Mezei still going strong
by Henrik Manninen|17 NOV 2022
After a long and wandering career, home is were the heart is for former NHL and KHL defenceman Branislav Mezei of HK Nitra.
photo: Miroslav Slavik /
In a long and winding career in top leagues such as the NHL and the KHL, Branislav Mezei has seen it all. Well, almost, because at the age of 42, HK Nitra’s evergreen blueliner will now make his IIHF Continental Cup debut.

“Age is just a number. I just have to take care of my body a little more after workouts. But I take it day by day and as long as I feel good and like doing this every day there is no limit. We’ve enjoyed great seasons over the last few years and that helps a lot. When you are rewarded for your work, it’s easier to keep going,” said Mezei, who celebrated his 42nd birthday just last month.

The tenth overall draft pick at the 1999 NHL Entry Draft has been instrumental to HK Nitra’s success since returning to shore up the defence at his hometown club in the autumn of 2014.

Mezei’s steady influence as team captain has helped Nitra reach unprecedented heights. They celebrated winning a historical first Slovak championship win in 2015/16, finished second thrice and with bronze on a couple of occasions. Not a bad return for a team that had previously been accustomed to living in the doldrums of Slovak top-flight hockey.

But so far this season the Slovak vice-champions have failed to click into gear. Currently, in the bottom half of the Slovak Extraliga, a much-welcomed break arrives this weekend as the third round of the 2023 IIHF Continental Cup Group F rolls into town. Backed by its home fans Nitra will square up against Unia Oswiecim from Poland, Ukraine’s HK Kremenchuk and Asiago Hockey of Italy. The top-two teams of the round-robin tournament played in Nitra will progress to the final round played between 13-15 January 2023.

“So far we have focused on our league as we haven’t had the best of starts to the season,” said Mezei. “We don’t know what to expect from these teams in the Continental Cup but we take it as a challenge to be better as a team and winning can bring some positive energy to the team also for our games in the Slovak league.”

In Mezei’s neck of the woods, blueliners of a certain vintage appear to have been built to last for the long haul. His compatriot and friend Zdeno Chara only officially recently retired at the age of 45. Chara, a consummate professional, became Mezei’s mentor when the Nitra-born rookie arrived at the New York Islanders while still in his teens in 2000.

“Zdeno is the hardest-working guy I know and I learned a lot from being around him. He was a big help to me at the start of my career. I even stayed at his house and he helped me to adjust to men’s hockey which I will always be thankful for,” said Mezei.

While the three-and-a-half years older Chara morphed into a Stanley Cup champion and Norris Trophy winner with 1,652 NHL games under his belt, Mezei came to enjoy a more meandering career across the world’s top leagues. A towering and defensive-minded blueliner, he spent a couple of seasons with the Islanders and then four with the Florida Panthers. After 240 NHL games, Mezei leaped east to skate in the KHL with Barys Astana from Kazakhstan in 2008.

“I had suffered from a few bad injuries and was waiting for a new contract offer from the NHL. Then came an offer from the KHL. It was a different world compared to the USA but you do your best to adjust and provide for your family,” Mezei said.

Between 2008 and 2014 Mezei started each season wearing the colours of a different team. It included stints in top leagues in both Czechia and Finland, but also suiting up for defunct KHL teams such as Lev Poprad in Slovakia and Croatia’s Medvescak Zagreb. Eight games into his stint with cash-strapped Medvescak, Mezei decided to end his wandering days by returning home to Nitra in October 2014.

He was 34 when he played his first competitive game at senior level for his parent club and has been an integral part in lifting HK Nitra to an era of prosperity culminating with the club’s championship win in the spring of 2016.

“I don’t have to travel much or move the family and we’ve experienced some great seasons with the team. Winning the championship has probably been my favourite memory in my career. It was the first and so far the only win for Nitra and our great fans,” he said.

Having skated in four World Championships and one World Cup for Slovakia between 2001 and 2013, Mezei played with greats such as Chara, Miroslav Satan, Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa, and the late Pavol Demitra. His final appearance at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was uncharacteristic to say the least. During Slovakia’s 4-3 quarter-final exit against Finland in Helsinki in May 2013, the defensively-minded Mezei suddenly turned into a points machine recording an assist in each of Slovakia’s three goals.

Surprise bronze medal winners at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, a promising crop of Slovak players are once again breaking through. How does Mezei asses this next generation, where the 18-year-old blueliner Simon Nemec, just like Mezei back in the day, is a first-round NHL draft pick who moved to North America from Nitra?

“There’s a lot of young prospects here in Slovakia, so it’s just up to them how they proceed and how badly they want to be successful. But they have shown that even from a small country like Slovakia you can make it. So that’s a positive sign for the future,” said Mezei.

The games from Nitra will be streamed from from Friday to Sunday.
2023 IIHF Continental Cup Group F