Anniversary of Romania’s Miracle on Ice
by Henrik Manninen|05 MAY 2022
Stefan Ionescu, the head coach behind Romania’s miracle against the U.S. 45 years ago, with the new book.
photo: Iuliu Becze
Romania is currently enjoying a rich vein of form competing at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Ljubljana, Slovenia where they will play Korea this afternoon.

But 45 years ago on this day, Romania had far bigger fish to fry when USA was beaten at the top division at the World Championship in the Austrian capital of Vienna.

A 5-4 victory against USA on 5 May 1977 in Vienna’s Stadthalle marked Romanian ice hockey history’s finest hour. It coincided with Romania momentarily being among the top-six national teams in Europe. The mastermind behind this epic victory was head coach Stefan Ionescu.

“During the press conference after that game, the American journalists curiously asked me about the number of ice rinks and players we had in Romania. Three ice rinks and 135 players I answered. ‘Is that in the capital?’ they asked. It was in the entire country,” said the now 87-year-old Ionescu.

Doru Tureanu and Eduard Pana, Romania’s two members inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame, were both skating on that 1977 roster. Meanwhile Ionescu remains very much an unsung hero. The only scant consolation is perhaps that the former national team coach’s idyllic residence in Romania is found on a street named after Saint Stefan.

In hindsight, Ionescu’s record during his reign as head coach of Romania was nothing short of remarkable. Between 1974 and 1980, with a bare minimum of infrastructure and players at his disposal, he lifted the Southeastern Europeans to heights they had been nowhere near since.

Apart from guiding Romania to a solitary top division appearance at the World Championship in 1977, he also took them to two Winter Olympics in 1976 and 1980.

In Innsbruck 1976 Romania finished seventh out of 12 teams. Four years later, in Lake Placid 1980, they secured eighth place out of a dozen teams.

Ionescu’s prosperous era as head coach features prominently in a book released earlier this season named “History of the Romanian National Team at the Winter Olympic Games and the World Championships 1931-2021.”

370 pages long and printed in A4 size, its 14 chapters are jam-packed with stories, anecdotes, statistics, photos and much more covering the past and present of the Romanian game. The text is predominantly Romanian, but with big chunks also translated into English.

This definite historical source on Romanian hockey is the brainchild of its two main contributors and editors, Iuliu Becze and Mihai Covaliu. With the pulse firmly on the Romanian game, they both spent distinguished careers as game officials and later in the highest positions at the Romanian Ice Hockey Federation.

With support from friends and famous historians of the IIHF and the Hockey Hall of Fame they meticulously collated information used for this book.

Romania debuted at World and European Championship level in Krynica, Poland in February 1931. They needed to wait two years before their first win, against Belgium at the World Championship in Prague before progress eventually was halted by the onset of World War II.

By the time Ionescu enters the fold as national team coach, he has retired from a solid career as a blueliner for Steaua Bucharest and also twice skated as an Olympian for Romania in 1964 and 68.  

His coaching philosophy was influenced from East and West to suit Romania’s needs. With Steaua being the team of the armed forces, he had often played against CSKA Moscow, Krylia Sovetov and Dukla Jihlava. But Ionescu also mentions trips to North America and how visits to Montreal and New York also formed his view on how hockey ought to be played.

“At that time we had many good players in our national team. Many of them I had also worked with at the junior national team level. Doru Tureanu was that good so he could have played anywhere. But there was also for instance Eduard Pana, the goalie Valerian Netedu, defencemen such as Sandor Gal and Dezideriu Varga,” he said.

His seven-year stint as national team coach ended following the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Romania had there beaten West Germany 6-4 and conceded two late goals against Norway in a 3-3 tie to finish eighth. The entire team was also present sitting up in the stands witnessing one of the most dramatic upsets in Olympic history, when the United States upset the Soviet Union 4-3 en route to a sensational gold.

Touching down in Bucharest following the Olympics, Ionescu was ordered to take on a coaching job in Galati, an industrial and port town in Eastern Romania.

“When I came back to Romania, there started to be problems with politics. They wanted to send me to Galati, to start with preparations of building up a good centre for hockey there,” he said.

Instead he headed in the opposite direction. He defected to the west and eventually found himself coaching in Bilbao in northern Spain. A few years after he relocated to Switzerland where he coached for many years and eventually settled.

Since Ionescu’s sudden departure from Romanian hockey, they have never skated at the top level again.

“When I was still in Romania, there was lack of money and only a few clubs having youth and junior sections. I wanted to learn more about hockey, but it seemed like I was the only one interested. Most of the players knew they were going to receive pensions from their clubs following the end of their careers, so they didn’t really have any interest in working as a coach.”

In less than ten years from now, Romania will celebrate 100 years since first skating at the World Championship. Undoubtedly a new chapter will then be added to the eventful history of Romanian hockey. Covaliu, the former President of the Romanian Ice Hockey Federation and one of the book’s editors said:

“One of my goals when I became the President in 2015 was that we would play in Division I. We now have a good generation of players, but there aren’t too many juniors coming through. Still I would hope for us to be involved in Division IA in ten years’ time.”

Today Romania will play Korea in both teams’ second game. All games can be watched live – click here for more information.

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