PULA, Croatia – After a delay due to the ice quality the amphitheatre game could be played. For Medvescak Zagreb it was a success off the ice, although not so much on the ice as Olimpija Ljubljana won the game of the Austria-based EBEL league 3-2.
Coming into the arena, the capacity crowd of 7,022 fans had reason to worry about whether the game would be played or not. Warm winds melted parts of the ice, exposing where wooden slats fixed the protecting foil.
After a lengthy delay and many laps for the Zamboni driver, however, thing looked better. Some time after 22:00 the refs were welcomed by an impatient crowd with uncharacteristically warm applause, and after the players’ warm-up it became clear that the game could be played.
Fans are getting ready for the game in and outside of the amphitheatre. Photo: Martin Merk
The game was a historical event. Never before had ice hockey been played at a such ancient venue. The Pula Arena, as the amphitheatre in the Croatian city is called, was constructed between 27 BC and 68 AD.
2,000 years later gladiators with different helmets entered the stage on ice skates and with hockey sticks. And they didn’t fight with wild animals, although the players showcased bears (Medvescak) and dragons (Olimpija) from their club logos on their chests.
To the disappointment of the enthusiastic fans, the dragons took the first game. Olimpija’s imports Michael Ratchuk and Scott Freeman hit the net midway through the first and second period respectively. Jaka Ankerst’s power-play goal with 1:55 left in the middle stanza seemed to seal the win for the Slovenes.
But Medvescak didn’t give up. Goals from Tomislav Zanoski and Adam Naglich brought back hope. At 7:28 of the third period the deficit was cut to 3-2 and brought the fans back. The “zig zag Medvescak” chants from the historical stands and temporary tribunes went down to the gladiators. But after missing out on a power play and the last seconds with six-on-four players on another man advantage and with goalie Robert Kristan pulled, the game ended with Olimpija claiming victory.
Goalkeeper Robert Kristan and the other Medvescak gladiators enter the arena. Photo: Medvescak Zagreb
“It was really important for us to win this game. Under these circumstances here we played very smart and disciplined,” Finnish Olimpija coach Heikki Mälkiä praised his team.
What worked well for the Slovenes didn’t for the Croats.
“They were disciplined and we were not. They played two good periods and we just one, so they deserved to win this game,” said Medvescak’s Canadian coach Marty Raymond. “I’m a little bit disappointed. It was a bad ice surface and for that we tried to play way too fancy. We have to stick to our game plan.”
Caesar probably wouldn’t be too impressed about the home team either. But the good news is that although the Medvescak players left the ice without a point, they will get a second chance on Sunday against the Vienna Capitals.
The other good news is the club’s tremendous success and initiative off the ice.
The games in Pula are another marketing highlight from the club that came back from two decades of amateurism in the post-Yugoslav era when it joined the Austrian league in 2009 and two old Yugoslav-era rivals, Olimpija Ljubljana and meanwhile defunct Acroni Jesenice.
After some preliminary scepticism before joining, Medvescak has become a well-established brand in and outside of Zagreb within a few years despite tough competition in the city from football, basketball or handball – all sports with deeper roots in Croatia and more international success for the nation.
Last season Medvescak averaged 8,835 fans, 12th-most in Europe and this despite less than 500 registered hockey players in the country. Most games are held at the traditional Dom Sportova the club got back when joining the EBEL league, but the club is also able to fill the multifunctional 15,000-seat Arena Zagreb whenever it plays there.
The team is as international as the Croatian diaspora is. Many players came to the country of their ancestors from Canada, the U.S., Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.
Dario Kostovic, who was born in Croatia but grew up in Switzerland and played 13 years in the top league there, explains how it works for many.
“I have followed the team since they joined the league and I told myself when my contract in Lugano expired I wanted to play there,” Kostovic said. “It’s really unbelievable what they achieved here from nothing. We had seven straight games before 15,000 fans. That’s really special.”
“We have a great fan base. The whole country is behind us. We’re like a national team,” he said. “The fans are very peaceful. We don’t have hooligan problems like in other popular sports. That’s why many families come to our games.”
He even considers representing the Croatian national team once he will fulfil the eligibility criteria for players with double citizenship.
The Medvescak players follow the game from the bench. Photo: Martin Merk
The games in Pula have been the biggest marketing initiative so far. It drew fans from far away and even media like CNN and Al Jazeera were present.
“Mother Nature caused us some difficulties, but otherwise it’s a great elevation for Medvescak to play a game in an amphitheatre from the Roman Empire,” said general manager Markoantonio Belinic. “It’s a big event that has been worldwide recognized. A lot of people loved the idea of us staging an official game here in Pula.”
He said it wasn’t very difficult to convince the opponents and the league, which was overwhelmed and supportive about the creativeness. More work needed to be done to convince the authorities and UNESCO that a hockey game can be held at this protected historical site.
With arena cost of €500,000 the event itself won’t make the club rich in the short term, but it surely helps to raise the popularity.
It’s this kind of popularity that attracted interest from KHL president Alexander Medvedev, who announced recently that Medvescak Zagreb and Milano Rossoblù from Italy would join the Russian league next year. He already visited Zagreb during the club’s 50-year anniversary.
Medvedev didn’t want to miss the coulisse in Pula and travelled to the Istrian peninsula with the Gazprom legends team he captains. They will play a veteran game against Croatian legends including some of the Medvescak board members. A good opportunity to talk about more than just that game.
The club actually has “KHL” already in its name, although the acronym doesn’t stand for the Russian-based league, but for ice hockey club – or “klub hokeja na ledu” in Croatian.
The bear is Medvescak Zagreb’s animal. Photo: Martin Merk
Medvescak is led by several former players who will be in touch with Medvedev not only on the ice. The club’s president Damir Gojanovic was one of the top players for Medvescak and the Croatian national team until recently.
One of the other makers is board member and general manager Markoantonio Belinic. Same as some of the current players he comes from the diaspora. He started to play hockey as a three-year-old on a frozen pond near Edmonton and came back to former Yugoslavia as a nine-year-old. He represented Croatia in the ‘90s and remembers competition in places such as Andorra and Johannesburg, and games against other newly established countries such as Slovakia or Latvia.
“We’re all hockey players. We got together four or five years ago, had a coffee and said what can we do for hockey, because hockey gave a lot to us,” he said about the rebirth of the club that had already enjoyed success and support until the end of the Yugoslav league.
“We said let’s try to have Medvescak become a member of the EBEL. We accomplished that, we accomplished a lot in the EBEL, the same goes for the event in Pula. It’s something we talked about over a cup of coffee, the idea came through brainstorming and here we are.”
Dragutin Ljubic, the sports director of the club and a team leader for various Croatian national teams – including the one that starts the Olympic Qualification campaign on Monday in Zagreb – is another former player. He was in the Medvescak net before and after the break-up of Yugoslavia for two decades and represented Croatia in numerous World Championship tournaments.
He’s proud about the strides his team has made since the Austrian league opened its borders to neighbouring countries.
And although joining the KHL would be a huge step, he doesn’t feel too anxious about the prospects of switching to the Russian league: “The step to EBEL was even bigger than from EBEL to the KHL. We had to start from scratch and had nothing to show. Now we have something to show. We have changed much in the last few years.”
More than 7,000 fans followed the first of two games in Pula’s amphitheatre. Photo: Martin Merk
It will be interesting to see how the success story continues, as the league switch is not carved in stone yet. Belinic is more cautious when talking about next season than the KHL is.
“I also read the story, but as of today I cannot confirm that this is 100 per cent correct or incorrect, but there have been talks about us joining the KHL,” Belinic said. “We would have to do reorganization and logistically we would need more people in the club. Sponsors and finances are other issues.
“Looking at the players we have, for sure we would need top two lines that would be completely new. We would need much more depth, meaning 30, 35 players on the roster because the KHL is a phenomenal league.”
Another focus is the youth. The vast majority of Medvescak players was not developed in Croatia and only a few of them are eligible to play for the national team – at least right now.
With the creation of the EBEL’s new junior league, the club hopes to also improve player development at a younger age.
“Out of two games we have four points,” Belinic said about the junior team. “This shows that we have potential players that can jump up and play in the EBEL, but it will take time. Croatia has the handicap of not having enough ice surfaces. It’s only one city in Croatia that plays ice hockey. With our promotion here in Pula we’re trying to expand hockey in Croatia and maybe become a powerhouse in eight or nine years.”
Many clubs on the continent but also in the NHL can only dream about the transformation from a so-called small-market team to a successful brand.
“I always tell people the secret of our success is our heart and our passion to the sport. We all love the sport, we all played the sport and we live the sport,” Belinic said when asked about his piece of advice. “If we went into mathematics and Excel sheets and looking at what the investments are and how difficult a project like this is, maybe we would never have entered the project. You need a lot of patience, a lot of grey hair, and a lot of sacrifices and time away from the family.”
UPDATE: The Russian legends’ team defeated the Croatian veterans 13-3 on Saturday night. KHL President Alexander Medvedev confirmed after the game his view that Medvescak Zagreb will join the league. “Medvescak should play in the KHL next season. The probability is 95 per cent,” Medvedev said. “We have a group of sponsors for three years and for a competitive budget of no less than €10 million like Donbass or Lev or Slovan.” Medvedev also expects Milano Rossoblù from Italy and two Russian teams to join the league.