Last week’s KHL Directors’ Meeting brought the sad, if expected, news that Medvescak Zagreb would be dropping out of the league.
Expected for several reasons: Croatia isn’t really a hockey nation, and despite Medvescak’s best efforts and vocal support, it was always going to struggle to compete with some of Europe’s strongest clubs. In addition, a limited local market meant securing local sponsorship was never going to be easy. After four seasons in the league, and just one trip to the play-offs, it wasn’t a huge surprise that Medvescak looked at returning to Austria’s cross-border EBEL competition.
The disappointment lies in the loss of some of the liveliest fans in the KHL. Sektor B at Dom Sportova always delivered plenty of noise, even when the team struggled to produce a great deal on the ice. Hopefully, the blow of dropping into the EBEL can be soothed by the prospect of winning a few more games at that level.
Meanwhile, what of the national team program? Part of the aim of a Croatian KHL franchise was to boost Croatian hockey and help the country climb up the IIHF rankings. That’s been a partial success. Croatia has stabilised in Division IB – a decent level, two tiers below the World Championship Elite Pool. Medvescak has provided plenty of players for the national team, with a healthy scattering of representatives when it played in Belfast back in April.
Among those, veteran forward Nathan Perkovich told me how the KHL experience had enhanced his playing skills.
“For myself it’s definitely developed my game,” he said. “Before playing in the KHL I had more of a scoring role, now I’m more of a PK, grinder type player. It’s nice to learn a different part of the game and it’s been good to see myself do that. It’s also changed how I approach games, especially road games. The travel is really tough in that league, so you have to get mentally prepared for every trip. Every time you go away for 10 days, you go to who-knows-where in Russia.”
He also talked up what the team could offer emerging Croatian talent.
“At Medvescak, our guys are learning the systems every day,” he added. “We’ve seen some of the guys coming up like [Matija] Milicic and [Ivan] Jankovic, and even guys like [Marko] Ljubic, whose been here a little while. These players know what they are doing. They’ve been playing the game for a long time. In the KHL, and at international level, maybe it’s a bit faster-paced than they’ve been used to, but the key thing – for Medvescak and for Croatia – is to play all the systems as a team.”
However, many of those youngsters have struggled for meaningful ice time. Several of them had barely suited up for Medvescak in competitive action last season. While, as Perkovich pointed out, that got a first-hand look at the preparation that goes into competing at KHL level, they rarely got an opportunity to put that into practice in a meaningful game. And that, in turn, slowed the national team’s progress as it dropped to a fifth-place finish in the six-team tournament.
Perhaps the sad truth, as long-serving Medvescak captain Mike Glumac suggested before the start of the season, is that hockey just isn’t a sport that really fits in Croatia. “Hopefully being in the KHL does help make them more attractive to younger kids,” Glumac said at a training camp in Cardiff. But he added a warning note: “Hockey isn’t going to replace football or basketball in Croatia. If we’re seeing a bit of an upswing that’s a good thing for us.”