“We’ve been practising off-ice for almost two months waiting for when we finally can be able to step out on the ice, so we are very hungry for playing hockey,” said HK Vojvodina’s head coach Vladan Drozdik.
On 4 October, their wait was finally over. Like cows hitting the spring pasture, the HK Vojvodina players were buzzing with excitement during their first ice practice of the season inside Novi Sad’s Spens Sports Centre.
They need to quickly find their feet with the second round of the Continental Cup Group D looming around the corner. Host Asiago Hockey, Slovenia’s Acroni Jesenice and Turkish champion Buz Adam Istanbul await HK Vojvodina the round-robin tournament played in Italy from 14 to 16 October.
Despite preparations being far from ideal, you won’t hear the Serbian champions complaining. Having lifted the domestic title for the first time in 18 years last spring, Vojvodina’s home-grown roster will be eager to test themselves on the international stage.
“It’s always a pleasure to participate in a tournament such as the Continental Cup. You get the opportunity to play against teams from a high level and see nice places so I’m really excited about going to Asiago. We’re well aware of the quality of Asiago and Jesenice and our goal is to be a tough and hard-working team shift by shift, no matter what will happen out on the ice,” said the 31-year-old team captain Nemanja Vucurevic.
A veteran member of Serbia’s national team, the Novi Sad-born Vucurevic will now skate in his fourth Continental Cup with his fourth Serbian club team.
“Each tournament has been different, but of course, I’ve liked those tournaments where we got promoted to another round more,” he said.
With HK Novi Sad in 2008/09 and then with Crvena Zvezda Belgrade (Red Star in English) in 2017/18 Vucurevic progressed from the first to the second round of the competition. In between, he had embarked on an odyssey carving out a career in hockey. He played on two different continents and in five different countries, including the Austrian based cross-border league ICEHL and Germany’s DEL2. Upon his return to his native Novi Sad in 2018, his influence for HK Vojvodina has been crucial in lifting his home town club back as top dogs in Serbia.
HK Vojvodina´s unexpected championship success last season was achieved with up-and-coming head coach Vladan Drozdik. The 35-year-old had grown up with his hometown club being a powerhouse in the domestic game around the turn of the century. Following a playing career spent in Novi Sad, he has as head coach instantly instilled a winning mentality at Vojvodina.
“We were surprised to win the title in Serbia as we are kind of underdogs because of our budget. All of our players are not paid for playing. Compare that to Red Star in Belgrade where players have salaries and are professional. Our players give their best trying to be as professional as possible, but at the same time they have their jobs to go to and sometimes come to practice tired after work,” said Drozdik.
Drozdik’s previous personal experience from the Continental Cup comes from his teenage years when he sat on the bench during the preliminary round in 2003/04. Since then a tumultuous decade ensued with several Serbian club teams being dissolved due to financial constraints. Being part of an illustrious sports society including for instance basketball, handball and football, the right to use the name HK Vojvodina Novi Sad was bought back by the hockey team in 2015. Currently, they are the only senior team operating in Serbia’s second-largest city.
With such turbulent times in the rear mirror, the focus within the club is now firmly on bringing through their own players. Despite practice slots being in very short supply, there is a well-functioning youth development program in place at the club. The aim is to maintain a strong local flavour on the team skating in the International Hockey League (IHL), a cross-border league with Croatian, Serbian and Slovenian clubs.
“We are allowed to play with five non-Serbian players in the IHL, but because of our budget, we’re only going to play with domestic players. We have a young goalie, Akim Padalitsa, who is originally from Russia, but he is officially a Serbian player too since last season,” said Drozdik, who is realistic about his team’s prospects in the upcoming Continental Cup.
“The Continental Cup in Italy can be a great preparation for the IHL season where we are planning to step up and make better results than last season. In the Continental Cup, I know that the champions of Slovenia and Italy are aiming for first place in the tournament. But I also saw that our Turkish opponents have a lot of good Russian players. So it’s going to be a very big challenge for us, but I also know that we’re going to give our best. I think winning one game will be a big success for our team and that’s the target we can reach,” said Drozdik.