The Slovenia Times

A Comedy of Errors


Ice hockey

Olimpija and Jesenice remain the only serious Slovenian contenders. In recent years, they have found their place under the sun in the Austrian EBEL league, which provides respectable competition, sometimes too strong for the financially struggling Slovenian teams.

Olimpija and Jesenice were fiercely fighting for a top eight position in the EBEL league - mostly against Medveščak, Croatia, and Alba, Hungary - and a place in the play-offs. After many ups and downs, eventually Olimpija made it, while Jesenice finished in last position. Olimpija played Salzburg in the knock-out system and this was when sparks began to fly.

Following Salzburg coach Pierre Page's critical comments that Olimpija's Andrej Hebar should be sent to prison (for attacking Salzburg's Kevin Puschnik, he was eventually suspended for the entire season; many believe, partly based on Page's comments), fans were eagerly waiting for revenge. However, Page had another trick up his sleeve. Claiming that Ljubljana is too dangerous a place to play (despite being given official approval), he avoided confronting the furious crowd. Salzburg lost the game behind the green table but eventually eliminated Olimpija.

In the time between the end of the EBEL league and the national championship finals, Jesenice had a month to get its act together. They were well aware that the EBEL league was not a disaster, given the fact that they had a young team. Rok Tičar, Žiga Jeglič and Robert Sabolič further established themselves, and have been approached by other big teams.

Sabolič has already announced that he's leaving for Medveščak, but if the management is able to keep the other two, the team - with an additional year of experience - might be a force to reckon with next year. After all, with the exception of two or three top teams, there was little to choose between other EBEL league teams. Even Olimpija came close to beating eventual champions Salzburg in the quarter finals.

National championship finals brought more excitement and political battles off the ice. When the finals were about to begin, Jesenice's Podmežakla Hall was closed for failing to obtain an operating permit. Many, including the mayor of Jesenice, believe that this was a political trick. It was issued only for the fourth match, after Jesenice had won the first two games in Ljubljana and the third one in front of empty seats.

Jesenice's coach Heikki Mälkiä has been kept on for the next season. "Frankly, I want to stay in Jesenice for reasons beyond ice hockey. My family and I feel great here and I had no second thoughts about extending the contract. The core of the team is great and we want to build on that next year. Failing to qualify for EBEL play-offs leaves some bitter aftertaste, but this will make us even more hungry next season. We healed some wounds by winning the national title and this is a big boost for the future," said the Finnish coach.

What strikes the eye in terms of the national championship is the lack of enthusiasm among fans, perhaps even players, particularly in Ljubljana. There were times when you had to queue for hours to get hold of the ticket, while this year only 2,000 tickets were sold for both Ljubljana matches. The EBEL league drew a lot of attention, while the national championship appeared to be redundant.

Muršak joins Kopitar

Meanwhile, Slovenian players are doing great in the NHL. With 73 points (goals plus assists) Anže Kopitar is the most successful player of Los Angeles Kings. Playing his 330th consecutive game for the team (in four years, he's missed only ten matches), he hurt his ankle and was forced to miss the playoffs. Team management openly admitted that they had lost their best player while fans call the Los Angeles Kings, "the Los Anzeless Kings". This year, Kopitar was joined by Jan Muršak as the second Slovene in the NHL , replacing an injured team mate. Muršak played 18 matches and scored one goal.


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