That’s a big thrill for the new generation of players, several of whom are barely old enough to remember when their national team could call on a couple of NHLers and rub shoulders with the best in the world.
More importantly, though, it offers a chance for Polish hockey to rebound after a long spell in the doldrums.
Head coach Robert Kalaber, who took charge of team Poland three years ago, led the team to back-to-back promotions from Division IB to the top flight. Now the Bratislava native hopes that this can be the start of something big for his adopted country.
“Ice hockey is not such a popular sport in Poland,” the 53-year-old said. “If we compare with something like football, it is maybe eighth or ninth among sports in the country.
“That’s why we need this return to the elite division. We need it to attract more support, more sponsorship money.
“We know that Polish sports fans like winners. They want to watch teams that are playing at the highest level. Our team, the players and the coaching staff did their job to get us to the top division. Now we need everyone else to do their job and build on this to grow Polish hockey.”
There are already signs that Poland’s resurgence is attracting attention. Kamil Walega, a 22-year-old forward who caught the eye in Nottingham with 7 (3+4) points, was announced as a new signing for Ocelari Trinec, Czech champion for the last four completed seasons. Kalaber believes he should be the first of many to play in a stronger league than Poland’s.
“We have some young players who are really good,” he said. “They should be in better leagues. This tournament is a chance for them to go to bigger clubs and develop as young players at a higher level.”
Poland’s progress in Nottingham came as a surprised to many. Although the team impressed in winning Division IB on home ice a year ago, few marked them out as promotion candidates here. However, it’s testament to Kalaber’s work that the players never wavered in their belief.
“As soon as we got promoted last year, we believed we could do it again,” said forward Alan Lyszczarczyk. “We are a strong group and everyone trusts each other. That makes us strong enough to compete with the best teams.”
Now the versatile Cracovia Krakow man is looking forward to the prospect of facing the best – and playing in front of a big Polish following in neighbouring Czechia next May.
“The fans were like a sixth player for us [in Nottingham],” he said. “That helped us out a lot. We think there will be even more of them next year, because the tournament is close to Poland. We can’t wait!”
Goalie Maciej Miarka, called into the team at the 11th hour to backstop the decisive win over Romania is also feeling it.
“It’s amazing, our first time for more than 20 years,” said the 22-year-old GKS Katowice netminder. “We’re grateful for the opportunity, but we know how much we really worked for this. Together we did everything to make this happen.”
The players are excited, but the coach is keeping his eye on the bigger picture. He believes that Polish hockey has a chance to accelerate its development – especially if his team can compete with the best.
“Playing with the elite in Czechia next year will be a stimulus for us,” he said. “We will see a big promotion of the game, ice hockey will be on national tv again. Kids and youngsters will see it and want to play. But they want to know they have a chance to be in the elite.”
Now, for the first time since 2002, that chance has come.