Split loyalties
by Henrik Manninen|30 AUG 2019
Mariusz Czerkawski put on the CHL jersey of GKS Tychy, which takes on his other former club Djurgarden Stockholm in Group F of the 2019/2020 Champions Hockey League in Poland.
photo: GKS Tychy
The cities of Tychy and Stockholm played a major part in Mariusz Czerkawski becoming Poland’s most prolific player in the National Hockey League. On Friday, the two clubs closest to his heart go head to head as the 2019/20 season of the Champions Hockey League gets underway.

GKS Tychy, back-to-back champions of the Polska Hokej Liga, against Sweden’s record champions Djurgarden Stockholm promises to be a mouth-watering prospect. An opening day encounter in Group F of the CHL which sees Czerkawski sitting on the fence regarding his allegiance.

“Never would I have thought Djurgarden would play Tychy, the two clubs I have so much to thank for. Tychy was where it all once started and Djurgarden helped to push me to the NHL,” said Czerkawski. 

A glittering career saw him skate in 745 regular-season games in the NHL, represent Poland once at the Winter Olympics and three times at the top division of the World Championship. Czerkawski’s career then came full circle in January 2009 when he at the age of 37 bowed out after one emotional final appearance for Tychy.

Now based in Poland’s capital Warsaw, Czerkawski bides his time between playing golf and working for his foundation promoting hockey for kids across the country. With Djurgarden rolling into Tychy, Czerkawski will shun the VIP lounge to offer his expert opinion as co-commentator for the official broadcaster, Polsat Sport.

“There is no doubt that Djurgarden will be the big favourites, but Tychy will fight well and it could turn out to be a very exciting game,” he said.

Czerkawski’s giant leap from relative obscurity straight into one of Europe’s strongest club team has become a defining moment in Polish hockey history. It came at a time when walls were torn down and Poland finished a fine sixth out of eight teams at the 1990 U18 European Championships played in Sweden. Spearheading Poland’s attack with eye-catching trickery up his sleeve the 17-year-old Czerkawski outscored players such as Martin Straka and Mikael Renberg.

“It was there Djurgarden first took note of me. In early 1991 they invited me over to Stockholm for tests. I worked with their farm team, but I was also invited to one of Djurgarden’s home games. Visiting their locker room I remember how professional it was. Everything was at is the right place which wasn’t the case in Poland at the time,” he said. 

Five players from that tidy locker room – Charles Berglund, Jan Viktorsson, Mikael Johansson, Kenneth Kennholt and netminder Tommy Soderstrom – would finish the 1990/91 season on a high as World Champions, European club champions and Swedish champions.

Djurgarden’s success had been built on a closely-knit unit of players from the Stockholm region. Czerkawski’s arrival saw him become the first foreigner since Canadian Steve Cardwell briefly graced the club during the 1976/77 season. Touching down in Sweden’s capital in the summer of 1991, getting the Polish teenage prospect quickly up to speed in his environment was imperative. 

“To arrive from Poland as a 19-year-old was not easy. Looking back, it was a year I would not like to go through again. For a start, the language was a big challenge. I knew no Swedish and my English was very bad. I forced myself to learn Swedish very quickly, but for instance to have a laugh with my teammates was still not easy,” he said.
Mariusz Czerkawski played last time for Poland at the 2006 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Estonia, pictured against Lithuanian goaltender Arunas Aleinikovas.
photo: IIHF Archive
Out on the ice, expressing himself also became limited. During the 1991/92 season Czerkawski was iced sporadically notching 8+5 in 39 games. Djurgarden retained the European club championship, but missed out on a fourth straight domestic title after losing in the final series against upstarts Malmo.

“I had a lot to learn and the tempo was high. I had to improve defensively and not losing the puck on the blueline was vital. You were immediately benched if not doing the right things. I also kept my hair long back then and head coach Lars Falk hinted me to get a haircut. But I refused, so maybe that is why they loaned me out following season,” he said.

A season-long loan stint at local rivals Hammarby got him up to speed as he scored for fun in Sweden’s second tier. Returning to Djurgarden ahead of the 1993/94 season, Stephan Lundh, then assistant coach of Djurgarden, remembers Czerkawski’s time at the club with fondness.

“He had a mind like a sponge. Mariusz learnt Swedish very fast and got very quickly into a good physical condition. He was also that kind of player who would do a bit extra with the puck and he oozed of self-confidence. He was very popular, not just with his teammates but also with the rest of the staff. Always in good mood and never complaining,” said Lundh, who admits the success of Czerkawski saw Djurgarden’s transfer policy widen its scope. Soon after Norway’s Espen Knutsen became the next gem to be unleashed following his arrival in 1994.

“For long we thought it would be easier with players from Stockholm and keep the team intact for many years. But players such as Czerkawski and later Knutsen added another dimension to our team as they were so skilled. You didn’t need to put a lot of time and effort for them to adapt, which we had been afraid of in the past. In this way Czerkawski was leading the way,” said Lundh, who these days works as head coach of league rival HV71 Jonkoping.

Scoring 34 points in 39 games in his second season at Djurgarden, Czerkawski joined the Boston Bruins at the tail end of the 1993/94 season. Becoming the first Polish-trained player in the NHL, he suited up for five different franchises between 1994 and 2006. He made a brief return to Djurgarden during the lockout season 2004/05, which also coincided with one of his favourite moments wearing the red and white of Poland.

“That season our national team played against a team of NHL stars in Katowice. But my best memories with the Polish national team comes from when I was 18-19. We won the B-Pool of the World Championships in what was then Yugoslavia and also played in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. At that time I thought there would be more Olympic appearances in years to come, but since then we have not been back,” he said.

The last time Poland featured in the top division at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was in 2002. Last season’s second-place finish behind Romania at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Tallinn equals Poland’s worst-ever overall position in the competition. With Poland and Katowice hosting the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B, Czerkawski hopes playing inside the historical Spodek Arena can put Poland back on track.
Mariusz Czerkawski (right) worked as team lead of the Polish national team during the 2012/2013 season with legendary Russian player and coach Vyacheslav Bykov (left) as consultant and Igor Zakharkin (middle) as head coach.
photo: Martin Merk
“Only three years ago, we came very close to win promotion to the top division in Katowice. Lack of success also means that hockey is not so popular in Poland. We also had the wrong people at the wrong positions at the head of Polish hockey, so a lot of improvement is required,” said Czerkawski.

In the attempts to bolster Polish hockey, the arrival of the CHL has been a welcomed addition. Tychy, who made their debut in the competition last season, then recorded Poland’s first victory in the CHL, courtesy of a 5-3 win against Bolzano on home ice.

“For a country like Poland, it’s really special to see top teams and players arrive that they can test themselves against. If we are to make hockey better and bigger this is a good step,” said Czerkawski.

With the Vienna Capitals and Adler Mannheim being the other two teams fighting for the top-two spots in Group F of the CHL, Tychy hopes to be able to catch Djurgarden off guard at this early part of the season. On 7 September Tychy then travels to Stockholm with Czerkawski expecting to make a return to Sweden.

“It will be great to be back in Stockholm. It is in my plans and I will also try and play a little golf with my friends. Out of my old teammates in Sweden, Fredrik Bremberg and Mats Sundin are two that I keep in touch with. It’s always great to meet up with them and practise my Swedish, which these days become very rusty,” said Czerkawski.