The Slovenia Times

Staying Alive



The championship, taking place in Finland, is their second tournament in group A, having beaten Italy and securing their place in group A at last year's event in Sweden. Some considerable changes have been made in our team as six experienced players have been replaced due to different reasons, mainly age and injuries. Another blow came just days before leaving for Finland, when Blaz Emersithe coach Matjaz Sekelj. Sekelj, however, remains an optimist, claiming that youth, motivation and enthusiasm will make up for the lack of experience. The team had endured an exhausting training period and played six friendly matches, including two matches against Slovakia, 2002 world champions, who played without their best players from NHL. Slovenians narrowly lost both matches, but proved their point. Slovenia will play the decisive match in Finland against Austria on April 29, 8 pm in Helsinki. Austria is an experienced team, a long-time member of group A and they also played at the last three Olympic tournaments. If Slovenia wins it will remain in group A, otherwise it faces a play-out against three other teams. The scenario is very similar to the one last year when Slovenia lost 3-5 against Austria, after leading 3-1 and an excellent performance for 50 out of 60 minutes. Last year's experience should be of a benefit and all the players promise a brave fight against the Austrians. "More experienced they are, but motivation is on our side," says Marcel Rodman, who played in Graz, Austria, this season. Rodman, 21, is also one of only three players in the history of group A ice-hockey championships to have scored in every match he played, including a goal against Sweden. The first two matches for Slovenia, however, will come on April 26th against the Czech Republic and on April 28th against Finland respectively. Slovenia has not yet played against the Czechs, four time world champions and Olympic champions in Nagano in 1998, and it played a friendly match against Finland in 1995 and lost 3-5. Although chances are slim in both matches, Sekelj promises a determined approach. "A bad performance and a humiliating defeat would have a harmful effect on my players. We will play these two matches as any other match, although one might think that we should keep our strength for Austria," says the coach, whose goal against the legendary Russian goal keeper Vladimir Tretjak at the 1984 Olympic games is still a memorable one. Before leaving for Scandinavia, Slovenia won 4-2 against Italy. Should history repeat itself, this is a good sign as it won against the same team also last year, before securing its place among the top 16 ice-hockey teams in the world. A short history To put the size of Slovenian ice-hockey into perspective, consider this: there are only 200 hundred registered senior players, which is, for example, the number of ice-hockey arenas in Finland. Slovenian national championship has always been decided between two teams only: Olimpija and Jesenice. Despite being in group A, national championship, contrary to the national team, has suffered a lot recently. Long gone are the times when as many as 7000 people were coming to see the final matches. The climax was probably reached in the late 80's when also other towns from ex-Yugoslavia formed strong teams. Recently, however, the dominance of Olimpija and some political intrigues kept the once partisan crowd away from the ice. Lack of money also played its part. In the late 80's Slovenia was an Eldorado for players from North America and Eastern Europe who could not secure a place in NHL or other top teams. Now, the flow of players is reverse: Slovenian players seek their place in clubs abroad and as many as 19 Slovenians played in other countries this year. However, these are still not top teams, compared to NHL, Scandinavia or Russia. Some expected that the majority of our top players would easily find their way to the best teams, possibly even NHL, after last year's group A championship. That did not happen, though, and group A remains of vital importance for our players as it is a rare opportunity for them to show their potential to managers. Marcel Rodman says that only when our hockey firmly establishes itself in Europe can we expect our players in top teams abroad and consequently also a stronger national team, which might take five, ten years, maybe more.


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