Serbia’s golden boy
by Henrik Manninen|20 SEP 2019
Marko Dragovic was only 17 when winning triple gold at the World Championships and the double with Crvena Zvezda Belgrade. Now aiming to build on the success from last season, next up for Dragovic will be progress in the Continental Cup.
photo: Ivica Veselinov
Kaapo Kakko may have led Finland to double World Championship glory at senior and U20 level last season. But the Finns’ trophy haul pales in comparison to that of another European teenager, although at a different level. When Serbia celebrated triple gold at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program last season, Marko Dragovic was only 17 when playing a key role in the Balkan nation’s grand slam at senior, under-20 and under-18 level.

The Crvena Zvezda Belgrade forward first swept the field with Serbia at the U20 World Championship Division IIB in January this year. His winning streak continued with a second gold in March as Serbia won the U18 World Championship Division IIB on home ice in Belgrade’s Hala Pionir. The icing on the cake arrived a couple of weeks later. Once again in his home town, Dragovic skated for Serbia´s senior national team in Belgrade as they in dramatic fashion sealed a place at the 2020 IIHF World Championships Division I Group B in Katowice, Poland.

“Now we must build on our success and keep working hard to try and stay in these higher groups of the World Championships. Since I was nine or ten, I have played in the Hungarian or Slovenian league almost every year. That is one big reason for our three gold medals helped by good coaching and the work of our hockey federation,” said Dragovic.

On top of his hat trick of gold medals at international level, Dragovic also tasted success last season with Crvena Zvezda Belgrade as they lifted the International Hockey League (IHL) trophy beating Croatian, Slovenian and Serbian opposition and were also crowned domestic champions.

On the back of such a phenomenal success, Dragovic and his team mates will have a lot to live up to as the new season gets underway. The first hurdle to overcome will be at the 2019/2020 Continental Cup. Group A of the First round takes starts today in Istanbul with Crvena Zvezda Belgrade being among the favourites to finish top and progress through to the next round. Standing in their way will be Irbis-Skate Sofia from Bulgaria, Iceland’s Skautafelag Akureyrar and Turkish hosts Zeytinburnu Istanbul.

“Getting through the first round will be our objective and then maybe win a game or two and be competitive in the next round. Last year I played in Ritten in Italy the second round of the Continental Cup. It was hard playing against such good teams, but it felt really good when we managed to beat Jesenice in our final game despite being heavy underdogs,” Dragovic said. 

Should they live up to their favourite billing in Turkey’s largest city this weekend, Serbia’s reigning champions will be required to step up in the second round with Mogo Riga from Latvia, Ukrainian champion HC Donbass and Corona Brasov of Romania awaiting next month. 
Marko Dragovic (right) and his Serbian teammates sing the national anthem after a win at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A.
photo: Ivica Veselinov
International encounters against older opponents have played a key role in Dragovic´s rise to prominence. Vital for his development was Crvena Zvezda´s participation in the U12 league of Hungary. Following two full seasons, the club withdrew from competing in Hungary, but Dragovic decided to stay put. He was eleven when a deal was struck with Dunaujvaros to suit up for their U12 and U14 teams.

“My parents used to drive me and another player, Andrija Spanjevic to our games in Hungary every weekend. I would practice in Serbia during the week and then travel to Hungary. First I´ve played for the U12s, stayed overnight and then for the U14s before heading straight back to Belgrade,” he said of a prolific one year spell in the Hungarian steel town.

Having since briefly spent time at the Newbridge Academy in Canada’s Nova Scotia in 2015, Dragovic has since stayed loyal to the Crvena Zvezda organisation. He was regularly turning out for the Belgrade club’s senior and junior teams when the rain of gold medals for Serbia at World Championship level began in January this year.

“I think the U20 gold was the most expected. We were so close the year before and our 1999 generation is also really good. The least expected gold for me was with the seniors. I never played against those teams before and it was the most competitive tournament,” said Dragovic.

Despite Dragovic’s recent triple gold success, a similar feat had already been achieved by Spain’s Raul Barbo during the 2017/18 season. The up-and-coming Iberian netminder then played an integral part in Spain’s gold-winning U18 and U20 teams before completed his grand slam at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B with the men. But while Barbo then only featured sporadically for the seniors and clocking up 57:44 minutes between the pipes, Dragovic was to play a far more prominent role for Serbia’s senior team in April this year. A decade ago since Serbia last had won promotion to Division I, head coach Alexandre Dandenault slotted Dragovic into Serbia’s second line with Nikola Kerezovic and their best player of the tournament, 20-year-old Mirko Djumic.

“My teammates helped me a lot to adapt to senior hockey. Everything was a bit faster with the games being tougher and tighter. I was a bit nervous but as the games went on, things went much better. The pressure playing for your national team is big and in a five-game tournament you cannot afford to make any mistakes,” said Dragovic. 

In his fourth game of the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A, Dragovic poked home his first senior goal against the current Tappara Tampere netminder Wouter Peeters of Belgium. During a promotion campaign full of twists and turns, Serbia had spectacularly rallied back against China. In their final game against Spain, the Serbs tied the game with 32 seconds to go before lifting the roof of Belgrade’s Hala Pionir as they won gold after penalty shots.

“That comeback in the third period against China when coming back from 2-5 to win 6-5 is surely something I always will remember. As the tournament went on I played better and better and personally my best game was against Spain. But I didn’t expect to play two shifts in the overtime of that decider. It was amazing to win in front of your home crowd,” he said.
Serbia’s Marko Dragovic with a scoring chance against China.
photo: Ivica Veselinov
Jovica Rus, head coach of Crvena Zvezda Belgrade, has known Dragovic since the age of five: 

“Marko is an all-round player with a great passion for hockey. He has an extremely good game sense and great work ethic, but his execution in scoring could be better,” said Rus of his glowing assessment of Dragovic as the teenage prospect appears to be staying put in the Serbian capital for years to come.

“I have just started university, at the Faculty of Medicine here in Belgrade. It is six years basic studies and with specialization it can be around ten years in total. But who knows maybe one day if I get an offer I could go somewhere abroad again,” said Dragovic, who hopes the two full-sized indoor ice rinks in the country could soon be increased to bolster the game in Serbia.

“For us to get better, hockey must gain popularity in Serbia. New arenas should be built, especially in the southern part where we don’t have any. I think Serbs have the talent, but it will take a lot of financial help, hard work and dedication to get better,” he said.

While Dragovic will be eligible to suit up for Serbia’s U20 for yet another two seasons, the major test will come with the seniors in April next year. Then Serbia’s credentials will be severely put to test against Lithuania, Poland, Japan, Estonia and Ukraine at the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Katowice, Poland. 

“I think it would be pretty good if all three teams could stay in the higher divisions. If one of our teams could win a bronze medal somehow, then that would be amazing,” said Dragovic.

But first the Continental Cup is on his team’s program. Group A will be played in Istanbul and Group B in Mechelen, Belgium. Click on the links to follow the tournaments.