DONETSK – Poland is looking to expunge memories from last year, as they battle it out with Ukraine in the final game of the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B while keeping an eye on the future.
Ukraine is the firm pre-tournament favourite on home ice and going through the first four games of the tournament without a defeat. Then comes the final game, and when the pressure is turned on, suddenly it all goes pear-shaped.
Poland only needs to look back at last year's Division I Group B when they in front of a home crowd expecting promotion, but became human when it mattered the most as they slumped to a shock 3-2 loss against Korea to remain in the Division I Group B.
This year in Donetsk the pressure will be on hosts Ukraine. Desperate to bounce back to Division I Group A in the first attempt, they are taking on neighbours Poland in the gold-medal game and promotion decider in front of a partizan yellow-and-blue home crowd at the Ice Palace Druzhka. Standing in their way is a new-look Polish team. After last year's miscalculation brought substantial changes to their set-up both on and off the ice.
When the Polish Ice Hockey Association (PZHL) at the end of May last year officially announced a new president, Piotr Halasik, to take over the reigns, work immediately went underway to try and turn around Polish ice hockey's fading fortunes of recent times.
With the eye-catching appointment of Igor Zakharkin as head coach of Polish national team and with Vyacheslav Bykov to work alongside him as his consultant, the PZHL showed they meant business. The Russian pair who coached Russia in five World Championships, including back-to-back golds in 2008 and 2009, signed up for two years in August last year and immediately rolled up their sleeves to work towards this season's goal: promotion.
"I think we have made big steps forward, but there are a lot of problems in Polish hockey," Zakharkin said. "One such problem were some old players who were not willing to work hard. They did not understand the meaning of modern hockey, with quick combinations, hard skating, getting shots on goal, so there were a lot of problems. When I then started looking for replacements I've found younger players that had the hunger, wanted to develop and listen to what I had to say, and only then can we start producing something."
When the final roster for the World Championship Division I Group B in Donetsk was announced, Zakharkin had replaced eight out of twenty skaters from last year's tournament. From his base in Sweden, Zakharkin has travelled to Poland on regular intervals during the course of the season to work with the players to make them ready to achieve promotion.
From his final roster the Poland head coach picks out three players from the next generation of players he believes have the potential for many years to come help Poland in their ascent upwards.
"First and foremost there are two or three forwards that I find very interesting. Radoslaw Galant, a two-way player that can play both forward and centre, Marek Strzyzowski, who likes to go on goal, is very quick and has great technical skills and Jakub Witecki, a tall, aggressive player who also is a good skater," Zakharkin said.
"These players can have a big future in hockey, but for that a lot of hard work is required. But since I only get to see them when we are playing with the national team that is a bit too little work, but if they are able to work very hard all the time, then they can develop greatly," he continued.
All three up-and coming named by Zakharkin have graduated from the three-year Sports Mastery School in Sosnowiec, which throughout the years has played an integral part in developing Polish hockey players. From the current roster in Donetsk, 15 out of 22 players have graduated from the school located near Katowice in southern Poland.
22-year-old Galant, who is playing his first senior World Championship, believes that the arrival of Zakharkin as head coach has helped to improve the national team thanks to hard graft and a new style of play.
"Igor is a very good coach, and I think he can change Polish hockey," said the GKS Tychy player Galant." "He demands a lot from us, his practices both on ice and in the gym are very tough and he wants us to play simple and fast hockey with more shots on the net," he continued.
Galant, Strzyzowski and Witecki are just three of the new crop of players that recently have forced their way into the senior national team set-up. Behind them there are more up-and-coming players in the Polish junior national teams that has already caught Zakharkin's attention. Players he hope can help Poland to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea.
"With the long-term aim being the 2018 Olympics, I was recently at a training camp with the U18 national team and we have a few very interesting players there. In four years they are 22 and if we continue to cooperate with the Polish Ice Hockey Federation, then we can build a really good team with a brand new face, based on tactics, ideas and technique," he said.
"But for that to happen the players also have to start playing at a another level but also in another league, only then do I believe that the Polish players will go on and fight even harder for victories. As for the younger players, I think a good first step would be for the under-20 and under-18 players to play on a senior level in Poland in order to develop faster," Zakharkin continued.
A victory against Ukraine during the final game of Division I Group B would be a step into the right direction for Poland, who in November last year were well beaten by Ukraine 5-1 in Kyiv in the deciding game of the Olympic Pre-Qualification against a home team that included Ruslan Fedotenko and Olexi Ponikarovsky thanks to the extended labour dispute in the NHL.
Poland then got their revenge a month later when a Ukraine, without its NHL stars, slumped to an over-time defeat during a Euro Ice Hockey Challenge tournament in Romania when Krzysztof Zapala scored the winner.
"The final game against Ukraine will be like a war. It will be very hard and we must all play the game 100 per cent and we must win the game," said Galant.