Slovenia, a mountainous country lying between Austria, Italy and Croatia, is mostly remembered for its magnificent Baroque architecture, its green forests and beautiful ski resorts, not forgetting a narrow stretch of coastline on the Adriatic Sea. It is also, unfortunately, often mistaken with Slovakia, a fact which is ironically reminded by almost every English-language travel guide of the region.
But Slovenia is also a paradise for hockey fans, though mostly forgotten.
Wandering across the capital Ljubljana, one can find a lot of shops and advertising focused on our beloved sport, and the country’s main arena, the Hala Tivoli, is the home of Olimpija Ljubljana, a club currently competing in the EBEL, the Austrian ice hockey league, since 2007. With 13 Yugoslav titles and 14 Slovenian championships, the Dragons (as they are called by their fans), founded in 1928, are one of the most successful clubs in the whole Balkan area, though they still have to win an EBEL title (despite reaching the finals in their first season): but another Slovenian club even managed to do better than them.
Jesenice, home of the Kopitar Dynasty?
Jesenice, a town located roughly on the border with Austria, was in fact the home of HK Acroni, which, with 23 Yugoslav League wins, became the greatest club of that now-disappeared country (unfortunately Acroni disappeared too, having folded a couple of seasons ago). Anže Kopitar of the L.A. Kings, as well as his brother Gašper (now playing for Ontario Reign in the ECHL), spent their youth playing for them, while the adult section of the club was also briefly coached by their father Matjaž, now coach of Slovenia’s national team. Rudi Hiti, a member of the IIHF Hall of Fame since 2009 and one of Yugoslavia’s best players in the Seventies, also played there.
But what about Slovenia’s results in international competitions? Currently ranked by the IIHF at place 14, the Risi (“Lynxes” in Slovene) are about to take part in this year`s IIHF World Championship, which will take place in the Czech Republic in a few days’ time. Coached by, as already told, Matjaž Kopitar, the Slovenes are somewhat comparable to the Latvian national team: both countries were part of bigger, powerful entities (Yugoslavia and the USSR respectively) and they are the historically youngest teams to compete in the Top Division. Their best achievements are, until now, the 13th place in the World Championships (in 2002 and 2005) and a seventh place in last year’s Winter Olympics.
Slovenia will compete in Group B, whose games will be hosted in Ostrava. Among their rivals, there will be Russia, Finland, the United States, and Norway. Currently Anže Kopitar is the only player playing in the NHL, but many others are currently part of European clubs’ rosters; it is interesting to note that, among the players selected for the 2014 Olympics, only two were playing for a Slovenian team, Olimpija Ljubljana –and thus in the Austrian League-, while a higher number was serving in the Ligue Magnus, in France, or in the DEL, in Germany.
Lord Stanley visits the Alps
This year’s World Championship will show us what the Slovenes are capable of, and, given their steady improvement from Sochi on, it will be surely interesting to watch their games against their better, older and stronger counterparts: but, in my opinion, it will be also fundamental to try to grow more talents “inside” the country (or at least in the EBEL, a league surely stronger than, to say, the French one): the ingredients for success are probably already there, and maybe one day, who knows? there will be another player who will bring the Stanley Cup to Slovenia, as Anže Kopitar did last year.