ZAGREB- When it was announced that KHL Medveščak Zagreb would be joining the Austrian-based Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL) this past spring, it marked a historical and significant event for the re-development of Croatian Ice Hockey. It meant Croatia’s most decorated Hockey team would be bringing pro Hockey back to the capital city, Zagreb for the first time in over 20 years.
Established in 1960, the original KHL Medvešcak (the present one is a new form of the club) has without a doubt been a dominant force in the Croatian Hockey scene, having captured the Croatian League title an amazing 14 times since 1995. Furthermore, the club has had success in the old Yugoslav league, grabbing league honours 3 times, 1989,1990 and 1991. In their first decade of existence the ‘Bears’ played all their games at an outdoor Football stadium that converted to an ice rink in the winter in the upper-class neighbourhood of Šalata. It was during period that the club managed to draw in excess of 5,000 + fans to games, which meant at that time, it was the second most popular team sport in Zagreb behind only Football, an amazing feat indeed in a country where Basketball, Handball as well as Football lives large.
It was only in 1971 when the team managed to move into its first permanent indoor rink, Dom Sportova (capacity 6,000), the same venue in which the club currently play. For the next two decades the club encountered good times and bad times, backed by a solid team sponsor the Bears managed to consistently perform at a high standard which culminated in them winning three Yugoslav league titles in a row. But when the war broke out in Yugoslavia in 1991, the country was plunged into an economic crisis and many of its sponsors and back room staff became financially bust and pulled out their backing of the team. This in turn meant the club lost its professional status and was forced to become a mere amateur outfit barely pulling a few hundred fans to its home games. For the next 15 years the club fell into obscurity, literally disappearing into the shadows dragging the whole Croatian Hockey set-up with it.
But talk about the Phoenix rising again.
When the EBEL approved the club’s bid to compete this season, the opening night tickets were apparently sold out within the first 24 hours of their release to the fans. Ever since that the fans have gotten behind their team and stuck with them through thick and thin in what’s been an enthralling debut season in the ever international looking EBEL league, which also has two Slovenian and one Hungarian teams competing in it. Attendance-wise Medveščak has the accumulated the highest average attendance of all the 13 teams in the league with a average gate of 5,843, remember this being done in their first season in competing in a brand new league in a totally new set-up, in a non-traditional hockey market.
The team has been just as successful on the ice as it has been of it, finishing in 8th place and in doing so clinching the final play-off berth up for grabs in their debut season. Led by the experienced Canadian head coach, Ted Sator the Bears of Zagreb have shown the rest of the league that they were no push-over’s as was predicted by many prior to the start of the season. The fact that they only finished in the last play-off position should be overlooked as there was only a mere 3 points separating the 8th and 5th spots. The fact that Medveščak had to settle for this position meant they drew the number one team in the league, Graz 99ers meaning advancing to the semi-final rounds will be no easy feat.
Although it’s not a established Hockey town of any sorts as of yet, Ice Hockey has been around in Zagreb in some shape or form for over 92 years, with the first ever game of the sport in the city being played between the Croatian Academic Sports Club (HASK) and First Croatian Sports Community (PHSD) at an outdoor arena. At present there are only four other clubs that are operational in Croatia; KHL Medveščak II (Zagreb) KHL Mladost (Zagreb), KHL Zagreb and HK Ina (Sisak) , all of which ply their trade in the domestic Croatian Ice Hockey League. KHL Mladost were crowned regular season champions a few weeks back after winning 5 out of a possible six matches, finishing top with 15 points. At the time of writing the Play-offs are in full swing with Mladost and KHL Medveščak II locking horns in the play-offs final ( KHL Medveščak II holds a 1:0 series lead). Due to a very short season (6 regular season games) it is not unusual to see a few Croatian teams competing in the Slohokej Liga (Slovenian Hockey League) at the same time for stiffer and more regular competition, which is the case this year for KHL Medvešcak’s farm team KHL Medveščak II and KHL Mladost, the latter finishing the season rock bottom in the 10 team league with 6 points from 27 games, with the former ending the season in a respectable 7th spot with 31 points.
As you can see the majority of the clubs are based in Zagreb which is unsurprising to see due to the fact that that there is only one indoor arena in the entire country and that is found in Zagreb, moreover it’s the only city in the country with a metropolitan population exceeding 1 million people meaning it’s only normal for it be the centre point of Croatian Hockey interest. With the success and interest that Medveščak is generating it’s is time for the powers that be (The Croatian Ice Hockey Federation) to step up and take an initiative train of thought, the population is currently captured in Hockey fever and they must strike while the iron is hot, it’s now or never for Croatian Ice Hockey.
Local die-hard fan Fillip Vidakovic sums up the matter at hand pretty well and speaks for the majority of a tight-knit close community of Croatian Ice Hockey fans.
“Yes, this has been historical season for Croatian hockey, especially for Medveščak. But, there is still a lot of problems in our hockey, and we all hope that EBEL euphoria will wake up our hockey federation to start spreading hockey across the whole country. If so, then we can say that we have benefited from EBEL league participation.”