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Canadian coaches steer Serbia's success

by Bill Meltzer

Adam Shell, head coach of the Royal Military College of Canada, is one of two Canadian coaches who have come to Serbia to help lead their national team.
In a country that has experienced more than its share of strife and sadness, team sports long have been a refuge for Serbs. While Serbia is not known for having a particularly strong ice hockey program -- the country is currently ranked No. 30 by the International Ice Hockey Federation -- the Serbian national teams quietly had strong international campaigns in 2007-08 and will look to build on that success over the next year.

Serbia medaled in all three of the World Championship tournaments in which its teams participated over the last year: The Serbs won the bronze at the 2008 Division II Group A World Championships in Romania, took silver on home ice at the Under-20 Division III Worlds and dismantled the rest of the field in skating to gold at the Under-18 Division III Group B Worlds in Turkey.

The Serbian Ice Hockey Federation recruited a pair of Canadian coaches to the take the reins of the national team: Toronto native Mike Brewer guided the Under-18 and Under-20 squads with Quebec native Fred Perowne as his assistant. Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) coach Adam Shell led the senior team to the bronze.

The Serbs' close ties to Canadian hockey came after former Colby College star center Perowne came in 2001 to play in the Serbia League for Vojvodina Novi Sad. After several years in the league and a playing stint in the Netherlands, Perowne returned to Serbia.  The Sherbrooke, Quebec, native brought along several fellow Canadian players, and the connections between Serbian players and Canadians have grown accordingly.

Brewer, 39, is the son of former NHL defenseman Carl Brewer. He has been working in Serbia to help build the country's hockey program while also playing for Vjovodina Novi Sad in the Serbian League and the new Panonian League.

"Many European countries have well-funded and organized hockey programs, but recent history in Serbia has limited -- and in some cases stopped -- hockey programs and a once-strong senior league," Brewer told Eurohockey.net. "Many kids here do not have -- or can't afford equipment. ... My expectations are to help create organizational structure to Vojvodina and to the national team to ensure sustainable hockey development over the long term.”

The Serbian program has forged a symbiotic relationship with McGill University's hockey program. Serbian senior national team standout Marko Kovacevic attends McGill and boards with Perowne's parents. Kovacevic helped Perowne recruit former McGill captain Dan Jacobs to Serbia. 

McGill also has partnered with the Canadian players in Serbia to provide equipment and development opportunities to young Serbian players. As part of their commitment to assisting the effort, the McGill Redmen participated last December in the Vojvodina International Celebration of Hockey Tournament in Novi Sad. In head-to-head competition, the Redmen beat the Serbia Selects, 7-3. The Serbs were coached by Brewer, with Perowne serving as his assistant.

The McGill connection also is what brought Serbian senior national team coach Shell to the country. McGill coach Martin Raymond first was invited to run the Serbian bench at the 2008 Division II World Championships. He declined for family reasons, but recommended Shell, a former McGill defenseman who was Raymond's assistant coach before taking the coaching job at RMC.

The unlikely pairing of a Serbian national team drawn from a pool of just 121 registered adult players and a young hockey coach from Toronto clicked. At 27, Shell isn't far removed from his own playing days. But his youth -- along with what is widely considered an exceptionally sharp eye for detail -- enabled him to connect with his players on and off the ice. The club worked hard by day and played hard by night.

"It's a different style of game over there, Shell told the Kingston Whig-Standard. "The players are very skilled and the fans love the game, but there is no hockey culture. They're missing the finer points and the players lack that North American edge."

Canadian forward Marko Kovacevic led the attack for Serbia in the Worlds with 11 points.
Shell also was moved by what he saw off the ice in Belgrade, which still bears the scars of 2½ months of heavy bombing during the Kosovo War.

"Belgrade is incredibly interesting, "Shell said. "You walk by a beautiful building and right next to it is a bombed-out building. You understand better what these players went through. I'll tell you this much -- they don't take too much for granted.”

In addition to Serbia and the gold-medal winning tournament host Romanians, the 2008 Division II Worlds featured Belgium, Israel, Bulgaria and Ireland. Serbia had little shot against Romania, which breezed through the tournament and pounded the Serbs, 10-0.  But every other team had its hands full playing Shell's team.

McGill's Kovacevic led the way on the ice. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder, who plays left wing for the Canadian university team but played defense and forward for Serbia at the Worlds, paced the team with seven goals and 11 points in five games. Forwards Bogdan Jankovic (four goals, seven points, plus-5) and Dimitrije Nadaski (two goals, nine points) also were key contributors. In goal, Shell split playing time between Milan Lukovic and Fedor Aranicki.

The Serbs dismantled Ireland and Bulgaria by scores of 13-1 and 11-2, respectively. When Serbia played Israel, Shell earned a 4-1 victory against former Stanley Cup-winning coach Jean Perron, with the Serbs outshooting the Israelis 53-17 in the process.

Serbia would have come away with the tournament's silver medal if had beaten eventual silver-medalist Belgium. Things got off to a promising start for the Serbs, and the team held a 4-3 lead through much of the third period. But the Belgians tied the score at 13:19 of the third period and won in a shootout.
 
Despite the disappointment, the Serbs were pleased with the overall effort that led to the bronze medal. With the 2009 Division II Group A Worlds coming to Novi Sad in 2009, the Serbs will look to move higher on the medal stand. Estonia, Israel, Iceland, China and North Korea will provide the opposition.

Earlier this year, Belgrade was the host city for the Division III Under-20 World Championships.  Under the watchful eyes of Brewer and Perowne, the Serbian juniors thrashed Bulgaria, 16-0; pummeled South Africa, 10-1; blanked Australia and Armenia by 5-0 and 6-0 counts, respectively; and gobbled up Turkey, 14-1.

The only blemish on Serbia's record in the tournament was a hard-fought 5-4 loss to gold medalist New Zealand. Winning the silver medal was sufficient for the Serbs to earn a promotion to the Under-20 Division II level for 2009. Serbia will face a tough task maintaining its place when it competes in the Group A segment, to be held in Romania. Also in the six-team field are Belgium, Japan, Romania, South Korea and Lithuania.

Things went even better for the Serbian Under-18 squad at the Division III Group B Worlds in Turkey. The Serbs outscored their opponents 45-0 in the tournament to grab the gold medal and earn a promotion.

Serbia will participate in the 2009 Under-18 Division II Group B World Championship in Estonia, which will also include Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and China.



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