Representing your country and participating at the top division of the World Championship is a dream for most budding hockey players. For Igor Ljevak it has become reality, albeit in slightly different circumstances.
Wouldn’t COVID-19 have wiped out the international tournaments last spring, he would have been active at several World Championship tournaments – at the top levels with broadcasting and some tiers below representing his native country Bosnia & Herzegovina. That makes him unique in the world of hockey.
Born 1991 in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Ljevak was a toddler when his family moved to Sweden ahead of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. While attending the hockey gymnasium in the Swedish hockey town of Mora, Ljevak had suffered a horrific injury when breaking his neck. His playing career become second choice thereafter playing in minor leagues, but his involvement in top-level hockey was just about to begin.
“I remember I was 16 and working as a time-keeper during a game with Mora IK. I had observed the production team working during the game and thought it would be a job I’d love to do. I enquired them on how I could do what they do and that’s how it all started,” he said.
Relocating to the capital of Stockholm, Ljevak went on to get a degree in television production while playing hockey in the lower leagues. Then one evening, when working at a live broadcast during the Swedish hockey season, came an offer to play national team hockey.
“My dad called to tell me that the Ice Hockey Association of Bosnia & Herzegovina had been in contact. They wanted me and my brother to come down to Sarajevo and play in two exhibition games against Turkey. I was about to go live in 20 seconds. I quickly said to tell them I was interested. I didn’t really think more about as I was sure it was just talk,” recalled Ljevak.
“I started to understand what it meant to my mother and father when they told all our relatives about it. My paternal grandfather, who was at the game, was ecstatic and it was a mighty feeling to stand out on the ice together with my brother during the national anthem,” said Ljevak as a bumper crowd of 6,000 filled the stands to cheer on Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Then it all went quiet as Bosnia & Herzegovina went on to participate at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III in Izmir, Turkey. In order to become eligible for international play, Ljevak needed to skate for two consecutive seasons in the Bosnian league. Playing now took a back seat, as fond memories were made working on-site at IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
“To begin with, it was easy to get starstruck. I remember saying hello to Sidney Crosby. But I am there to represent another company and we’ve got quite strict regulations of what we are allowed to do and not to do. This season, I would have worked at my thirteenth World Championship, so now it is your job. You travel to the tournament, do your three weeks and then go home,” said Ljevak, whose favourite memory from work dates back to 2018 when Sweden went on to defend their gold in Copenhagen.
“Mattias Ekholm is a year older than me and we both attended the hockey gymnasium in Mora. During the 2018 World Championship in Denmark, I was working inside the arena when I greeted him. It took him by surprise as he laughed and wondered what on earth I was doing there? Another one on that team was Filip Forsberg, who played with my brother as a youngster,” he said.
But Ljevak’s personal ambitions to play at a World Championship was not yet dead and buried. After hanging up his skates in club hockey in Sweden, he had ventured down to Sarajevo to skate for successive seasons in the Bosnian championship. Then on 8 November last year, Ljevak suited up for his first official appearance for Bosnia & Herzegovina during the Olympic Pre-Qualification Round 1 Group N in Luxembourg.
“I hate to lose, but what I hate even more is when you go out on the ice thinking you will lose. I don’t know what it is, but always feeling sorry for yourselves doesn’t help and I tried to talk to them. I was brought up that you fight for 60 minutes even if you are ten goals behind. But despite that, I felt that we grew as a team with each game. It’s a good set of players and a very tight-knit group even though we don’t play together so often,” he said.
Eager to continue helping the Bosnian cause, Ljevak has committed himself to play at the World Championship Division III Group B that was planned in Cape Town, South Africa, but won’t be played either during the 2020/2021 season due to the global pandemic.
While still clinging on to the hope to have his brother Boris line up next to him during World Championship play, he feels that the future of Bosnian hockey is currently in good hands.
“There are a lot of kids now skating in Sarajevo and that will be what saves hockey. The work done by the Ice Hockey Association of Bosnia & Herzegovina by Adnan Mrkva and Dino Pasovic developing the national team and hockey schools is unbelievable and they deserve a lot of credit. I’ve told them that I am here to help if needed and with such great people involved in time it will all be good,” said Ljevak.