Historic triumph for KHL Sisak
by Ivan Tchechankov|26 SEP 2022
The KHL Sisak players pose for a team photo after winning the Group A of the Continental Cup in their international debut.
photo: Bonchuk Andonov
The 25th IIHF Continental Cup season started with a newcomer winning the Group A round-robin tournament over the weekend in the Winter Sports Palace in Sofia. Already on Saturday KHL Sisak secured first place in the standings after defeating Estonian champion Tartu Valk 494 7-2 and Skautafelag Akureyrar from Iceland 6-2. In the last day of competition the Croatian champion completed the perfect record in the Bulgarian capital with a 9-6 win over host NSA Sofia.

“We came here to win the tournament and we did it. The training camp was four weeks long, but we had the full team together for the last two-and-a-half weeks. We brought a couple of new players to lift our level and we expected to win,” said Luka Jarcov, KHL Sisak’s general manager and player-coach. “The most difficult game was the first one. We knew that our opponent is the strongest and the toughest from all three, but didn’t know anything about what their team will look like. We watched their games on YouTube, but at the same time ten players from their last season’s roster were missing.”

Jarcov scored the first goal against Tartu Valk 494 midway the first period when his team was shorthanded. Seven minutes later one of the new additions, Gabe Schovanek, tallied for 2-0. The Lightning (Valk in Estonian) had a great advantage in shots on goal (24-7) in the second period, but the Knights (the nickname of KHL Sisak) were those who found the net. Aleksejs Popovs was given a match penalty for an illegal hit to the head area and Schovanek scored again on the subsequent power play. After goals by Patrik Dobric and Tomislav Licina the score was 5-0 until the 53rd minute, when Vassili Titarenko scored for the 13-time Estonian champion. In eventful last three minutes there were three more goals and three game misconduct penalties – one for spearing and two for fighting.

The next day it was Sean Ramsay’s show in the Winter Palace. He scored two goals in the first period, assisted on the next two in the second for a 4-0 lead against Skautafelag Akureyrar and completed the hat trick and a five-point game with his tally at the beginning of the third. During the last minutes of the game the teams exchanged goals and there was even a missed penalty shot as a cherry on top of the cake. After Sisak’s second win and NSA’s loss to Taru Valk 494 it was mathematically impossible for anyone to take down the Knights from their throne.

“We had a good time on Saturday, but didn’t celebrate too much. Our goal for Sunday was to win the last game, but at the same time not to have injuries, so we took it a little bit easier,” explained Jurcov. In the first two games David Anderson was Sisak’s goalkeeper and he made 63 saves on 67 shots. 18-year-old Franko Oreskovic replaced him for the game against NSA. In every period there were five goals with Sisak winning the first and the second frame 4-1 and 3-2 respectively and NSA edging in the third with 3-2 for the final score of 9-6. Ramsey had another hattrick and Jarcov (2+2), Patrik Dobric (1+3) and Ivan Puzic (0+4) for Sisak and Erik Blinov (3+1) finished with four points.

KHL Sisak, founded in 1934, is the oldest ice hockey club in Croatia and last season it became the first team outside of Zagreb to win the national championship. The fairy-tale story continued with the first place in the team’s first European club competition event.

“The new arena was built four years ago. Then in the end of 2020 there was the devastating earthquake. After that our mayor and our sponsors helped us to turn around the club. With the Covid-19 pandemic we didn’t have too much practices. We needed a couple of years to create this project. We were able to get some players from Zagreb, from our national team, and we won the title last season. Now we are semi-professional team, but in two, three years we want to be a fully professional team,” Jurcov said about the club’s ambitions. “Our ambitions for this season are to win again the Croatian championship and to win the International Hockey League, where teams from Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia participate. If we do that, one day we want to play in the Alps Hockey League with teams from Austria, Italy and Slovenia.”

For 2021/2022 Sisak was able to bring two Americans with college hockey experience: goalie David Anderson and defender Austin Wilk, who also represented the United States at the Winter Universiade.

The two new faces for this season, 21-year-old Canadians Sean Ramsay and Gabe Schovanek, were attracted to Sisak by their friendship with Dominic Canic and Patrik Dobric. The four were playing in Victoria, British Columbia, for the Pacific Coast Academy. Canic, who was born in New Zealand, played also in Sweden and Germany before making his debut for Sisak last season. Ramsay was the 2018/19 top scorer (46 goals, 96 points) of the Canadian Sports School Hockey League, played also in the BCHL and last season for Johnstown Tomahawks in NAHL. Schovanek was his teammate not only in Victoria, but also at the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles. Two more players came to Sisak from league rival Mladost Zagreb: Jan Ikanovic Silhan and Luka Derek, who got injured in the first game in Sofia.

Last April, Croatia won the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division II Group B, which was staged in the Winter Sports Palace as well. Two weeks ago Croatia won the U20 World Championship of the same level in Belgrade. Luka Derek was part of this team.

“It’s very nice to see that Croatian hockey is coming back to higher divisions. We want to see these results in the senior team as well. We have many young guys, who are playing in stronger leagues abroad and that makes me very happy. We don’t have many rinks in Croatia and the talents that we have need to go outside to develop and play hockey on higher level. Croats are talented in many sports, but at the moment we don’t have enough rinks to support the ice hockey development. You can see what we can do when we have facilities. Sisak is a great example with what we achieved in two, three years,” said Jurcov.

The historic triumph of KHL Sisak places the team in the IIHF Continental Cup Group C for the second round, which will be staged in Angers from 14 to 16 October 2022. The Knights will have three opponents there, host Angers Ducs (France), Ferencvarosi TC (Hungary) and SC Miercurea Ciuc (Romania).

“As for Round 2 we will try to be competitive, but those are professional teams and it will be difficult. We have ten guys that are still working and we need to see if they will be able to come for the tournament. For sure there will be more problems to solve for the next round, but we don’t plan to recruit additional foreign players. At the moment the club is not in the financial situation to do that and more importantly we don’t want to do that,” concluded Jurcov.

The last game of Group A on Sunday was a direct battle for second place, but Tartu was too strong for the Vikings from Akureyri and won 8-0. Host NSA Sofia finished last, but showed great spirit in the game against the Vikings on the first day, coming back from 3-5 to 5-5 in just 13 seconds to win a point for a regulation-time tie. The 23-time Icelandic champions won 6-5 in a shootout. NSA is a first-time Bulgarian champion and had by far the most U18 players on the ice during this weekend – six, two of them even born in 2006. The message from the organization was clear: path for the youth for the debut rather than looking for reinforcements elsewhere.
2023 IIHF Continental Cup Group A