International Ice Hockey Federation

Reborn rivalry

Reborn rivalry

Hungary, Poland battle for spot in 2016 Worlds

Published 25.04.2015 10:00 GMT+2 | Author Martin Merk
Reborn rivalry
Polish defenceman Rafal Dutka hits Hungarian forward Daniel Fekete in the teams’ last Division encounter in 2010. Photo: Iztok Novak
A rivalry is back with a bang. Hungary and Poland recently lost track of each other in IIHF play but today they will battle for promotion to the 2016 Worlds.

Located not far away from each other between Western and Eastern Europe, both countries have a history of top-level participations and clashes both at the highest level of play in the pre-World War II era and at the tiers below afterwards.

Mostly these games have had the better end for Poland. Between 1938 and 2006 Poland was ranked better in every year than Hungary but since 2007 Hungary has finished every season ahead of Poland in the World Championship program.

Both countries appeared once in the top division in the new millennium. Poland made it back for the 2002 Worlds in Sweden after a 10-year wait, Hungary qualified for the 2009 Worlds in Switzerland, which was a comeback after 70 years.

Fans from both countries remember that time and are longing for more top-level hockey for their national team. For one nation the dream will come true next year.

Things have changed in both countries in the new millennium. Hungary has improved its hockey to have been ranked as a Division I Group A team ever since 2002 apart from the one-year expedition to the top division.

In Poland the curve went the other direction. Since 2008 the national was ranked 22nd to 24th in the program, good in the Division I Group B but not good enough for Division I Group A play. The Poles struggled to come back to this level and lost promotion games to Korea in 2012 and to Ukraine in 2013.

Last year not far away from home, in Vilnius, Lithuania, it finally worked out with promotion for the Polish national team. And this year in Krakow it has been a comeback with fanfare – fittingly in a city with an hourly trumpet call from the city centre’s Saint Mary’s Church.

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Although the hosts entered the event as the lowest-seeded team, they played far better than that and did it in the biggest and most modern indoor sporting venue of the country. The Poles had bad luck in the opening-day loss to Italy, 2-1, but then surprised with a 2-0 victory over Japan, a 3-2 win over Ukraine and on Day 4 they became the first team to really challenge Kazakhstan but lost the game 3-2 due to a late goal.

The sudden improvement could potentially end in promotion, which would be one of the biggest surprises at this level. Many players and officials in the Polish Ice Hockey Federation credit former coaches Igor Zakharkin and Vyacheslav Bykov, who left the national team to lead SKA St. Petersburg to the KHL’s Gagarin Cup win this year, for having changed the mentality for the players. Former Polish national team player Jacek Plachta, an assistant coach for the past two seasons, continued this work successfully.

Hungary had less tight games in Krakow than Poland – both when it won and also when it lost its only game. And apart from the clear 5-0 loss to Kazakhstan, the Hungarians – who are followed by over 2,000 chanting fans who made the trip to Krakow and will be joined by even more fans today – were on the winning side against Japan (4-2), Italy (4-1) and Ukraine (4-2).

The team coached by Rich Chernomaz perfectly knows how it is to play for promotion. From 2010 to 2013 they missed going up to the top division by only one place in each of the four years. And in Krakow it has looked so far like the players managed to convert the bad experiences to learned lessons. Bringing in younger players for ageing and retiring players also worked out well.

For Poland battling for promotion to the top division on the last day is an experience only the veteran players have had before. Same as Hungary, Poland has a good mix of younger players in the early ‘20s and aging veterans.

Both teams found their scorers like Marcin Kolusz for Poland or Hungary’s Andrew Sarauer, Daniel Koger and Istvan Sofron. Przemyslaw Odrobny, who started as backup for Poland, has been the strongest goaltender of the tournament with a save percentage of 96 per cent.

The stage is set and little details can decide about the outcome. Historically Poland has had the better end in head-to-head clashes but also that has changed. In the newer era Poland beat Hungary 3-1 in 2003, they had a 1-1- tie in 2005 and in the last encounter Hungary blanked Poland 6-0 at the Division I clash in Ljubljana in 2010.

But this time Poland will play on home ice at a sold-out Tauron Arena Krakow before over 14,000 fans. This advantage has been a factor not to be underestimated in Poland’s successful campaign, but Hungary will certainly not have a lack of vocal fan support for their team either tonight.

Thanks to its better record the Hungarians just need a win against Poland or one point from an overtime/shootout loss, which means a tied game after 60 minutes will also send them to the top division. Poland will need a regular-time win to overtake the Hungarians in the last moment.

The only thing that is certain before the Saturday night clash is that another team than the four usual suspects of the last six years – Austria, Kazakhstan, Italy and Slovenia – will be promoted to the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, after a rejuvenated Italian team with more home-grown players has fallen out from the promotion race and cannot finish better than third today.


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