One year ago, Team Hungary was the feel-good story of the international hockey season, beating the odds to capture the Division I World Championships in Japan. In the process, the Hungarians advanced to the elite level, earning a berth at the 2009 IIHF World Championships. But for teams like the Hungarians, the reward for Division I success is usually a merciless thrashing by the sport's top countries.
Ranked 20th by the International Ice Hockey Federation, Team Hungary entered the 2009 World Championships in Switzerland as one of the most lightly regarded entries in recent tournament history. Even the Hungarians themselves understood that it would take a near miracle to avoid relegation back to the Division I level.
There haven't been any miracles so far. Hungary was winless in a preliminary round pool that also included Canada, Slovakia and Belarus and will now play in the relegation round with the last-place teams from the other three preliminary brackets. The Hungarians' opponents will be Germany, and the losers of Wednesday's games pitting Latvia against Austria and Denmark versus Norway.
Despite the Hungarians' 0-3 record in the tournament, the team has been surprisingly competitive. While Hungary received a 9-0 pasting by Canada in its second game, the team held its own against the Slovaks and Belarusians.
In the opening tilt against Slovakia, Team Hungary hung close all game, throwing a major scare into an overconfident opponent. Backstopped by a 48-save performance by former Calgary Flames
backup goaltender Levente Szuper
, Hungary refused to go down quietly.
Former Philadelphia Flyers
forward Stefan Ruzicka
gave the Slovaks a quick 1-0 lead on the game's first shot. But Szuper was flawless the rest of the period. Early in the middle stanza, Roger Holeczy knotted the game. The Hungarians killed off a pair of mid-period penalties only to see former NHL players Lubos Bartecko
and Marcel Hossa
score late in the period to give the Slovaks a 3-1 advantage.
Entering the third period, the Slovaks played as if the game was already wrapped up. Even after Imre Peterdi brought the Hungarians back within a goal early in the third period, the Slovaks seemed nonplussed. Their demeanor changed when Hungarian defenseman Tamas Sille dialed up a power-play goal to tie the game with less than six minutes left.
The Slovaks finally realized they had a fight on their hands and elevated their games to a higher level. But with Szuper playing outstanding – making 23 saves in the third period alone – the Hungarians were on the brink of earning at least one point from the game. It wasn't to be. With just 13 seconds left in regulation, Bartecko scored his second goal of the game to win it for Slovakia, 4-3.
The good news for Hungary is that the team earned widespread praise for its performance against the deeper, more-talented Slovaks. The bad news is that Team Canada took notice of what happened in the first match and the Canadians weren't about to give the Hungarians even a teasing hint of a potential upset. Before the Hungarians knew what hit them, they were trailing 4-0. Canada went on to cruise, 9-0.
Hungarian coach Pat Cortina rallied the troops after the Canada game. Rather than being disheartened, the squad approached the game against Belarus with the mindset of a team battling not just for respect but for victory.
Once again, the Hungarians were significantly outshot (41-23) and out-chanced by a superior opponent. But as he did against Slovakia, Szuper rose to the occasion by providing excellent goaltending. An early power-play goal by Alexei Kaliuzhny staked Glen Hanlon
's team to a 1-0 lead. That's where it remained until five minutes into the middle period, when Peterdi scored his second goal of the tournament.
As the third period rolled along, the Hungarians survived penalty trouble and once again reached the brink of earning at least a regulation tie – only to be dealt a fatal blow late in the game. Goals by Alexei Ugarov and Mikhail Grabovski
(empty net) in the final 5:30 of play sealed a 3-1 win for Belarus.
The Hungarians' strong showings against Slovakia and Belarus have brought attention to the slow but steady improvements Hungary has made in its national team development program. The Hungarians have expanded the exposure their teams receive to playing preparation tournaments against competition that challenges them to improve.
Moreover, the Hungarian hockey program has taken strides to bolster both the quantity and quality of players who move through the junior levels and compete successfully beyond the nation's borders. There has been increased emphasis on player development at the youth and junior levels, and the results are just now beginning to filter upward to the senior teams.
In all likelihood, Team Hungary will return to the Division I level for the 2010 Worlds. But they will be a more seasoned, more confident team. If the games against Slovakia and Belarus showed nothing else, it's that countries such as Hungary are quietly narrowing the gap between themselves and nations that compete regularly at the game's top international level.