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Hungary's title was 70 years in the making

by Bill Meltzer

Team Hungary forward Balazs Ladanyi paced his team with seven assists and nine points at the 2008 Division I World Championships.
Hungary has been a member of the international hockey community for the better part of a century. But apart from a last-place performance at the 1964 Olympics, the last time the Magyars played in an elite-level competition was nearly 70 years ago, when Hungary played at the 1939 IIHF World Championships in Switzerland.

After World War II, as the number of countries with hockey programs expanded, secondary divisions were created for the lesser powers to compete and attempt to work their way up to playing the world’s top countries. Hungary never made it – until now.

By virtue of winning all five of its games at the 2008 Division I World Championships (Group B) in Sapporo, Japan, Team Hungary has earned a promotion to the elite-level tournament in Switzerland next year.

Entering the tourney, Ukraine was the slight favorite to take the gold, with the Hungarians (who finished second a year ago) and the host Japanese considered strong challengers. The Magyars proceeded to double up the Japanese and Ukrainians by identical 4-2 scores. Along the way, the Magyars defeated Estonia, Croatia and Lithuania with relative ease.

Hungary’s ‘Szuperman’ leads the way

While any gold medal victory is the product of strong teamwork and good coaching, there were four players on coach Pat Cortina’s squad who stood out the most: Goaltender Levente Szuper, forwards Krisztian Palkovics and Balazs Ladanyi and defenseman Tamas Sille.

Budapest native Szuper is the only Hungarian-born-and-
trained player to earn a spot on a NHL game-day roster. While he never got to play in a game, the now 27-year-old netminder served as a backup goaltender for the Calgary Flames in nine games during the 2002-03 season. He currently plays in the Italian league for the Milan Vipers.

Last year, Szuper provided second-place Hungary with some of the top goaltending seen at the Division I Worlds. In backstopping the Magyars to gold this time around, the goalie known as “Szuperman” bettered last year’s performance, posting a 1.75 goals-against average, .940 save percentage and a shutout.

Veteran forward Palkovics, 33, is a mainstay for Hungary’s top club team, Alba Volan Szekesfehervar. A three-time MVP of the Hungarian league, Palkovics suited up for 182 games for the national team prior to Sapporo. This year, he paced the squad with six goals and a pair of assists in the Division I Worlds, including three power-play tallies and a crucial goal in the gold-medal clinching 4-2 win against Ukraine. At the conclusion of the tournament, he was named Best Forward.

Ladanyi, 32, plays for Briancon in France’s Ligue Magnus, where he scored 13 goals and 26 points in 23 regular-season games this year. The wing, like Palkovics, is a mainstay on the Hungarian national team. A two-time leading scorer in the Hungarian league prior to signing in France, Ladanyi entered the tournament with 152 national-team games to his credit. In Sapporo, he led Team Hungary in both assists (seven) and points (nine).

Sille, 38, is Hungary’s most experienced defenseman. A Slovak/Hungarian who got his start in the Slovak Extraliga, Sille played seven years in Hungary for Alba Volan, prior to returning to the Slovak league this season. He also now has more than 70 Hungarian national-team games to his credit. In Sapporo, Sille played big minutes and responded with a team-best plus-seven defensive rating and three assists.

Road to Sapporo

Coming off last year’s second-place finish, in which Team Hungary’s lone defeat came at the hands of Anze Kopitar’s Slovenian team, the Hungarians had their eye on competing for the gold in Sapporo. Team Hungary’s accomplishment is all the more impressive in light of the fact that it had shorter preparation time immediately before the tournament than in previous years.

“We usually have 20 to 25 training days and four or five very challenging exhibition games. This year, we will only play three games and we will only have 11 to 14 training days,” Cortina told the Hungary Ice Hockey Federation’s official site before the team departed for Japan.

Part of the reason for the shorter preparation was the need to control the cost of sending a team to Japan. The other part of the reason is that many of the Hungarian players took part in an extended slate of games with their club teams, compared with previous years. Cortina also had other commitments, as he is head coach of Austrian team HC Innsbruck.

As one way to counter-balance the shorter pre-tournament time, the Hungarians expanded the national team’s participation in international events during the course of the season.

Hungary hosted the four-nation Pannon Cup tournament played last December. The tournament, which was televised live in Hungary, also featured Ukraine, Japan and Poland. The Hungarians finished second, defeating Ukraine and Poland, but losing to Japan.

Cortina invited not only players from the Hungarian teams to the Pannon Cup, but also Hungarian national team players in other leagues, including Szuper, Sille, Daniel Fekete from Norwegian team Tronheim IK and Viktor Szelig, Marton Vas and Balazs Lada from French club HC Briancon. Just as important, some of the younger Hungarian players given a chance to play showed they could compete effectively.

In early March, the Hungarians traveled to the Netherlands to play a multi-national tournament in Tilburg. Team Hungary once again took second place, performing well against both the hosts and Croatia, but was derailed against Ukraine by a poor first period from which the Hungarians were unable to recover.

Despite the setbacks against Japan and Ukraine in the preparation tournaments, Hungary headed to Sapporo confident that it could beat both teams when the time came.

Hero’s welcome in Hungary

Team Hungary opened the Sapporo tournament with a game against Estonia, the weakest team in the tournament. Marton Vas got the Magyars off to a quick start with a pair of first-period goals to erase an early 1-0 deficit.

The Estonians rallied in the second period to forge a surprising 3-2 lead, until Alba Volan’s Csaba Kovacs scored in the final minute of the period to tie the game. Kovacs then restored the lead 5:30 into the third period, and Szuper took care of the rest, as Hungary went on to win, 5-3.

“It was important for our team to win the first game and build from it as the tournament progressed. We knew had to play our best to win, and the first game can be difficult,” Szuper told the Hungarian media after the tournament.

One day after beating Estonia, Hungary was right back in action against Lithuania. This time around, Hungary controlled the game from start to finish. Szuper turned aside each of the 22 shots he faced, while the club in front of him peppered Lithuanian keeper Nerijus Dauksevicius with 44 shots. 

Hungary scored a pair of goals in all three periods. Vas and Gabor Ocskay each tallied on the power play gave Hungary a 2-0 lead after the first period. Palkovics added a third power-play goal midway through regulation, and Kovacs turned the game into an early rout with a penalty-shot goal. Ocskay and Ladanyi added further insurance in the final period.

The 6-0 win gave Hungary a lot of momentum heading into its game with Japan, despite the prospect of playing in front of a heavily partisan crowd at Sapporo’s Tsukisamu Arena.

The Japanese dominated the first period, but Szuper made 15 saves to keep the game scoreless. In the middle stanza, Ladanyi, Palkovics and Ocskay (shorthanded) scored in a span of six minutes to give the Magyars a 3-0 lead. Japan chipped away and got the game as close as 3-2 in the third, but Szuper (36 saves) repeatedly denied the Japanese attempts to tie the game. Finally, Palkovics sealed the game with an empty netter.

Cortina rested Szuper for Hungary’s fourth game in preparation for the final-game showdown with Ukraine. Backup goaltender Zoltan Hetenyi got the nod against Croatia and more than picked up the slack.

The Hungarians had all they could handle in the first period, as the club’s traded off nine shots apiece, and the contest remained scoreless. The clubs continued to battle evenly for 15 minutes of the second period, until Team Hungary forward Imre Peterdi scored his first goal of the tournament to finally break the deadlock. In the third period, Palkovics gave the Magyars breathing room with a pair of goals, and the Hungarian defense limited the Croatians to just two shots. Hetenyi finished with 20 saves in the 3-0 win.

Now Ukraine was all that stood in the way of Hungary’s biggest hockey moment of the last 70 years. Having been relegated from the elite level to Division I last year, Ukraine remained the on-paper favorite to win the game and a spot in Switzerland in 2009. But it soon became apparent that the Hungarians were the more driven team.

The Magyars came out firing, outshooting Ukraine by a 19-6 margin in the opening period and skating off with a 2-0 lead. Vas opened the scoring and at 10:27 and Palkovics scored on the power play with just 28 seconds left in the period, as the Hungarian bench went wild. Early in the second period, Peterdi scored for the second straight game to extend the lead to 3-0.

Ukraine refused to go down quietly, tallying a pair of late second-period goals 43 seconds apart to trim the deficit to 3-2. Szuper was under siege for most of the period, getting blasted with 18 shots, including many from point-blank range.

Hungary tightened up its defense in the third period, but Ukraine had one final golden opportunity to tie the game when it closed the game on the power play. Ukrainian goalie Igor Karpenko remained in the net. Szuper made several big stops, and Vas finally broke the puck out to beat Karpenko and score a shorthanded goal that sealed the win and the gold medal. 

Upon the victorious players’ arrival in Budapest, the team was greeted by a crowd of more than 1,000 cheering fans. The players displayed their gold medals and some waved Hungarian flags. Szuper, who was greeted by his beaming mother, was given the loudest cheers as he came into sight.

”I can truly say this gold medal was a total team effort,” Cortina told the press. “This was a great win for Hungarian hockey and for the Hungarian people.”

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