JESENICE, Slovenia – After 64 years, the most successful club in former Yugoslavia has collapsed. 32-time national champion Acroni Jesenice has mounting debts, but no more board, no more team and no league to play in.
The collapse, which has been on the horizon rather than coming by surprise, is a huge setback for Slovenian hockey and leaves many players without a job. The club can be credited to have developed about half of the players from the Slovenian national team that was promoted to the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Stockholm and Helsinki, including the country’s best player by far, Anze Kopitar, who brought the Stanley Cup to Jesenice just two months ago.
The club from the steel city in northern Slovenia has been struggling for many years. It raised the quality of hockey by joining Austria’s EBEL league – the other bigger Slovenian club, Olimpija Ljubljana, followed later – but had been producing negative headlines with outstanding bills and salaries in recent years. With debts reportedly mounting over €2.5 million, the club was expelled from the EBEL league.
The news became a bit brighter three weeks ago when other Slovenian clubs and second-tier teams from Austria struggled with their leagues and joined together in a new cross-border league below EBEL called INL where Acroni Jesenice would be part.
However, no solution could be found to continue with the organization and the board around Slavko Kanalec resigned in unison without successors in sight. On Friday the ice hockey associations from Austria and Slovenia made the bad news official: there is no more Acroni Jesenice team that could play in the INL or anywhere else. This marks the end of decades of professional hockey in what is considered Slovenia’s hockey town.
Luckily, every cloud has a silver lining, even in Jesenice’s case. When the first problems arose in 1999, the youth department became a separate organization called Mladi Jesenice, now led by Miha Rebolj, a former Slovenian national team player who dressed for Acroni in the EBEL league before ending his career in 2010. (See separate story on hockey in Jesenice.)
The club has more than 250 kids involved and many of these boys and girls joined Anze Kopitar on the stage when he presented the Stanley Cup. It was a sign that hockey is not dead in the steel city and the club is willing to continue its tradition of developing players.
Mladi Jesenice recently took a new step at the right time. It will join the newly created Erste Bank Young Stars League, the EBEL’s new under-20 league that includes junior teams from all EBEL clubs except newly promoted Dornbirn.
The new league includes 14 teams from five countries:
- Austria: Innsbruck, Salzburg / Zell am See, Vienna Capitals, Black Wings Linz, Graz 99ers, VSV Villach, KAC Klagenfurt and two teams from the Okanagan Hockey School in St. Pölten.
- Slovenia: Olimpija Ljubljana, Mladi Jesenice
- Czech Republic: Orli Znojmo
- Hungary: Fehervar AV19
- Croatia: Medvescak Zagreb
The league heralds a new start for the region, and a new chance for Jesenice to continue its hockey tradition at a high level and perhaps to bring professional hockey back to town someday.