Crossing the divide
by Henrik Manninen|18 OCT 2019
Ivan Jankovic in the Crvena Zvezda Belgrade jersey during the first round of the IIHF Continental Cup.
photo: Istanbul Buyuksehir Belediyesi
He was part of the first generation of Croatian-born and trained players scoring points in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Now, 24-year-old Ivan Jankovic is blazing the trail with his move from Croatia to neighbouring Serbia and Crvena Zvezda Belgrade.

His international experience against top-level opponents will stand him in good stead as Crvena Zvezda (also known as Red Star in English) faces tough opposition during the Second round of the Continental Cup played between 18-20 October 2019. Group C will be contested in Brovary in the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, with Crvena Zvezda taking on hosts HC Donbass from Ukraine, Latvia´s Mogo Riga and Corona Brasov of Romania.

The winner in Group C will book a place to the Third round of the Continental Cup, where Group F will be contested in Poland´s Krakow between 15-17 November 2019.

As the 2019/20 season of the International Hockey League (IHL) with teams from Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia got underway for Crvena Zvezda on 27 August, Jankovic could easily have been forgiven for venturing straight down to the home locker room.

As fate would have it, Jankovic’s first league game following his transfer from Medvescak Zagreb to Crvena Zvezda was played in very familiar surroundings in Zagreb’s Velesajam ice rink.

“I was good with them during the last four years, so I don’t think there will be any problems,” said Jankovic pre-game when asked on the reception he might get from the supporters of Medvescak following his move to Belgrade.

“Between Serbia and Croatia, there are no problems. That is far away, far in the past,” said Jankovic before he stepped out on the ice to grab a goal and an assist as Crvena Zvezda set off their title defence edging Medvescak 4-3.

“No reaction from the fans, so nothing special for him or our fans,” commented Croatia’s assistant coach Danijel Kolombo as he summed up Jankovic’s first return to Zagreb in the colours of a rival from neighbouring Serbia.

Having dedicated his life to hockey, Kolombo knows from personal experiences that the relationship between the two countries wasn’t always as amicable.

While Croatia and Serbia had both been part of Yugoslavia until 1991, tensions came to a head following the break-up of Yugoslavia. Kolombo was an up-and-coming player for the newly independent Croatia as they travelled to the 1995 IIHF World Junior Championships Pool C2 in Tallinn, Estonia. On 5 January that year, the IIHF became a frontrunner as Croatia then played Yugoslavia which Serbia was then still being a part of.

“Of all the sports in Croatia, that was the first-ever game played against Yugoslavia. I played in that game and at that time, there was still war in Croatia,” said Kolombo on a feisty encounter finishing in a 2-2 stalemate.
Ivan Jankovic played the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B on home ice in Zagreb.
photo: Igor Soban
Born in Zagreb less than three weeks after that historical clash, Jankovic became part of a hockey generation where cooperation with its neighbours at all levels once again became essential. Then following Medvescak’s withdrawal from the Austrian-based EBEL league during the middle of last season, a confluence of circumstances sealed him a move to Serbia’s capital.

“After Medvescak had imploded last season, I had to find something else as I didn’t want to quit hockey. My girlfriend is from Belgrade and she had asked me to come and live there. I talked to the Crvena Zvezda coach Jovica Rus during 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division IIA in Belgrade and he said why not,” said Jankovic as he followed in the footsteps of another Croat, Igor Jacmenjak, who played a few games for Crvena Zvezda in 2016.

Jankovic had come to age when Croatian hockey was full of possibilities and dual nationals. The country’s flagship Medvescak had switched from the Austria-based EBEL league to KHL in 2013/14. At the tail end of that same season, Jankovic made his debut for Croatia’s national team as they surprised to grab bronze at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division I Group B in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Trying to make the gigantic leap from scoring for fun in the EBEL youth league across Central Europe to take on rugged fully-fledged professionals in the KHL became an eye-opener.

“I remember my first KHL game in Zagreb and coming up against a big D like Alexei Semyonov. I was a winger and following the faceoff, he got the puck. He was two metres tall, and as he had the puck, it felt like he knew everything that he was going to do,” said Jankovic.

“I travelled with the team on six road trips to places like Sochi, Yaroslavl, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vladivostok. Everything was awesome. The equipment, the locker rooms, the food and having all these people taking care of you.”

His childhood friend, Matija Milicic, became historical scoring the first point for a Croatian-born and trained player. Not long after it was Jankovic’s turn to celebrate. He became the second home-grown player to score a point at the Ondrej Nepela Arena in Bratislava on Valentine’s day 2017.

“It was against Slovan Bratislava in Slovakia. I also had another assist in Zagreb, but it was never counted. You might say it is a fall to go from there to play where I am now, but I know I wasn’t ready for the KHL,” said Jankovic.

Apart from aiming to defend the IHL title this season with Crvena Zvezda, the onus for Jankovic will now be to help turn the tide in Croatian hockey. Following relegation from the World Championship Division IB in 2017, he became top scorer as the Croats last season came tantalisingly close for an instant return before Serbia sneaked past them in the end to win gold and promotion.

The home fans will be firmly behind them this season with Croatia hosting two events. First, up will be the Olympic Pre-Qualification Round 2 against Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey played between 13-15 December 2019 in Sisak.

Then as this season comes to a close, the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A will be contested in Zagreb’s Dom Sportova between 19-25 April. With the Netherlands, China, Australia, Spain and Israel standing in their way for promotion, optimism appears to once again be back within the Croatian camp.

“I hope key players such as Borna Rendulic will be able to come to the World Championships, as this year we will go up for sure,” said Jankovic.  

Next up for Jankovic will be the Continental Cup this weekend. After Crvena Zvezda won in the first round, they travelled to Brovary in the Kyiv region of Ukraine to play host HC Donbass, Latvian champion Mogo Riga and Corona Brasov from Romania.

All games from Group C in Ukraine and Group D in Ritten, Italy, are streamed live. Click the links to access the tournament page.