Jesenice is mostly known for two things, steel and ice hockey. And both go hand in hand. The city was settled in the 16th century to make use of the ore-rich area and the biggest steel work Acroni is the biggest sponsor of the local ice hockey club.
Jesenice is located at the foots of the Karawanks mountain range that builds the border to Austria, in the Sava Valley between the ski resort of Karnjska Gora and the magnificent Lake of Bled (that currently hosts the Winter Swimming World Championships).
This part of Slovenia has brought up many winter sport stars and in Jesenice ice hockey became the favourite sport in the city that has historically been dominated by its steel industry. During its peak days the steel works brought thousands of ironworkers from all over former Yugoslavia to Jesenice and the first artificial ice rink of the country opened here in 1954.
With 23 Yugoslav titles and 12 Slovenian championships after independence in the early ‘90s, Jesenice has been the most successful club in the area once called Yugoslavia. Photos of old legends from the area like Rudi Hiti decorate the recently renovated Podmezakla ice rink together with modern legends such as Kopitar. Younger national team players from the area include the likes of Ziga Jeglic, Robert Sabolic and Rok Ticar.
In a story from 2012, former player Miha Rebolj called playing ice hockey in Jesenice as kind of a religion. Every kid wants to try it. There are many idols to follow, and to once become like them and carry the torch of success to the new generation.
Of course Jesenice is not alone in Slovenian ice hockey. There are several ice rinks in many areas of the countries and the club has a fierce rivalry with Olimpija Ljubljana from the capital. Comparing the sizes of the cities and the economies, it may look like a David vs. Goliath clash. But ice hockey in Jesenice has the big support of the local people and industry also after the transition from socialism during the Yugoslav era to modern Slovenia. The hard work in the steel factories translate to hard work on the ice.
This season the two clubs celebrated the 500th game between the two most famous teams of the country. That makes it one of the most played rivalries between two ice hockey teams in the world.
“It’s really fun. As a kid you dream to win it. Once it happened I knew I would bring it here. It’s a special day for me,” Kopitar said during the Stanley Cup celebrations in his hometown.
However, having top-level professional ice hockey in the small cities isn’t easy. When the Austrian league open its borders as EBEL, both Acroni Jesenice and Olimpija Ljubljana joined (as well as another club from former Yugoslavia, Croatia’s Medvescak Zagreb). For all three clubs it ended with financial problems and they had to leave the league the hard way. The two Slovenian clubs had to lower their sights and now play one tier below in the Alps Hockey League. Both Olimpija Ljubljana as first-ranked team and Acroni Jesenice as sixth-ranked team in the 18-team league that also includes clubs from Austria and Italy recently qualified for the playoffs.
Not playing in the top league of the neighbourhood also has consequences on the national team roster. Although many players hail from Jesenice and the area, only two young players on the 23-man roster announced for the Olympic Qualification this week, Aljosa Crnovic and Blaz Tomazevic, currently play for the club, and three for Olimpija Ljubljana. The rest left Slovenia to earn their money as a professional hockey player abroad, some already as juniors like Anze Kopitar did, some as adults. These players play their club hockey in ten different countries.
Jesenice hasn’t had the chance to see an IIHF-sanctioned tournament recently. Hosting six teams like for the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A, which will be played in spring in Ljubljana, means high demand on space at the rink and hotel rooms. Not every arena can accommodate that many teams. The Men’s Olympic Pre-Qualification Round 3 Group G with four teams was a perfect opportunity to give the people of Jesenice international ice hockey and is a homecoming for many players. With space for about 5,000 people, Dvorana Podmezakla is also the biggest permanent ice rink in terms of capacity for spectators. There the Slovenes will play Japan, Lithuania and neighbours Croatia for a spot in the Final Olympic Qualification.
The Slovenes were compared with the bumble bee that doesn’t look like it can fly. With a 20th-place finish in the World Championship program last year and just 153 registered male senior players in the country – in comparison, rival Japan has 12,021 and Lithuania 1,360 – the Slovenes may also not look like a favourite of reaching the 12-team Olympic ice hockey tournament in Beijing 2022 on paper. But the Slovenes showed that they can fly and are motivated to repeat history and continue their love affair with Olympic ice hockey.
If they do so, it’s also in part of the love for hockey in Jesenice and the Alpine northeast of the country, which together with archival Ljubljana is a big producer of hockey talent. One big name will of course be missing these days in Jesenice. Anze Kopitar will follow the tournament from the posters and over the internet from North America – and could potentially join at the Final Olympic Qualification end of August if Slovenia makes it. But another Kopitar is back with the team. His father Matjaz Kopitar, who also works as a scout for the Los Angeles Kings, returned to Jesenice for his first big task with the Slovenian national team after having coached the team from 2010/2011 to 2015/2016.
Can he lead Slovenia back to the Olympics and the top-level World Championship? The next seven months will show it.