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International influence evident in Serbia's success

by Bill Meltzer
Serbia is not known for having a particularly strong ice-hockey program. The country is currently ranked No. 32 by the International Ice Hockey Federation and there are only 645 registered hockey players in a country of more than 10 million people. Nevertheless, the Serbian national hockey team has quietly had strong international campaigns and recently attained its greatest success to date.

Serbia hosted the 2009 IIHF Division II World Championship, and the home team brought out passionately partisan crowds to Novi Sad Arena. Team Serbia gave its supporters plenty to cheer about, easily capturing the gold medal and earning a promotion to the Division I World Championship (one step below the elite international level) for 2010. One year ago, the Serbs took the bronze at the 2008 Division II Group A World Championships in Romania while also winning gold at the Under-18 Division III Worlds and taking silver (on home ice) at Under-20 Division III Worlds.

The secret of Hockey Serbia's recent success has been the program's willingness to seek the knowledge and guidance of bright hockey minds from around the world. Team Serbia has been deeply influenced by Canadian and international hockey, as evidenced by the multi-national coaching staffs that guide the senior and junior national teams.

The Serbs' gold-medal squad at the Division II Worlds was led by Canadian head coach Dave Hyrsky with assistant coaches Ray Gallagher (a fellow Canadian) and Sweden's Morgan Persson. Hyrsky, 41, has traversed many a route on hockey's oft-winding road. The coach, who grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., has coached professionally in Europe – primarily in the Netherlands – as well as at the Canadian junior level.

The Serbs' close ties to Canadian hockey began to take shape after former Colby (Maine) College star center Fred 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 ever since. Their guidance has been invaluable, because Serbian hockey has long suffered from under-funding and many young players who would otherwise be interested in pursuing the sport cannot afford the equipment.

In particular, the Serbian program has forged a symbiotic relationship with McGill (Montreal) University's hockey program. Serbian senior national team standout Marko Kovacevic attended McGill and boarded with teammate Frederick Perowne's parents. As he did last year, Kovacevic led the Serbian team in scoring at the Division II Worlds, ranking fourth among all players in the tournament.

Kovacevic averaged nearly three points per game at the 2009 Worlds, racking up 14 points (8 goals, 6 assists) in five games. Perowne had 5 goals and 12 points for the Serbs, while Quebec native Marc Fournier (who plays for the Novi Sad entry in the Serbian and Panonian leagues) compiled 4 goals and 11 points.

In addition to the victorious Serbs, the tourney in Novi Sad featured Estonia, China, Iceland, Israel and North Korea. The Serbs faced their toughest challenge right away, taking on Estonia in the opener.

The Estonians rode a four-goal explosion in the second period to take a 4-2 lead to the locker room after 40 minutes of play. But the Serbs struck back in the final period, as Bojan Jankovic and Kovacevic scored to force overtime. After a scoreless five-minute extra period, Fournier won the game in a shootout. Victorious goaltender Milan Lukovic stopped 30 of 34 shots on the night.

In their second game, the Serbs downed China, 5-3. The contest was not as close as the score would indicate, as Team Serbia peppered Chinese goaltender Ming Xie with 59 shots, while Lukovic saw only 15 at his end of the ice. Two of the three Chinese goals came on the power play. Kovacevic scored a pair of goals for the Serbs, while Perowne, Csaba Prokec and Boris Gabric contributed one tally apiece.

With two key wins in the bag, the Serbs moved on the easier part of their tournament docket. Hyrsky wasn't about to allow his team to suffer a letdown, pushing them harder in practice. The team responded by pounding Israel, 12-1, breezing past Iceland, 6-1, and trouncing North Korea, 12-2.

By virtue of their gold-medal victory, Team Serbia will compete in the 2010 Division I World Championship (Group A) in Tillburg, Netherlands. The Serbs will face a very tough challenge to avoid relegation in a field that includes prohibitive favorite Austria as well as Ukraine, Japan, Lithuania and the host country.

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