Poland’s captain aims high
by Henrik Manninen|16 NOV 2022
Captain of both Unia Oswiecim and the Polish national team, Krystian Dziubinski targets reaching the final stage of the 2023 Continental Cup this weekend.
photo: Sebastian Smelkowski
Eight months ago, Continental Cup history was made when Cracovia Krakow became the first Polish team to win the competition. Can Unia Oswiecim emulate the same feat this season?

With one hurdle remaining before the final stage, Poland’s Unia Oswiecim crosses into neighbouring Slovakia to play in the third round of the 2023 IIHF Continental Cup Group F this weekend.

Locking horns with hosts HK Nitra, Ukraine’s HK Kremenchuk and Asiago Hockey of Italy, the top-two of the round-robin tournament progress to the final stage of the Continental Cup. A weekend of enticing games awaits Unia Oswiecim expected to be backed in Nitra by a large and vocal travelling support.

“We will have to play better than we usually do in the Polish league. It will also be great for our fans who have been waiting for this tournament for a very long time,” said Unia Oswiecim’s team captain Krystian Dziubinski.

Polish hockey appears to have the wind in its sails once again. 33-year-old Dziubinski was team captain for Poland when the Eagles on home ice surged ahead to win the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Tychy last spring. Following a few meagre years, Poland will once again play among the top-22 nations in the world.

With an uncle who played for Poland at the 1980 Winter Olympics, Dziubinski was five when he started skating in his native Nowy Targ, one of Poland’s coldest towns located near the Slovak border.

“Hockey was much more popular then than it is now in our country. Back in those days a lot of kids were playing hockey out on the streets in Nowy Targ,” he said.

Aged 16, a bold move taking him across the Atlantic set Dziubinski on the path of becoming a professional hockey player. During three invaluable years at St. Mary’s Orchard Lake High School in a leafy suburb of Detroit, Dziubinski and five of his compatriots combined studies with playing hockey. 

Memorable moments included winning the school’s first state championship and also being the teammate of current Pittsburgh Penguins blueliner Jeff Petry.

“I’ve met a lot of helpful people during my years in the USA. As a player, I learnt to play a North American style of hockey. As a person I picked up English, which since opened a lot of doors for me,” he said.

Learning to stand on his own two feet, Dziubinski spent altogether four years in the USA. Following the completion of his studies, he embarked on an adventure on his own. It was himself who engineered a move to play for the Alaska Avalanche in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) before the following season being traded to North Iowa Outlaws in the Midwest.

When Dziubinski’s U.S. visa was not renewed he returned to play senior hockey in flying form for his hometown club Podhale Nowy Targ. Eye-catching performances saw Dziubinski make his national team debut as a 20-year-old for Poland at the 2009 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division I Group A on home ice in Torun. The desire to test himself abroad once again remained as he carved out a successful career as a reliable points machine in the Polish top division. When Covid-19 disrupted most of the world’s hockey schedule in 2020/21, Dziubinski sealed a season-long move to Neman Grodno in Belarus.

“I wanted to leave to play abroad earlier, but my negotiators were not serious and I was always told to wait. But I have a family and I need to take care of them so sometimes you can’t wait until August. Few Polish players get a chance, but at the same time, only a few of us actively tried to go abroad. It seems like the best opportunity to play outside of Poland is by having two passports. Until we achieve good results it may not change,” he said.

Dziubinski was 13 back in 2002 when Poland, led on the ice by Mariusz Czerkawski, Krzysztof Oliwa and Jacek Plachta most recently skated for Poland against the top nations of the world.

“I remember that last time Poland played at the top level of World Championship in Sweden. Poland played against Finland and Slovakia, who both were successful in that tournament. We fell out from the highest division as I remember Japan was unable to get relegated as the Asian team would stay at the top level,” he looked back to 2002.

In April 2015, Dziubinski and his peers came tantalizingly close to returning to the top division. In front of a bumper home crowd of 12,632 in Krakow, Poland squared up against Hungary during the last game of the World Championships Division I Group A. It was to be the biggest disappointment so far in his career.

“To promote we had to win in regulation time while Hungary needed only a point. After two periods it was still 0- 0. In the third period, I lost the marking in front of the net and Janos Hari scored the goal that changed the game. We got back to 1-1 but needing a win in regulation time we pulled the goalie and ended up losing 2-1. I have never accepted my mistake because we were very close to promotion,” he recalled.

Speaking with an undoubted passion for the game has also made Dziubinski the main voice for Polish professional players with the improvement of working conditions being a top priority.

“I’ve been President of the Polish Ice Hockey Players Association for four years. We have a deep desire to change Polish hockey, starting with making a contract template for the entire league. But you cannot be an active hockey player and run the Professionals' Association while trying to change the stereotypes and rules regarding contracts or regulations at the moment in our country,” he said.

At the age of 34 and with a dozen of World Championships for Poland under his belt, Dziubinski still feels he has a lot of unfinished business out on the ice. Poland playing at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Nottingham, Great Britain next year is one such example.

“I think the best memory in hockey is still in front of me, but I realize that I don’t have much time left. But the tournament in Great Britain next year is a great opportunity to become my favourite memory of playing for the national team. I just hope we will bring our best players to that tournament,” he said.

But a lot of hockey will still be played before then. First up for Dziubinski and Unia Oswiecim will be the Continental Cup in Nitra. It will be his second appearance at the tournament. His only previous outing came in 2012/13 when Sanok returned from the third round to Poland with three successive defeats.

“I remember the last and only time so far I played the Continental Cup tournament. It was in Stavanger, Norway and we got a good lesson there. Since then I think Polish clubs have gotten better, which Cracovia showed last year,” Dziubinski said.
2023 IIHF Continental Cup Group F