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Pro hockey returns to Zagreb

by Bill Meltzer
Ice hockey in the Croatian capital city of Zagreb has a long tradition, spanning 93 years since the first game was played between the HASK (Croatian Academic Sport Club) and PHSD (First Croatian Sport Community). As the only city in Croatia in which the metropolitan population exceeds 1 million people, Zagreb has always been a hub of Croatian hockey interest.

Recently, the city welcomed back the KHL Medvescak Bears professional team after nearly a 20-year absence. The club is a new entry in the Austrian-based Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL), which also includes teams representing Slovenia and Hungary. On Sept. 11, a sell-out crowd of 6,000 fans packed the Dom Sportova Sports Hall to see the club take on Acroni Jesenice. The Bears did not disappoint, winning 6-5. Two days later, the club traveled to Linz, Austria and downed ECH Black Wings Linz via shootout, 3-2. Medvescak returns to play at home Friday.

Assembled by Douglas Bradley, the team's director of hockey operations, the roster appears (at least on paper) to have a solid chance of making the EBEL playoffs in its first season. Medvescak has built their team from experienced Canadian imports, as well as other players with experience in top European leagues. NHL fans may recognize the names of defenseman Alan Letang (formerly of the Dallas Stars, Calgary Flames and New York Islanders) and center Joel Prpic (formerly of the Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche). The 34-year-old Letang played in the EBEL last season for EV Innsbruck after several years in Germany's DEL, while the 35-year-old Prpic spent years playing in Japan after his NHL days ended.

American-born center Aaron Fox is another key signing for Medvescak. The University of Minnesota and ECHL alum has been one of the top scorers in the EBEL in recent seasons, playing for Acroni and the Vienna Capitals. Injuries last season limited him to 21 games (5 goals, 14 points), but he had 31 goals and 66 points in 45 games the previous season. Fox will center the Bears' top line, which will include Croat-Canadian sniper John Hecimovic (a 2003 Florida Panthers ninth-round pick), who has played the last two seasons in the Netherlands.

Goaltender Robert Kristan will man the pipes for Medvescak. Although he is just 26, he has considerable international experience with the Slovenian national team and played in Elitserien (the Swedish Elite League) for Brynas and Allsvenskan (top Swedish minor league) for Mora. In addition to Letang, import defensemen Robby Sandrock and Andy Sertich (a Croatian-American) will help to protect his crease.

Supplementing the imports and Croatian-descended players from North America is a supporting cast native Croats, including Mato Mladenovic and Marko Lovrencic, as well as youngsters such as Niksa Trstenjak and Mislav Blagus, who are considered the team's top two long-term prospects.

Although KHL Medvescak is a new addition to the EBEL, the original incarnation of the club was formed 39 years ago and had a colorful history. For its first 10 seasons, Medvescak played on an outdoor rink called Salata, which at the time was the home base of the national program. In that period, ice hockey was the second-most popular sport in Zagreb, trailing soccer (specifically FC Dinamo). On many occasions, FC Dinamo fans would leave the soccer stadium to head straight to Salata to watch Medvescak play. The hockey crowds at Salata often numbered around 5,000 spectators.

While Medvescak was popular with its fans, they never won the Yugoslavian championship. Until 1991, Croats, Slovenians and Serbs lived in a single country called Yugoslavia. The Slovenians dominated Yugoslavian hockey, with the Jesenice and Olimpija clubs winning the lion's share of championships. Nevertheless, Medvescak produced some of the best talents to ever play in the former Yugoslav republic. In particular, Croatian players Ivo Rataj, Miroslav Gojanovic and Boris Renaud were regulars on the Yugoslavian national team and played at the IIHF World Championships and Olympics.

In 1971, Medvescak finally moved into an indoor rink, Dom Sportova (the same venue in which the new version of the club plays today). The team had an up-and-down existence for the next two decades. The club was in financial crisis in the early 1980s and barely managed to avoid relegation from the top league in 1985.

The next year, the Gortan building company, owned by Zdenko Gradecki, became the team's main sponsor and de facto owners. The much-needed support ushered in a golden era that saw the club win two Yugoslav Cups and bring in Vycheslav Anisin (a member of the Russian hockey hall of fame) to play for the Bears. Championships followed in the 1988-89, 1989-90, and 1990-91. Once again the club became a top draw, playing to big crowds by European hockey standards.

In late 1991, real life intervened. War broke out in Yugoslavia. The country ceased to exist and Croatia became an independent country, as did Slovenia and Serbia. Gortan went bust financially and pulled its support from Medvescak. As a result, the team became an amateur club with no more than 200 people attending their home games. After almost 15 years of darkness, efforts to revive Medvescak took hold. Finally, the club's bid to join the EBEL was approved this past spring. Opening-night tickets sold out within 24 hours.

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