SALZBURG, Austria – 19-year-old Slovene Luka Gracnar has become one of the best goalkeepers of the Austrian league and degraded Austrian national team veteran Bernd Brückler to the backup role at Red Bull Salzburg.
Now he dreams of becoming just the third player from the small nation to make the National Hockey League. In fact only one previous Slovenian goalie has ever been drafted and that was Jure Penko back in 2000 by the Nashville Predators (203rd Overall).
The 19-year-old is currently ranked as the 5th top European goalie available at this June’s NHL Entry Draft in New Jersey. Gracnar is 179 cm (5’10) and weighs in at 82 kilos (183 pounds) and hails from Jesenice, one of the top talent producers in Slovenian hockey.
Jesenice is a small town of 22,000 situated on the Slovenian side of the Karawanks mountain range. The town is the birthplace of Los Angeles Kings star forward Anze Kopitar and is known as the home of Slovenia’s largest steel company and is only a twenty-minute drive away from the Austrian border. The town is very hockey oriented and its hockey school has accounted for half of the country’s current national team players. These players include the Kopitar and Rodman brothers, Tomaz Razingar, Robert Kristan and now Luka Gracnar.
At only 19 years of age, Gracnar has already represented Slovenia at the World Junior level six times and each time has put up impressive numbers for his team. He is the most skilled junior goalie in his country and arguable the biggest goaltending prospect that Slovenia has ever had.
Gracnar began his career playing with the hometown team HD Mladi Jesenice and even started games for the men’s team as young as 14 year old. After a few seasons it was clear that Gracnar had a very special talent in goal and decided to pursue that talent further when he moved to Austria and joined one of that country’s powerhouse teams in Red Bull Salzburg.
Gracnar first started playing with Red Bull Salzburg of the Austrian top league (EBEL) in 2010-11 although he was mainly on the U20 and U18 teams during his first two years. At the start of this season he was mainly planned as the backup of veteran netminder Alex Auld in the highest Austrian league.
However, the Slovene took full advantage and shined for the club while Auld struggled and was eventually named the starter before the team brought in another veteran goalie in Bernd Brückler from Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL. At the end of the regular season, Gracnar started in more games (27) then both of his counterparts in Auld (16) and Brückler (20) and posted a 2.41 GAA and 92.1 save percentage which is quite impressive especially for a 19-year-old goalie playing his first full season in one of Europe’s better leagues.
Opposing goaltending coach Sam Liebkind of the Vienna Capitals praised the young Slovene and had this to say about his game: “He plays quite solid regarding his small size. I think he reads the game quite well and maintains good patience in the men's level. If he can maintain and develop his positioning game even better I see potential in him to perform solidly.”
Since Slovenia has been separated from Yugoslavia, the nation has never qualified for the Olympics, until recently. The nation of two million people and only 900 registered hockey players changed this last month when the Slovenes pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent years when they defeated Belarus (4-2), Denmark (2-1), and Ukraine (6-1) to qualify for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Gracnar was part of the historic Slovenian squad and even saw action in the final win over Ukraine. At the Olympics, Slovenia will be in Group A with Canada, Russia, and Slovakia.
Slovenia will be competing in May at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland so that will be a chance for scouts and fans around the world to get a good glimpse of the young netminder before the NHL Entry Draft rolls around.
Before that he’ll be busy in the Austrian play-offs. Gracnar rather than Austrian national team goalie Brückler was the man in the net for the last four games and showed impressive stats. Salzburg currently leads the best-of-seven semi-final series against the Vienna Capitals 2-1 after having ousted Medvescak Zagreb 4-2 in the quarter-finals.
IIHF.com asked Luka Gracnar some questions.
First off congratulations on your country's qualification to the Olympics! How do you feel about that?
It was a pleasure to be part of the winning team and to add something to that great story.
Is it a dream of yours to play in the Sochi 2014 Olympics for your country?
Yes definitely. That will be one of biggest goals for next season to make the Olympic team.
How was life growing up in Jesenice?
Jesenice is a small town and everybody there lives for hockey, so my childhood was very connected to hockey. We would practice during the day and then after go to a backyard and play pond hockey and then in the evenings we went to watch the big team’s games.
Are you friends with the Kopitar family?
Yes that’s right. Gasper has been my best friend since we were 7 or so. I am close with the other family members as well.
How did you start playing and at what age?
I started skating around three or four on the ice in our village and at age five my dad took me to the hockey school like almost every boy in Jesenice. After two years I figured out that I would like to play goalie but my dad wouldn’t let me because he thought I was lazy and didn’t want to skate but I really felt I could be a good goalie so I talked to my coach alone and he arranged the equipment for me and then I told my dad that I really wanted to be a goalie that much so he let me be the goalie.
Describe your playing style.
I would say I’m a hybrid goalie with a little bit more butterfly tension. I try and stay on my feet as long as possible. I try to be technical but still add something unique so maybe I am a technical battler.
At what age did you think that you could play hockey for a career?
For me it was clear pretty early. I knew what I wanted but I never wanted to talk out loud about it.
Did you have any mentors that helped make you the goalie you were?
Yes there were a lot of people who helped me a lot. I don’t want to go with names because I don’t want to miss somebody but I will expose one person and that is my goalie coach Patrick Dallaire. I started working with him when I came to Salzburg and with him we built what I am now.
Do you feel the Austrian league is becoming one of the stronger leagues in Europe with both countries Austria and Slovenia qualifying for the Olympics?
It’s hard for me to say because I haven’t really played in any other leagues yet. But I think it’s a strong league for sure. Salzburg and Vienna are proving that every year in the European Trophy tournament, and now that Slovenia and Austria qualified for the Olympics it shows that not only the imports are important in the league.
How is it like being the starting goalie for Red Bull Salzburg?
I wouldn’t say that I am the “starting goalie”. We kind of shared the starts with Alex Auld and Bernd Brückler. I’m really thankful to our coach for trusting me all the time. But to start so many games for Red Bull Salzburg, which is such a great organization, is just awesome.
Were you excited when you saw the ISS ranked you 5th among European goalies for the upcoming NHL draft?
I was pretty surprised. Honestly I didn’t expect that but somebody saw and liked my work I guess so I am really happy! That is a big honour and motivation for no matter what happens.
Would you like to one day come to North America and play in the NHL?
Yeah that’s my biggest dream.
Are you excited for the upcoming World Championship in May?
Yes I am but first I have to make the team and then I can concentrate on the World Championship.
Who are your best friends on the national team?
For sure I spend the most time with Gasper Kopitar but I hang out with everybody and they are all really great guys.
When do you think you will pass Robert Kristan and Andrej Hocevar on the depth chart?
That’s a really hard question. I don’t want to make any predictions so I will work hard and we will see.
NHL Team: Los Angeles Kings
Childhood Idol: Robert Kristan
Video Game: Assassins Creed
Movie: Catch Me If You Can
TV Show: Entourage
Pump-Up Song: Nightwish by Crimson Tide
Activity Away From the Rink: Tennis, Soccer