LJUBLJANA – Two years ago at the World Championship Division I three players from Jesenice were symbolic for Slovenia’s new generation of players. Now they’re the first offensive line: Ziga Jeglic, Robert Sabolic and Rok Ticar.
The tournament was also held in Ljubljana in 2010 at the classic Tivoli rink when Slovenia got promoted with new, young players on the third line. But the trio from Acroni Jesenice shone offensively more than expected and quickly became fan favourites.
Although veterans like Tomas Razingar, the Rodman brothers or Ales Kranjc are still on the team, it’s the young trio born in 1988 and 1989 that improved to the starting unit, which has combined for eight goals in four games so far.
Also their club teams have changed compared to two years ago as they left Jesenice – one of the two Slovenian teams in the Austria-based EBEL league – to play in other leagues.
Jeglic and Sabolic both play for Södertälje SK, a former Elitserien club that plays in Sweden’s second tier now. Both moved from the Slovenian steel town to the city south of Stockholm.
“For me it was a new adventure, a new style of hockey. It’s a nice club with nice fans. It’s different than what I was used to in Austria,” Sabolic said. “It’s quicker, more aggressive. I’m a little bit disappointed about my scoring, I think I should score more goals. But I have one more year on my contract and after the first season it will be easier for me.”
Jeglic notched 21 points in 44 games – third-most on his team – while Sabolic had 17. But Sabolic never regretted the step to Sweden that was once done by Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar and has been followed by a couple of other Slovenes since.
“My transition game has improved. You have less time than in the Austrian league, so I have to take decisions quicker,” the 23-year-old winger said. And moving north together with Jeglic, who had played with him in Jesenice for four years after leaving his hometown team Bled, made the decision even easier.
In Södertälje the duo met another player with roots in Bled. 1990-born defenceman Blaz Gregorc already made the step as a 17-year-old and just finished his third season with Södertälje’s pro team after two junior years.
“It was real help for me to have other Slovenian players on the team. To go out of your country is very special. You need help. But after one, two months it was good,” Sabolic said.
The Södertälje trio plays on the top line of the Slovenian national team together with two players of Germany’s Krefeld Pinguine, Ticar and defenceman Mitja Robar.
Robar transferred midway through the season from Finnish club Lukko Rauma to Germany’s top league, the DEL, while Ticar joined in summer.
“I thought it’s better to go there than to play in Austria or in the second Swedish league,” Ticar said about his choice.
“The season was hard because it was different. Bigger guys, faster game, but after some time I adjusted and my teammates helped me,” Ticar said. “We had a good time and I liked it very much there. It was not a too good season for us. We didn’t make the playoffs, but it was a good experience.”
The centre was happy to see his teammates again in Ljubljana that have formed an offensive line of revelation for the last two seasons on the national team.
“I’m happy to see them again. I missed all guys during the season when we were in different clubs and it’s always nice to see the guys when we’re back, especially my two friends on the wing,” the 22-year-old said.
“I can only say they’re perfect guys. We’ve been playing together for more than two years. We really feel each other. We try to play simple and to help each other and somehow it works out the right way and we’re happy to help the Slovenian team.”
Slovenia has recorded four victories in as many games in the tournament and secured promotion to the top division for next year in Stockholm and Helsinki. It will be the seventh time for the nation to play with the elite nations after 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2011 since it joined the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program in the 1992-1993 season following the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Some of the upcoming players already had the chance to experience this level of play last year.
“It was very nice in Slovakia last year to see guys we only saw on TV before, but now they’re like normal players,” Ticar said. “It will be great to play there again and to promote Slovenia, our small country, again. We are happy to be back.”
On Saturday night the Slovenes will play their last game in front of their home crowd at Arena Stozice in Ljubljana.
9,450 fans in the sold-out arena will be like a sixth man on the ice, as Sabolic likes to say, when the team faces neighbour Austria for the gold medal. Also the Austrians have already secured promotion after four games.
“We can expect a good and open game,” Ticar said. “We know each other from the Austrian league. We expect a good game and we want to win of course.”