Among the various secondary leagues in Europe, the best and most successful is the 11-team Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL), which is based in Austria but has expanded in recent years to add already established teams from Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and most recently -- the Czech Republic.
One of the most colorful entries in EBEL –- or any European league -– is KHL Medvescak Zagreb.
"I felt like I already knew the team, so I concluded that coming to Zagreb would be good for my career and life, as well as the lives of my wife and daughter."
-- Andy Delmore
The Croatian team, which will celebrate its golden anniversary this season, will play its third year in the EBEL in 2011-12. By far the most accomplished club in Croatian hockey, KHL Medvescak (KHL stands for Klub Hokeja na Ledu, and has nothing to do with the Russian-based hockey league) was founded in 1961 and has won 14 Croatian domestic league championships along with several titles during the existence of the former Yugoslav Ice Hockey League.
Over the years, the club's success has grown to the point that the team enjoys a rabid following in the Croatian capital that exceeds the level of fan support in cities located in some of the "primary" European hockey countries. The team often packs the house at its 7,500-capacity home rink known as Dom Sportova. While its budget is modest compared to leading clubs elsewhere on the continent, Medvescak has been able to sign numerous players with previous NHL experience, including several of Croatian heritage.
In their first season in the EBEL, Medvescak made news throughout the European hockey world by making a surprise run to the semifinals. Hopes were high for last season, when the club brought in globetrotting former NHL coach Ted Sator to steer the club. However, clashes between Sator and his players led to a midseason coaching change, and a combination of defensive problems and a wave of injuries to key players resulted in a disappointing season.
As a result, the club has made significant changes over the offseason. Among NHL fans, perhaps the best-known new addition to Zagreb is defenseman Andy Delmore
. Originally brought in on a trial basis, the 34-year-old offensive-minded blueliner has been signed to a one-year contract.
Best known for scoring a hat trick in the 2000 Eastern Conference Semifinals as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers
and for 16-goal and 18-goal campaigns after joining the Nashville Predators
, Delmore played a combined 303 NHL regular-season and playoff games for Philadelphia, Nashville, the Buffalo Sabres
and Columbus Blue Jackets
. After two successful seasons in Germany's DEL as a member of the Hamburg Freezers, Delmore returned to North America for one year and played in the American Hockey League after suiting up in several preseason games with the Detroit Red Wings
. Last year, he spent the season playing in Norway's GET Ligaen for Lorenskog IK.
"I was interested in the opportunity in Zagreb because my good friend Greg Day
plays here," Delmore said to the team's official site. "I also played before with (current Medvescak player) Alan Letang
and (assistant coach) Don MacLean and briefly with Frank Banham
. I felt like I already knew the team, so I concluded that coming to Zagreb would be good for my career and life, as well as the lives of my wife and daughter. I felt like we would fit in here. I also heard a lot about Croatia from friends back in Canada."
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Since joining Medvescak, Delmore has wasted no time asserting himself during the preseason. Earlier this week, he scored two goals in a 6-0 win against EC Dornbirn. Just as important, he has embraced the culture around him. The veteran player has been especially impressed by the intense devotion of the team's fans.
"The fans here love their hockey like no other, they're amazing," he told NHL.com. "So far, I like everything. The food has been really good, the city is absolutely beautiful and the people are amazing. We've got a good team here, too, and I expect it to be a great season."
Before commencing a busy slate of preseason games, Delmore and his new teammates trained off-ice in the mountains of Slovenia. Apart from the physical exertion, it was an opportunity for team bonding and a chance for the players to get to know their new head coach, Marty Raymond.
Prior to agreeing to a one-year contract with Medvescak, Raymond steered the ECHL's Bakersfield Condors for the past 10 years. Previously, he coached the Phoenix Mustangs to a WCHL title. Raymond will be joined behind the bench by Don MacLean.
A former NHL center with the Los Angeles Kings
, Toronto Maple Leafs
, Columbus Blue Jackets
, Detroit Red Wings
and Phoenix Coyotes
, MacLean concluded his active playing career last season with Medvescak.
In addition to signing Delmore, the club has made several other new additions to the blue line. Last season, the defense lacked aggressiveness in front of the net and the size and muscle to win board battles. Most notably, the club has signed Geoff Waugh
, Sasha Pokulok
and Sasa Martinovic.
Pokulok, 25, is a former first-round pick (2005 Entry Draft, 14th overall) of the Washington Capitals
. The 6-foot-2, 229-pound Canadian was a bust in North America, spending more time in the ECHL than the AHL and failing to earn a call-up to the big team. However, he had a solid season in Germany last year for the DEG Metro Stars and scored 13 goals and 39 points playing under Raymond in Bakersfield the previous campaign. At the EBEL level, he could be a top-notch player.
Waugh, 28, will be counted on to add size and physicality to the blue line. A former third-round draftee (2002, 78th overall) of the Dallas Stars
, the 6-4, 216-pound defenseman has shuttled between the ECHL and AHL since completing his four-year collegiate career at Northern Michigan University. The Winnipeg native is known as a stay-at-home defenseman.
Martinovic, 26, has been a regular starting defenseman in the DEL for several years, where he reached the finals last year as a member of Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg. The German-Croatian defenseman is a decent puck-mover and, at 6-1 and 210 pounds, is solidly built.
The four new additions to the Medvescak defense will be joined by three North American holdovers from last season. Team captain Alan Letang
, a former NHL player for Dallas, the Calgary Flames
and New York Islanders
, has become a fixture in Zagreb. Former Pittsburgh Penguins
prospect Andy Sertich has dual American-Croatian citizenship and, like Letang, is entering his third season with Medvescak. Undersized puck-mover Kenny MacAuley joined the team last season, starting 54 games and compiling 5 goals and 11 points.
The team's best player in recent years has been goaltender Robert Kristan. Although the team continues to bank heavily on his success, the goaltender will miss the start of the season after undergoing offseason knee surgery. With Kristan slated to return in mid-September, the team's new backup netminder, Michael Ouzas
, will open the season as the starter.
Up front, Medvescak has mostly added role players brought in to play a two-way game. The most notable forward addition is former Florida Panthers
center David Brine
. The 26-year-old is known for his ability to win faceoffs and contribute on the penalty kill. Other additions include Croatian-Canadian left winger Tom Zanoski
, who was born in Zagreb but moved to Brampton, Ontario at age 9.
The majority of Medvescak's offensive punch up front will have to come from its holdover forwards rather than its new additions. Former ECHL/AHL left winger Ryan Kinasewich
paced the squad last year with 30 goals and 59 points in 49 games. He was followed by former Colorado Avalanche
and Boston Bruins
center Joel Prpic
(13 goals, 49 points, 163 PIM), Panthers draftee John Hecimovic
(22 goals, 48 points) and former Anaheim Ducks
and Phoenix Coyotes
right wing Frank Banham
(19 goals, 47 points).
The top three title favorites in EBEL this year remain KAC Klagenfurt, Red Bull Salzburg and the Vienna Capitals. Medvescak will likely be in the middle of the pack. This season, there are two big changes in the league. The circuit has added former Czech Extraliga team Orli Znojmo, which was compelled by financial difficulties to sell its Extraliga license to Kometa Brno. With the addition of an 11th team, there is also a change in the schedule format.
The clubs in the EBEL will no longer play six games against each other (three home, three away) as was the case the last few seasons. Instead, the season will now be divided into three parts. In the first phase, the teams will play 40 games apiece, playing each team twice at home and twice on the road. Next, the teams will be divided into two divisions, according to their level of success in the first round. The first group consists of the six top teams from the first part of the season. Each receives an automatic playoff berth and will compete for seedings. The five remaining teams will play in the other group, with the top two finishers earning playoff spots.