Wukovits the trailblazer
by Derek O'Brien|23 MAY 2022
After years of developing into a top player in Austria, Ali Wukovits had his debut at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship as first Austrian player of colour.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
By all accounts, the Austrians have exceeded pre-tournament expectations by taking points from three of their first six Group B games, with their worst defeat being just 3-0 at the hands of host Finland. And yet, with four points, they are still not safe from relegation.

“So far we have performed well in most of the games, especially against the big nations,” said 26-year-old forward Ali Wukovits. “We can be happy with that but, at the same time, we haven’t met our goal yet, which is to stay here in the top division. We still have to accomplish that so we can’t be satisfied yet. We have to prove to ourselves and everyone else in the last game that we belong here.”

Austria needs just a single point from Monday night’s game against Great Britain, but the team is leaving nothing to chance.

“It’s gonna be tough,” said Wukovits. “They lost to Norway in penalty shots, so that says they’re not a team that can be taken lightly. They’ve been in the top division for three years in a row now, I think. So it’s probably going to be even harder than the games before because it means so much – they don’t want to go down and we don’t want to go down. It’s going to be a very tough battle and we have to be prepared for everything.”

This is the first World Championship for 26-year-old Wukovits, but it’s also the first one Austria has played since being relegated three years ago in Bratislava. This year Austria was supposed to play for promotion in the Division IA but with the absence of ROC and Belarus, the Austrians along with France became late additions at the top level. Through six games, the 26-year-old from Vienna has three assists.
It’s been amazing. We’re all so grateful to be here, even though the circumstances are very sad and unfortunate.
Ali Wukovits
Austrian forward
“It’s unbelievable, playing in such a great arena in front of thousands of fans. Especially with how it’s been the last couple of years, it’s beautiful. It’s good for the game and for Austrian hockey,” Wukovits said about the experience, both on and off the ice.

Wukovits’ path to the World Championship is typical in some ways, and in some ways not. He was born in Vienna to a Senegalese father and an Austrian mother. In the neighbourhood where he grew up, none of his friends were hockey players.

“I had no connections to hockey at all,” said Wukovits. “My dad always wanted me to play football, but I went ice skating once when I was around five and I was just so amazed by the speed. It was so much fun. One winter, I went almost every weekend and then I saw a group of guys playing hockey and I told my mom, ‘I need to do that!’

“That was basically how I got involved and after that, I was just hooked,” said Wukovits. “From then on, I had a goal to be a professional hockey player and I’m very grateful to have fulfilled that.”
L-R: Austria’s Bernhard Starkbaum, Ali Wukovits and Manuel Ganahl after the historic win against Czechia.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
But it hasn’t always been easy. To begin with, a problem that many young players have: a mother who was fearful for his safety.

“She was scared about the speed and the physicality but she never prevented me from playing,” said Wukovits. “From day one, she’s been my number-one supporter.”

When Wukovits started playing hockey in the early 2000s, none of his teammates or opponents were of colour.

“No, not at all. I also played football, which has more diversity. But not hockey, not in Austria,” he said. “There were some in the NHL but still, not as many as now.”
I wouldn’t say that was tough, but I didn’t have that role model that looked like me. But at that point, I was having so much fun playing that I didn’t really care. I just wanted to fulfill my dream.
Ali Wukovits
Austrian forward
By the time he turned 18, Wukovits had played six games for the Vienna Capitals in the Austrian-based multi-national professional league now called the ICEHL. The team’s coach at the time was Tommy Samuelsson, a former Swedish national team player who had deep roots to Farjestad Karlstad, and he recommended the young Wukovits to play there in the J20 SuperElit, Sweden’s top junior league.

“It was a great experience,” Wukovits recalls. “There were some great players there. Rasmus Asplund, who is at this tournament as well, Joel Eriksson Ek, Oliver Kylington... Victor Ejdsell just won the SHL title this year with Farjestad. So it was very good for me to train every day with players like that and learn from them. In general, just the professionalism they have over there is different than we have in Austria, so I was very fortunate to go through those two years and develop in such great surroundings.”

Eventually, injuries brought him back to Austria.

“In my second year in Sweden, I had a concussion that was pretty bad, and that was followed by another tough year in Vienna where I couldn’t play a lot. Those were two tough years which took time away from my development, but after that, I think I made pretty good progress coming back. I was fortunate to have good coaches there with Serge Aubin and then Dave Cameron, who had already coached in the NHL. I think those were two key contributors to my development in Vienna after that injury.”

Now Wukovits plays for league rival Red Bull Salzburg.

“It is different but very good as well,” said Wukovits. “We have a young coach, Matt McIlvane, who is very passionate, and he’s a very good coach as well. This past season was tough with injuries, I only played like 25 games, so it was good having him there because he’s a very personal coach, which helped me a lot through that stretch. I’ve been very fortunate with the coaches I’ve had.”

As mentioned, one of Wukovits’ Farjestad teammates was defenceman Oliver Kylington, who is currently playing for the Calgary Flames in the second round of the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Kylington, like Wukovits, is of mixed African and European ancestry, with a Swedish father and an Eritrean mother.

“We didn’t play that long together because it was his draft year and he left during the season (to play for AIK Stockholm in the second-tier pro league Allsvenskan),” said Wukovits. “But I think he has a very good relationship with Johnny Oduya and, for sure, that’s a big support for him, having that role model to look up to.

“Same with P.K. Subban, he does an amazing job taking that role and taking the spotlight. That’s great.”
I hope to be that kind of role model for younger players some day. I think it’s good for kids to see that people of their background have a place in this beautiful sport. When you’re a kid or a teenager, it’s comforting when you see people of your background doing the same thing. When you see that, it can take away some of the doubt that you might have.
Ali Wukovits
Austrian forward
Asked if he’s come in contact with any young Austrian players of colour, Wukovits said: “Yes, I have met a couple. Not a lot, but a couple.”

“It’s not quite like in Sweden, but also, the sport is bigger in Sweden,” Wukovits pointed out. “If something has more tradition and more people are doing it, it has wider appeal to all people. It’s a smaller sport in Austria but now, I think now it’s growing a bit and especially in Vienna, which is a huge, multicultural city. That’s nice to see and I also think it’s very good for the game.”