
Hungary has a group of rather tall, experienced defencemen but none of them is used to playing at the level they will experience in the days ahead. The defence is a combination of players from Alba Volan and the Budapest Stars of the domestic league. Only two players are currently pursuing their careers abroad. They are Viktor Szelig and Omar Ennaffati, who both play in the domestic league of France, which is another Relegation Round candidate. That might be valuable when playing the French, but it also means that many opposing forwards will be too fast, too agile.
All of them are veteran defencemen who have been with the team for years. Ennaffati is the youngest defenceman, and he will celebrate his 29th birthday in Switzerland. Meanwhile, Balazs Kangyal and Tamas Sille will turn 40 this year.
The Hungarian defence failed in the Final Olympic Qualification last February, allowing 15 goals in three games against nations ranked 11th to 17th. There, none of the Hungarian rearguards had a convincing performance.
The coach will emphasize playing defence first, but it might be too formidable of a task for the defenders to protect their goalie, Levente Szuper.
The Hungarians are also counting on some veterans to provide their offence. Krisztian Palkovics (6), Marton Vas (4), Csaba Kovacs (3), Gabor Ocskay (3), Balazs Ladanyi (2) and Imre Peterdi (2) were the players who scored 20 of the 22 goals last year.
Ocskay passed away some weeks ago, leaving a hole in the Hungarian national team, both as a personality and as a sportsman.
Many of the forwards are also 30 years or older. However, at this position, Hungarian hockey has produced most the new-generation national team players in recent years. Martin Vas and Balazs Ladanyi, along with defenceman Viktor Szelig, are the import players for the top French team Briançon Diables Rouges, the “red devils.” And they’re not the only players who will be as hot with excitement as Hungarian chili peppers about getting to play at this level.
One of the younger players has even experience in a top European league. Janos Vas played for Brynäs Gävle in the Swedish Elitserien. Before that, the 25-year-old spent three seasons with the AHL's Iowa Stars, the affiliate of the NHL's Dallas Stars.
However, the forwards failed to come through last February in the Olympic Qualification, much like their counterparts on defence. Most of them seemed to be too slow, their shots not strong enough to challenge high-calibre goalkeepers.
Canada's Pat Cortina was a good choice for Hungary. The 44-year-old has been coaching the national team since 2005, when the Hungarians hosted the Division I tournament in Debrecen. Cortina needed some more time to bring the team back to the top group, winning a medal in 2007 and then gold in 2008.
Cortina collected some international experience while coaching the Italian national team in the early 2000's. Currently, he's also coaching EHC München, making the former third-division team into a contender for a place in the DEL. That poses some logistical problems at this time of year, as he had to prematurely leave his club team, which is currently playing in the final of the second Bundesliga. It's scenario he and the club had joked about two years ago. Now, it’s not so funny anymore.
“It’s one of the toughest decisions in my career, but it was decided long ago,” he said in an interview with Abendzeitung. “It’s tough. I don’t know if I’ll ever be at the World Championship again, but I also don’t know if I’ll reach the final of the second Bundesliga again.”
It’s no secret. Making the World Championship for the first time is a big deal for everybody associated with Team Hungary, and making it to the Qualification Round might look like Mission: Impossible against Canada, Slovakia and Belarus.
The Relegation Round will probably be the crucial stage for the team, which will face some big challenges in the group stage. Can the Hungarians remain among the elite nations as a newcomer?
In the Olympic Qualification in Riga, they were demolished by Latvia, and also lost to the Division I teams Italy and Ukraine. They had defeated the Ukrainians the year before in Sapporo.
Coach Cortina explained the bad results as follows: “Hungary was a better team in April 2008 than in February 2009 and this Ukrainian team was better than last time. Both teams are evenly matched and just because we beat them last time doesn’t mean that we can beat them every time. We have to learn from that experience and adjust to a new level.”
In exhibition play before this tournament, Hungary beat Finland 4-3 in Budapest in a shootout, but lost 6-0 to the same opponent a day later. They beat Norway in two more home games and lost to Russia, 5-1, this week.
For Hungary, adjusting to the top group will be a matter of learning. The quicker the better.