Date: December 10, 2017

Croatia bounces back Women’s team makes winning return to IIHF play

By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

Croatia made a successful return to IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship action with victory in the Division II Group B Qualification tournament in Sofia. 

The Croats didn’t enter a team to compete last year, and had to drop down to the lowest level of the women’s game as a result. But, under the guidance of fledgling head coach Miro Smerdelj, a Croatian men’s international until 2013 and still playing for Mladost Zagreb in the new cross-border International Hockey League, the team swept through a five-team group that also included host Bulgaria, top seed Belgium, South Africa and Hong Kong. 

That represented a fine return to international action for Croatia’s women, who last played in an IIHF tournament in 2016 when it suffered relegation from Division IIA. Now the team will play in next season’s Division IIB tournament. 

Croatia’s rampant offence fired in 27 goals in four games – but the crucial one came 17 minutes into its meeting with top seed Belgium. The Croats were killing a penalty at the time, but Ela Filipec intercepted a pass on her own blue line and set off for goal. The 26-year-old, who plays her club hockey for Gric Zagreb in the Austrian league, danced her way around three opponents to get up close with Belgian goalie Nina van Orshaegen. Her first shot found the pads, but she recovered to lift the rebound onto the top shelf and give her team a vital lead. 

The goal proved decisive. Filipec’s Gric teammate Petra Belobrk made 25 saves at the other end as Croatia posted its third shut-out of the tournament and denied a Belgian team that finished with 26 goals from its three other games. Nobody could find a way past van Orshaegen again at the other end, but that short-handed effort was enough to win the game and, ultimately, the group. Belgium won its other three games to take second place. 

Croatia’s defensive power meant that it took 212 minutes of tournament action before it finally allowed a goal. Bulgaria’s Aleksandra Popova was the woman who solved Belobrk at last, converting a power play opportunity to claim the host nation’s first goal of the competition. Anna Evstatieva scored another power play goal shortly afterwards, but Croatia romped to a 12-2 victory. In 240 minutes of hockey, the group winner did not allow a single goal while playing at even strength. 

Much of that solidity derives from a roster that drew heavily on the Gric club, currently playing in Austria’s cross-border DEBL. Filipec and fellow blue-liner Martina Smolec are among the leading scorers in that league in the early stages of this season, and eight of the national team currently play there. With another player, Katja Bednjanec, also playing in Austria for the Klagenfurt Dragons, and 16-year-old twins Tena and Eva Cavka involved with Slovenia’s HK Celje, there’s a measure of international experience about this Croat roster. 

Behind the Croats, Belgium recovered from Thursday’s narrow loss to beat South Africa 3-0 in Saturday’s final game and claim second place behind Croatia. The team also impressed defensively, allowing just two goals in the competition. First-choice goalie van Orshaegen finished as the best netminder of the tournament, with a GAA of 0.33 and a save percentage of 97.5. Filipec’s effort was the only one to beat her all week; the other goal scored on Belgium went past Liesl Kuypers in a 14-1 win over Hong Kong. South Africa took third place, while Saturday’s match-up between Bulgaria and Hong Kong saw the host let a 1-0 lead slip in the third period to lose 1-2 and finish in last place without a single victory. 

Among the skaters, defenceman Filipec led the scoring by a huge margin. She finished with six goals and 10 assists for 16 points. Her closest scoring rivals, team-mate Vesna Gurka and Belgium’s Sonja Frere, managed eight each. Filipec’s six goals also made her joint leading goalscorer for the competition, tying with Dalene Rhode (South Africa) and Femke Bosmans (Belgium). 

Tony Hand’s experience suggests Scots have a way to go

Tony Hand enjoyed a fine career in Edinburgh but he could have been an NHL star

By Kevin Ferrie – The National

THE youngsters in the Great Britain squad that is set to take part in the World Under-20 Ice Hockey Championships this weekend will have access to far greater experience than the man in charge of their campaign had at their age, precisely because of the experiences that Tony Hand had at their age.

It was 30 years ago that the most famous product of the Scottish domestic game who is now GB Ice Hockey’s head development coach, played his solitary game for the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers, a year after he had first been drafted as a teenager by what was then the leading club in the sport.

Since he was subsequently to become known as “two point Tony” The outcome of that encounter, an exhibition match against the Canadian national team, fitted perfectly since it was drawn with the sides scoring two points apiece. Naturally he remembers it as the highlight of what was to be an astonishing career.

“I actually got an assist and it’s the highest level I played at,” he said, by way of explaining why he rates that above all the trophy wins and international appearances he was to make thereafter.

Playing in the same squad and same position of centreman as two of the greatest players in the history of the sport, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, it seems hard to believe that having survived the cuts through training camp it was the lad from Muirhouse who then made the decision that he was not going to pursue a career in North America and would instead return home. In explaining that he admits to some regret, but not of the sort that keeps him awake at night.

“It was totally my doing, my fault,” he said of the missed opportunity.

“But when we’re going back to those days there were no mobile phones, no internet. To phone someone from Canada you had to go to a phone box and I was just thrown in there, so because I didn’t know what I was doing I just felt it was too much.

“I enjoyed it, but I loved being in Edinburgh so much and loved the Murrayfield Racers and obviously had family and friends here it was obviously a much easier option.

“In hindsight I wish I’d stayed. I don’t sit back and think about it all the time, but if you never wondered you’d be off your head. I would have liked to find out.”

In the course of those two years in the Oilers training camps he did manage to establish that he had, through no real fault of his own, fallen short on a basic requirement.

“What held me back as well was my fitness. I wasn’t remotely as fit as I should have been,” he said. “People think you’re lucky to have the talent, but you’re not, you’ve got to work hard.”

That sort of message has become a familiar refrain in Scottish sport, but it can be no coincidence that, armed with that information, Hand went on to have a 34-year career at the highest level of the British game.

In doing so Hand has acquired knowledge of what is required to get to the top that would be transferable to any sport and he believes there is work to be done to create the environment necessary to let that happen in British ice hockey.

“You’re only as good as the level you’re playing at,” he said.

“And I do think the level has changed. I don’t think it’s gone stratospheric or crazy, but as has happened in a lot of sports the fitness is key.”

While the work he and others are doing is beginning to make a difference, then, he clearly believes it will be some time before another British youngster gets the opportunity that came his way all those years ago.

“I don’t think our development is currently going to get players to the highest level,” said Hand. “Teams aren’t playing as many games as they should be.

“We’re getting there, but not as quickly as I’d like.”

Naturalized hockey forward thrives under weight of expectations

By Yonhap

In an effort to boost its competitiveness in its Winter Olympic hockey debut in 2018, South Korea has fast-tracked a few Canadian-born players to Korean citizenship. Michael Swift, a skilled forward hailing from Peterborough, Ontario, is one of them.

The 30-year-old understands the naturalization comes with the weight of expectations — after all, the government wouldn’t have issued these players new passports unless it felt they could help the national team at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

And it’s just the way Swift likes it.

“It puts pressure on me to play well, and it’s good,” Swift told Yonhap News Agency in a recent interview at the Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, 90 kilometers south of Seoul.

“Hopefully, I can perform. And if I do, it helps the team win,” Swift said.

South Korea, coached by former National Hockey League defenseman Jim Paek, faces a daunting task in the group stage at the PyeongChang Olympics. The 21st-ranked team has been paired with Canada, the undisputed world No. 1 and two-time reigning Olympic champion, plus No. 6 Czech Republic and No. 7 Switzerland.

The NHL won’t send its stars to South Korea for the Olympic tournament, but the absence of those players won’t make the work any easier for South Korea.

The team will need every bit of offense that Swift and his teammates can provide, if they were to have even a fighting chance.

And Swift said he embraces the challenge.

“Every time I put on the Korean jersey, I want to do well,” he said. “Every time I am on ice, every shift, I want to score. But I have to play defense first and then offense comes easier for me.”

And scoring hasn’t been a problem for Swift. Though he never did play in the NHL, he was a solid producer in both the Ontario Hockey League, a major junior circuit in Canada, and the American Hockey League, the primary development league for the NHL. Then he brought his scoring talent to South Korea, joining

High1 in the Asia League Ice Hockey for the 2011-2012 season.

Swift was the league’s points leader that season with 44 goals and 46 assists in just 36 games. He went on to lead the ALIH in points in three more seasons, most recently in 2015-2016 when he had 70 points in 48 games.

In the current season, Swift is the scoring leader through 26 games, thanks to 14 goals and 28 assists.

Having played in South Korea for so many years, Swift, who last year said he felt like he was half-Korean, now says he is “three-quarters” Korean.

Listed at 175 centimeters and 79 kilograms, Swift has been known to play bigger than his size, a player who can give hits as well as he takes them.

And he doesn’t suffer from any lack of confidence, even though South Korea struggled in recent tune-up games in its build-up to the Olympics.

Swift said there have always been doomsayers who showed little faith in Korean hockey. He pointed to 2015, when South Korea was playing in the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division I Group B, the third-highest level of competition. The country had been relegated from Division I Group A from the previous season, but with Swift leading the tournament with nine points in five games, South Korea won the Division I Group B tournament.

It set the stage for an even larger leap earlier this year, as South Korea finished second at the Division I Group A tournament in Ukraine to book a spot in the top-flight World Championship for the first time.

“Every year, people always talk about how Korean hockey is not good. But every year, we’ve done well,” he said. “I am sure they were worried when we were in Division I Group B and we won that division. Every year, we’ve done well. We’re getting better and better each year.”