But in the entire IIHF program with 81 member national associations and 54 countries with a big enough hockey environment to be part of the World Championship program, there are also less heralded rivalries that don’t cause less emotions among hockey players and fans in these countries.
One of these goes into the next round tonight when Croatia hosts Serbia in Sisak in a battle to advance in the Olympic Qualification and keep dreams of playing in Beijing 2022 alive.
Even though all Olympic Qualification groups were seeded according to the 2019 IIHF Men’s World Ranking, fortune was nice to the Balkan region. The participants Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey in Group M are not far from each other and can even be connected on the map. You can drive from Istanbul to the group in Sisak without crossing any other than these countries. And to make it even better, there’s a good chance that the winner of the group will play its next round in Jesenice, Slovenia (provided that the top-seeded teams Netherlands and Romania will win the other two groups).
Croatia and Serbia are Slavic neighbours, who have been absorbed and kept apart by large foreign empires, united in the 20th century with the creation of what would become Yugoslavia and separated by the break-up of the multiethnic country in the ‘90s. Their languages are close enough for fluent conversation with each other but still have enough nuances so they can hear where they come from.
They were separated during Christianization performed by the Catholic Church from Rome in Croatia, and by the Eastern Orthodox Church in what was then Constantinople for the Serbs. That’s why Croats use the Latin alphabet while Serbia formally uses the Cyrillic one (and in every day’s life both).
When people from far away hear these two countries mentioned together, it seems hard not to think about politics and history. But almost 25 years after the war in Croatia has ended, that’s exactly what players on both sides do. Hockey players, who in most cases were born after these conflicts or too young to have witnessed the dark times they know from the elder.
While a football match between these two countries in Belgrade or Zagreb may attract those who look for trouble and require a battalion of policemen and security forces, the reality in ice hockey is the opposite. Croatia vs. Serbia is a brotherly match-up where players set politics aside and can be friends off the ice. And hockey is a sport in these countries that fans can watch in peace and take their children to the arena without worries.
Times have changed in the Balkan region where politics are complex and borders don’t strictly follow ethnical lines. Today people cross borders, infrastructure was modernized, trade between the former parts of Yugoslavia has gone up again. Brands from the neighbouring countries have returned to the shelves. People arranged with the status quo and enjoy the new freedom within Europe, work together and are not afraid of finding win-win-situations with their neighbours. Such as in ice hockey.
On one hand the IIHF and its members in the Balkan region set up initiatives to bring juniors, coaches and officials from the countries from Slovenia in the west to Turkey in the east together in mixed camps and get to know each other as human beings in a once troubled region sharing the same passion for ice hockey and bring back happiness and stability through sport. In 2012 the IIHF won the Peace and Sport Awards for the project encompassing nine countries as it was praised as “the first ever sport alliance founded in the Balkan with the primary goal of promoting peace and friendly relations among the Balkan nations”.
Also in senior hockey the countries have been looking to work closely together. The corridor from Slovenia to Croatia and Serbia has become one market for top-level senior hockey. It’s a combination of good contacts, realistic thinking in the countries and the enforced situation. Croatia and Serbia only have – together – a handful of cities that have the facilities to compete for the national championships. In Croatia it’s teams from Zagreb and Sisak only, in Serbia full-size rinks are used in the Belgrade area, in Novi Sad and in some age categories in Subotica to play for national titles.
Playing their club hockey at the top level together helps each of the countries. This is currently done in the Slovenia-based International Hockey League (IHL) that includes the best teams from Slovenia (except Acroni Jesenice and Olimpija Ljubljana, who play one level higher in the Alps Hockey League), KHL Mladost from Croatia, and Crvena Zvezda Belgrade and Vojvodina Novi Sad from Serbia. Serbian champion Crvena Zvedza is currently ranked second behind Slavija Ljubljana. For players and fans in these countries it’s almost a revival of the former Yugoslav league, which additionally included teams from what is today Bosnia & Herzegovina and North Macedonia.
While Croatia has had many different adventures of playing abroad – Medvescak Zagreb played in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League and in the Austrian-based EBEL before leaving indebted – players in Serbia mostly played amateur hockey and improved from playing with their Croatian and Slovenian “brothers”.
After the break-up of Yugoslavia, national teams from Serbia moved down from 28th place in 1995 to 35th in 2006. Since then the Serbian national team has gradually improved and reached a new high last year when it won the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A on home ice in Belgrade for 29th place in the overall ranking.
During Yugoslav times, teams from Croatia won the championship five teams (including three in a row by Medvescak Zagreb from 1989 to 1991) while Partizan Belgrade won the championship seven times for Serbia including five consecutive championships between 1951 and 1955. Otherwise the trophy was mostly in the Slovenian hands of Acroni Jesenice and Olimpija Ljubljana.
Since the national teams of Croatia and Serbia (first still under the name Yugoslavia, then until 2006 as Serbia & Montenegro) rejoined the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program post-war in 1995, Croatia has had the bragging rights. The first two encounters in the ‘90s ended in ties, later Croatia mostly played at a higher level so that the teams didn’t meet. And once they met, Croatia won its games, four in a row. Until last season when fans witnessed Serbia’s first win in an official men’s senior national team game between these two countries at a packed Pionir Ice Rink in Belgrade.
|1997||WMD||Croatia vs. Yugoslavia 2-2|
|1998||WMC||Croatia vs. Yugoslavia 1-1|
|2008||OQ||Croatia wins 5-1|
|2012||WMIIA||Croatia wins 6-3|
|2012||OQ||Croatia wins 6-2|
|2013||WMIIA||Croatia wins 6-4|
|2019||WMIIA||Serbia wins 3-1|
“They are a good team on skates, play tough, do a lot of bodychecks. It will be an interesting game. We are at the same level, maybe even better than them. We will see in the game,” said Tomislav Licina, the 20-year-old Croatian forward who is from Sisak.
He knows the rivalry from the junior teams and underlines the importance of being well prepared. Also for him it’s a big game but with mutual respect. On the question whether there’s trash talk, he said: “It depends on the game, on the score. It’s tough on the ice but not off the ice.”
“We tease each other but nothing crazy. But we better leave this on the ice,” said Serbian captain Nemanja Vucurevic, at 28 years the oldest player on a young Serbian selection.
“It’s going to be the hardest game of the tournament and the most important one for us to go to the next round,” said Serbian forward Uros Bjelogrlic, who scored four goals in the 7-0 victory against Bulgaria. “We need to play steady. We have to play disciplined hockey, play our game, have a lot of shots, good defence and hope for the best.
“It’s a good rivalry, it’s a healthy rivalry. We are all good friends. We have known each other since we were kids, we played against each other, played together. They are good guys,” Bjelogrlic said about the rivalry and Sunday’s opponent.
“They are a good team, they have been playing together for many years, they are good players. I just hope we get to win.”
Also for him the relations on the ice are much better than people from outside could think when they hear Croatia vs. Serbia is on.
“Sometimes there can be trash talk but it happens all the time even between friends. It’s not too bad. It’s good trash talk, nothing too bad,” he said.
Croatia or Serbia? On Sunday evening we will know more. The game can be watched in the game centre on IIHF.com, face off is at 17:00 CET.