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A primer: Croatia’s potential move into the KHL

February 19, 2012

Waiting in the wings: KHL Medveščak Zagreb and KAC Klagenfurt in the EBEL’s own Winter Classic (photo via KHL Grič)

Let’s take it from the top. I am hoping to shift greater focus in this blog to Croatian hockey, which, for both men and women, has been burgeoning in recent months. The women’s club KHL Grič, and men’s teams, most notably, KHL Medveščak Zagreb of the EBEL, have been making waves. And, I am Croatian and my Croatian language skills are vastly superior to those of my Czech skills, so this seems a worthwhile endeavor. Add in the fact I’d love to see hockey grow there, and it all makes sense.

Croatian hockey has always, like so many things, paled in comparison to the hockey of its northerly neighbor, Slovenia. Skiing, wine, economics–Slovenia generally gets things down pat. But that’s because they’re smaller, in a better geographic position…and I could go on, but won’t. Slovenia can boast Anze Kopitar, while Croatia’s nearest product of hockey greatness comes in second generation players, like Joe Sakic.

Croatia’s most prominent and oldest club is KHL Medveščak Zagreb, which plays in the EBEL, or Erste Bank Eishockey Liga, or the Austrian hockey league. The league is comprised of clubs from across Austria and Slovenia, and one apiece the Czech Republic, Croatia and Hungary. The league is truly novel idea–get the most from small states with smallish hockey communities (save Znojmo in the CR). This team is the one poised to enter the Kontinental Hockey League as an “expansion” team. Lev Poprad in Slovakia was the first just last year, and the KHL, according to recent interviews with Alexander Medvedev, has its sights on Zagreb and Milan. Travel and skill-level be damned, the KHL is looking at a more global game, partially by necessity, partially by hubris. It has to be applauded.

The bears, as they are known, play out of the city’s capital. They’re using social media (check their Twitter) and attracting Canadian-born players with Croat parents and Russians, to balance the playing pool in an effort to become more competitive. In short, Croatia is looking to fast-track its hockey, and joining the KHL may be a part of that. It’s something I still hold mixed feelings about, just as I did with Lev Poprad. Hockey colonization is nothing new, and its carries inherent benefits and risks. I think hockey systems should be developed organically, but I think in order for players to develop, a higher grade of hockey must be presented to both fans to stimulate interest in the sport, and used to challenge players, to take them to a higher level. A very interesting NYT piece from earlier in the month recounts the growth of basketball in China, and how fans had a hard time digesting the slower pace of CBA ball when compared with the NBA on TV. With respect to players, lesser hockey nations like Denmark wind up having their youth play in Sweden, to gain a competitive edge they can’t at home. If competition can be brought home, that’s good, yes? I think it might be. The EBEL has served its purpose extraordinarily well, further cementing the ties of Central and Eastern Europe. The closeness of history and culture between Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Croatia and Austria made it a perfect union of sorts for sport. The mighty KHL complicates some of that, when looking less at a sport level and more at a social, economic and cultural one. Relinking states and cities that have been close but compromised can only be good. But the KHL brings distinct benefits too–more money, more competition, more spotlight–and Zagreb should be honored to be drawn into the fold.

In the Croat press, hockey is still relegated to the “ostali sportovi” sections. It’s not soccer, basketball and it’s not skiing. It simply never will be. But the in-roads being made are impressive.

More soon.

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