“It’s huge. On paper we have the toughest opponent coming up and probably a full crowd. We had a day off to settle after two huge wins and to go forward,” said Balazs Sebok.
The Budapest native plays his fifth IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship tournament and has been part both of the team that earned promotion in 2015 with a hard-fought 2-1 win over host Poland in Krakow and of the team that competed at the top-level 2016 Worlds. Some older players on the team also had top-level Worlds experience in 2009.
“For us, who don’t have that many top players and a top league like many other top-division nations it’s just about the team itself,” Sebok said on what it takes to go up and compete with the top nations.
“We got to be a family, we got to be close to each other and know what the others are doing. We got to be strict on tactics. It needs to be a solid team effort. We did it in 2015 when we got promoted and we won a game in 2016 in St. Petersburg. We kind of have the experience. We’re on a good way but it’s two more games left, I don’t want to talk about the top division yet.”
The Hungarians started with the six points they wanted to have on their account heading into this much-anticipated game. In another key game against a team with top-division ambitions the Hungarians had a strong game against Korea they won 5-1 before earning a hard-fought 2-1 win against last-seeded Lithuania.
Slovenia had a similar start with a 4-2 win against Lithuania and an easier day when they beat Romania 9-1 to take first place in the standings before facing the Magyars.
While many Hungarian players can play professional hockey at home with Fehervar in the Austria-based ICEHL or with teams from the Hungarian-Romanian Erste Liga, three players try their luck further away with Sebok currently competing at the highest level with Ilves Tampere in Finland.
As a teenager Sebok wanted to take the next step and left his native city of Budapest to play junior hockey far in the north in the Karpat Oulu junior system and see how far he will get.
“I just went there when I was 15. I kind of knew that I wanted to take the next step and everything worked out. I’ve been there ever since and made it to the Liiga. For sure going to the top division would help my career,” Sebok said.
“I’ve been living there for the past 15 years and it’s a good feeling to come back to the Hungarian national team and to help it as much as I possibly can. It would be huge for us to get promoted. I’m just happy to put on the jersey of my nation and help the team.”
After going through the U16, U18 and U20 team of Karpat Oulu and a season of senior hockey with second-tier Kajaanin Hokki, Sebok had his top-league debut in 2015 with KalPa Kuopio just a few months after earning promotion to the top division with the Hungarian national team. After six years including a year as scoring leader of the team he moved to Ilves Tampere last year. In 49 regular-season games he had 11 goals and 23 assists.
During his years he learned to speak Finnish fluently, which hardly anybody considers an easy task even though the Hungarian language is a distant relative of Finnish within the small group of Finno-Ugric languages. “That’s what they say but it’s not even close,” he said with a smile.
The Finnish connection also followed Sebok to the Hungarian locker room. One of his linemates is Rasmus Kulmala, who went the different direction in club hockey and after years of playing his professional hockey in Hungary got naturalized.
“We played against each other quite a bit in juniors. It’s a fun surprise when I saw him the first time in the dressing room. But it’s actually nice to have him,” said Sebok, who doesn’t need to do too much translation work for his Finnish-born linemate. “With Sean Simpson as head coach we talk English in the dressing room so I don’t need to translate too much.”
Historically the Hungary and Slovenia have crossed paths many times in the battle for promotion. Most recently Slovenia blanked Hungary 6-0 in 2019 in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan; 4-1 in 2018 on Hungary’s ice in Budapest; 2-0 in 2014 in Goyang, Korea; and three times 4-1 on home ice in Ljubljana in 2007, 2010 and 2012.
The last time a Hungarian men’s national team beat Slovenian players in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program was when those competed under the flag of Yugoslavia at the 1982 World Championship C-Pool. Between then and now there’s a painful losing streak for the Hungarians, who only managed to get promoted in 2008 and 2015 when Slovenia played in the top division and didn’t stand in their way.
It's a streak the Hungarians would be glad to finish with hundreds of Hungarian fans who travelled to Ljubljana to cheer on their team. And if not at least capitalize on the opportunity to get promoted in another way since the top-two teams will move up giving a second chance for the losing team.
“We know they’re the favourites, they’re a good team, there will be a full crowd on Friday but I think we have the better fans. It’s going to be a tough match, we have to be prepared and then go 100 per cent,” Sebok said.
The games can be followed at RTV Slovenia and Sport TV in Slovenia, at AMC Sport 1 in Hungary or on the stream on IIHF.com in many other countries. Click here for more information.