It all started with a convincing – though not always straightforward – 5-1 win over Israel. After that, Ilija Cukovic’s team switched to another gear and victories became much more comprehensive. Beating Bosnia & Herzegovina 12-1 and Israel 9-0 Serbians put themselves in a pole position ahead of the final clash with Balkan neighbors.
Then came the time for gifts.
March 30th, Serbia head coach Cukovic was celebrating his 43rd birthday when good news from One Ice Arena reached the team’s hotel. Israel beat Bosnia & Herzegovina, meaning that Serbia would finish on top regardless of the last day’s result.
“It was amazing news, exactly what you’d want for a birthday present,” Cukovic recalls. “That’s what I told Israelis when they came back to the hotel. They didn’t know, of course, and obviously, they were happy for themselves but I still thanked them and we had a good laugh. We are good friends, after all.”
Thus, Ilija and his players could treat the final game as a lap of honor but by no means intended to. “It was a nice present but we never wanted any help. Our goal was to win all four games – and it remains the same,” he said before the last bow.
And that’s just what Serbia did wrapping the tournament with another double-digit victory, this time 11-0. This result may well be seen as a return favor to Israel as it insured the host team’s second-spot finish. Israel and Bosnia & Herzegovina exchanged wins and ended level on points with three, but head-to-head goal difference favored the hosts who lost 4-2 before taking a 4-1 revenge.
Individual honors went to goaltender Yael Fatiev (Israel), defender Amila Sose (Bosnia & Herzegovina), and forward Milica Velcek (Serbia). Her compatriot Valentine Vrhoci topped the scoring chart with 14 (10+4) points.
Not just an aggregate score of 37-2 impresses with Serbian performance, but the team’s average age is astonishing as well. Almost the entire team – with exception of backup goalie Sanela Cormakovic – was born this millennium. Such is the result of the national youth hockey program, Ilija Cukovic explains.
“We started this program ten years ago introducing ice hockey to girls in primary schools and even kindergartens. And now we have a very talented but already relatively experienced young generation, as you saw here this week. In fact, we have a few even younger girls who are not eligible yet to play for the national team. But in a couple of years, we will have more fresh blood and this is very encouraging.”
“For the time being, there are no regular competitions for girls in Serbia, so until the age of 15 they play together with boys. This helps them grow faster but now our priority is to give them an opportunity to play in a league of their own when they get older. It’s not so easy but we are doing our best trying to organize some competitions, a kind of development league, with teams from other countries like Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Hungary. Our objective is to keep the girls in this sport. I can’t say that conditions for them are ideal now but we are moving in the right direction. And our results prove it, I guess.”
“We are happy to move up, we deserve it. But we still want more. I am not telling you that we are going to become a hockey power soon and play in the top division but we undoubtedly have room for improvement. And this is what we are going to do – improve our game and progress as far as we can.”
“We want more”
This is not just Serbia’s motto, the same can well be said about the host nation. Team Israel already reached new heights compared to last year. In 2022 in Belgrade, they lost all three games scoring just a single goal. In 2023 in Tnuvot, they achieved their first-ever win on the world stage.
Again, this is not just about the team. The first-ever IIHF-sanctioned tournament in Israel was an important test for One Ice Arena, the newest hockey facility in the country, and everyone here enjoyed the unprecedented challenge, especially after a very difficult period.
“We finished construction works in 2019”, says Sports GM of the arena Pavel Levin. “Obviously, very soon this proved to be the worst possible moment but who could predict? I can’t tell you how we managed to survive those times of pandemic, we are still recovering from them. So, staging such an event, and getting all systems to go in a short period of time was a huge challenge for us. But we thrived on it and hopefully, everybody saw our effort and what we achieved. I hope this is just the beginning of something bigger. Ice hockey in Israel is on a rise, our women’s team looked good, also U20 and U18 juniors are showing decent results. So, we hope that in the future we can stage more IIHF events. This is what we aim for.”
High marks from Briza
Among those who were impressed by what was on the show in Tnuvot, is IIHF Senior Vice-President Petr Briza, the tournament supervisor.
“It’s a beautiful arena”, he says. “In addition to the main ice, it has a practice rink which is very important for so-called smaller countries where ice always has to be shared between hockey, figure skating, and public skating as well. Of course, it’s been a challenge for the arena and national Federation to organize this event but they did a great job and proved that there is a future for further tournaments in the country. I’d like to thank the organizers, this was a big effort, especially in a short time as this tournament was originally scheduled for Metulla but then the venue was changed.”
“I encouraged the local Federation to apply for other events because it brings more popularity and for sure leads to progress. We want to be cooperative and help in many ways. I hope, Israel will stage more tournaments in the future. Not just hockeywise. This is a great arena but also a fantastic country with so many historic and cultural attractions. I know that Serbian and Bosnian teams visited Jerusalem – this is also interesting for participants and visitors.”
“Absolutely, with such a venue Israel Federation has a good chance of staging more events like U20 or U18 tournaments in their divisions. This is exactly the way how to promote hockey all over the world”.