Rising with the challenge
by Henrik Manninen|08 MAY 2022
Romania goalkeeper Zoltan Toke saves this puck before crossing the line.
photo: Martin Metelko
For 27-year-old Romania and Brasov goalkeeper Zoltan Toke this week was a hard test at a higher international level than the team was used to.

Newcomers at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A, Toke was under no illusions about the tough task facing the burgeoning Romanian national team in Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana. 

“They are really tough teams, but we put our best efforts into it and are not feeling any pressure,” said Toke before the tournament hoping to have at least one win.

Currently 23rd place in the IIHF Men’s World Ranking, Toke was only nine months old the last time Romania competed at similar heights. In May 1995, Romania skated at the second level in World Championship play against now well-established top division nations Slovakia, Latvia and Denmark.

Growing up with the Triple Gold Club member Martin Brodeur as his role model, Toke’s career path initially followed in the footsteps of most prospects hailing from the predominantly Hungarian-speaking Romanian county of Harghita.

Moving to Hungary in his late teens, Toke came of age at Debrecen’s junior program that at the time also competed in the Slovak league. Many Romanian-born players have since disappeared into the depths of Hungarian hockey for good. Toke, however, decided to return home at the age of 21 penning a deal with Brasov.

Crisscrossing frantically between Romania and Hungary as one of the top contenders of the Erste Liga, which includes teams from both countries, Toke’s development in senior hockey coincided with a new generation of players offered a chance to shine at the national team level.

Ahead of the hosting the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division IIA played in Galati, the average age of the Romania roster was drastically cut. Seven out of the 22-man roster were Toke’s contemporaries and born in 1994. Toke, then aged 22 and a newly crowned national champion with Brasov, started in all five games for Romania and only conceded five goals. Romania won gold which meant promotion to Division IB and hasn’t looked back since.

“The older guys were then going out with the younger ones coming in. There was a lot of young talent in the team and nobody felt any pressure. We just went there to enjoy our time. And I think this is also the main reason for our continued success,” said Toke.
Brasov netminder Zoltan Toke was instrumental in Romania’s rise to the Division IA.
photo: Daniel-Maximilian Milata
Once Romania had consolidated its place at Division IB level in 2018, all pieces suddenly fell into place the following year.

During a memorable spring week three years ago, Romania raced through the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Estonia undefeated in what became known as the “Miracle of Tallinn” for the Romanians.

Romania topped the charts in scoring efficiency, power play and penalty killing. Building from the back, the team coached by the experienced Slovak Julius Penzes only conceded nine times in five games.

The unexpected top-place finish in Tallinn was also a personal success for Toke. He topped the goaltending stats of the tournament (GAA of 1.45 and a 94.34% save percentage). Closely followed was his compatriot and rival from Brasov, Patrik Polc with a 1.95 GAA and 93.81% save percentage.

In Tallinn, Toke rose to the occasion performing heroics against firm-favorites Poland when Romania won a nail-biter of a contest 3-2 after overtime. It was a win that set the tone for Romania en route to the gold medals and a place at the IIHF World Championship Division I Group A.

“Poland was a tough team and it’s perhaps the most important game I ever played in. But I feel that we competed better than them. We were fighting for pucks, blocking shots and our defensive play in our zone was so good. But they had a lot of chances, I especially remember two breakaways during overtime before we finally won it,” said Toke.

Trying to find a plausible explanation for Romania’s shock promotion, media and opponents on-site in Tallinn were keen to emphasize the impact of Romania’s then four recently naturalized players. While they added special skills and much-needed depth to the roster, it also overlooked the key impact of the Romania-born players. In their top-three forward lines skating in Tallinn, eight out of nine players were Romania born and trained. It included big impact players such as Roberto Gliga, Daniel Tranca, Gergo Biro, Balazs Peter and Zsombor Molnar who back then all represented the same club, Brasov. 

“It is hard to say the reason for our success as we didn’t expect to jump two divisions. But many on this team played together in a lot of tournaments since we were juniors. We are like a family and I think that´s the main reason why we have had success,” said Toke.

Romania already played a tournament in Ljubljana in May 2021 to get an indication. Facing opponents such as Slovenia, France and Austria, Romania suffered 5-0 losses against both Slovenia and Austria. But there was also a glimmer of hope offered in their game versus France. Despite being severely outshot, Romania stood firmly against a French onslaught. Toke played magnificently in the net to keep the score down to a narrow 3-2 loss.

Having arrived in Slovenia, the massive task for Romania was to try and build on their recent success while keeping the family atmosphere intact at a higher level.

It proved a difficult task that started with three losses in three games an relegation. The scored were 9-1 against Slovenia, 4-1 against Korea and 5-4 against Lithuania. In each game the Romanians had a good start and kept the score tied in the first two while building a 2-0 lead in yesterday’s game against Lithuania but each time the Romanians gave the game out of hand losing the other two periods. They were also clearly outshot in two games while keeping the shot chart balanced against Korea (29-30).

For Tamas Reszegh, who had three points against Lithuania, the defensive work was the most critical point in the losses. “Unfortunately in this group you can’t win like that. Maybe we can fix this for Sunday’s game and play better,” he said.

Sunday’s game, that’s a cross-border clash with Hungary. A majority of Romania’s player are from Harghita county which includes hockey cities such as Miercurea Ciuc / Csikszereda and Gheorgheni / Gyergyoszentmiklos and also fans who travelled from there to Ljubljana proudly write their city name of Csikszereda on the flag – the Hungarian one – that they display beside the flag of Szekelys people. And that’s not all since Hungarian national team players Nandor Fejes, Tamas Sarpatki and Istvan Sofron were born there and some of them played youth hockey with SC Csikszereda in what is called Miercurea Ciuc in Romanian language before moving to Hungary and becoming eligible to play for the country. Another key player for Hungary born in the city, Istvan Bartalis, is missing due to injury.

Even though the game won’t change the second-place finish for Hungary and the last-place finish for Romania, there will be a lot of pride on the ice in this rivarly.

“More than half of the team has Hungarian roots so it’s a big rivalry,” explained Toke. “Almost everyone plays in Erste Liga, so we know each other. It’s a tough one, everybody wants to win. Hungary got more skill because they have a few players who play in better leagues but most of them play in Erste Liga. It will be a big game.”