BUDAPEST – At the Division I World Championship last April, Hungary qualified for the 2009 IIHF World Championship in Switzerland. This will be the first appearance for the Hungarian national team among the elite in 70 years.
Last spring’s accomplishment is just the latest step in the nation’s hockey development in the last 15 years. Three weeks ago, 24,000 fans in Budapest cheered for the national team in the Olympic Pre-Qualification against Serbia, Croatia and Lithuania, which Hungary won.
Things have changed drastically in Hungarain hockey. Just 20 years ago, there was no permanent indoor rink and ice hockey was not a popular sport. When communism fell, hockey got fresh air and started to rise. Today, 16 indoor ice rinks are in operation year round. The number of hockey players doubled in the last ten years to more than 2,000.
Foreign coaches helped to improve the game on the club level. Some Slovaks were coaches of the national team like Jan Jasko, who also managed the Slovakian national team. Later, coaches from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean appeared. Canadian Pat Cortina is now behind the national team’s bench. The best club team, Alba Volán Székesfehérvár, signed former NHL and Slovenian national team coach Ted Sator.
The nation that once had difficulties against the likes of Bulgaria and DPR Korea, can play close matches with the top-tier teams. In exhibition games, they beat Slovakia and Sweden. They also hosted Canada before the maple leaf team won the 2004 World Championship. And this season, Finland will have a training camp in Budapest before the World Championship where the Finns will play two exhibition games against the Hungarians.
Hungary wants more than just to play with the elite nations. The nation bid for the 2014 World Championship along with Belarus, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Ukraine. It is the fourth straight year the Hungarians have put in a bid.
The former three applications had positive feedback, but one important factor was missing: the national team was not good enough. Today, that disadvantage has been eliminated.
Hungary hosted several IIHF events including Division I tournaments, the Continental Cup Super Final and the Olympic Pre-Qualification. These events drew crowds and received positive feedback from IIHF officials. Most importantly, the events clearly showed that hockey in Hungary is on the rise from the quality of hockey and through the efforts of the people working in hockey.
On the league level, Hungary has opened up to neighbouring countries. The best team, Alba Volán Székesfehérvár, has played in the Austrian top league since 2007. The six remaining Hungarian top league teams are joined by the four best Romanian teams in a common league that even has former NHL and AHL players.
Although the key players of the national team – like Ocskay, Palkovics, Ladányi, Horváth, and Tokaji – are in their 30s, Hungary should not worry about the next generation of players. The future looks bright. With the opening of new rinks, more clubs are formed, giving kids the opportunity to play hockey regularly. The number of clubs has grown to over 30.
Behind the well-known foreign coaches, a lot of Hungarians are working with the younger generation. Gábor Ocskay Sr. and Árpád Kercsó made enormous efforts to bring the U20 and U18 teams to the Division I level. In the future, Hungary hopes to be vie for a spot among the elite nations at the junior level as well.
Some Hungarians also play in junior leagues of those elite nations. János Hári with Färjestad Karlstad, Illés Galló with Beliye Medvedi Moscow, and Kristóf Hentes with the Kloten Flyers are among the scoring leaders of the Swedish, Russian or Swiss junior leagues.
Only the NHL has yet to be conquered by a Hungarian player. Goalkeeper Levente Szuper came close as he sat on the Calgary Flames' bench nine times. Two other players were drafted: Tamás Gröschl (Edmonton), who plays in Hungary, and János Vas (Dallas), who plays in the Swedish Elitserien for Brynäs Gävle.
The men’s national team will have the opportunity to play the bigger nations is April for the first time in 70 years where they’re in the same preliminary round group with Canada, Slovakia and Belarus in Zurich-Kloten.