Russia’s Ak Bars Kazan won the Kontinental Hockey League’s Gagarin Cup for the third time in its history on Sunday with a surprise 4-1 series win over CSKA Moscow.
Ak Bars won Game 5 1-0, with ex-Edmonton Oilers wing Rob Klinkhammer scoring the winning goal on the power play early in the third period. Emil Garipov stopped 33 shots for the first shutout of the finals.
It was the first Gagarin Cup since 2010 for Ak Bars, which won the title in the KHL’s first two seasons but hadn’t won since.
Ak Bars was considered the underdog since CSKA’s roster included eight of the Russian players who won Olympic gold in February, with Ak Bars having none.
For anyone who represents a country such as Hungary playing in the top division is a great accomplishment. Playing in two top-level World Championships during a career is a tremendous achievement and only a couple of Hungarian players have pulled off this feat, one of them being Andras Benk.
“If I remember correctly my first game for the Hungarian national team was in the Ice Palace against Croatia in November of that season. The final score was 3-3, and I scored in the shootout. In those early days I remember sometimes playing in one lineup with Gabor Ocskay Jr or Krisztian Palkovics. Pat Cortina was the coach at the time and would throw me in with them. These are great memories to look back at,” remembers Andras Benk when asked about his first experience with the national team.
The 30-year-old forward came along in Hungarian hockey in a peculiar time. He made his debut in the national team during the 2005/2006 season, two seasons later head coach Pat Cortina picked him to make his first World Championship, which happened to be where Hungary won promotion to the top division. The 2008 Hungarian team was made up of mostly players born between 1975 and 1980, which has become known as the golden generation in Hungarian hockey.
“It is an interesting situation. 10 years have passed without me really realizing it. I really didn’t notice the turnover on the team until we played for the 90th anniversary of Hungarian hockey when I was named the captain. We faced Poland and I was the oldest player on the team. The guys that were older or more experienced than me have stepped aside or retired,” said Benk as he talked about his observation.
During the season he and Janos Vas were the oldest players still carrying the torch and getting ready to pass it to the next generation of players that are breaking in and possibly the next golden generation (born between 1994-1997).
“I am the link between the older generation and the guys coming up right now. My teammates back then had grown up in a completely different world than the ones that are coming up right now. However, we are playing hockey and chasing the little black puck on the ice and trying to put it into the back of the net. I am really enjoying this and as I am getting older I am noticing that I am enjoying hockey more and more. I hope to be a key member of not only the national team but my club team as well for the next few years.”
Vas spent most of his career playing in the top leagues throughout Europe and North America, Benk has spent his entire career in Hungary aside from playing one year in Sweden. Benk came up through the youth system of Dunaujvaros, which produced not only Benk and Vas but other Hungarian players such as Balazs Ladanyi, Viktor Tokaji, Marton Vas, Imre Peterdi and Zoltan Hetenyi. He debuted for the senior team in the Hungarian league before moving on to spend one season in Sweden playing for the U20 team for Huddinge.
“It is an interesting turn, it was a great experience for me to be playing with Ocskay, Palkovics or Balazs Ladanyi when I first played in the national team, playing in one line with them and assisting on one of their goals or scoring off of a pass from them was always a great experience. They have aged out and gotten older. I remember sitting in the stands or next to the glass and watch the great Dunaujvaros-Szekesfehervar matches, Levente Szuper was in the net, and Csaba Kovacs Jr. scored in a shootout for Fehervar with the stands jampacked with fans. Now I am the one, along with Janos Vas maybe, who can talk about what it used to be like. I do feel that the younger players look up to me and what I have accomplished, but I am always happy to pass on what I have experienced and learned to the next generation. The world and the hockey world have changed tremendously in the past 10 years. The game has picked up in speed and we are different style of play.”
Benk came back from Sweden and played for Szekesfehervar in the Austrian-based EBEL for nine seasons and has spent the past two playing for UTE in Hungary. On the international stage he has played in nine World Championship tournaments, which included two emotion-filled promotions to the top division and two appearances there in 2009 and 2016.
“I was very young in Sapporo, that was my first World Championship and I was very happy that Cortina had selected me to make the team. I was so young I don’t think I realized what was going on. I was just doing what I was told, just going and working hard. I was at the right place at the right time and it was an honour to play with the guys that I was on one team with. We won promotion again a few years later with a young team. It is a great feeling to be playing a larger part and to be an older player when we won promotion to the top division in 2015,” Benk said and continued:
“In 2009 in Switzerland we were only seconds away from picking up our first points in the top division against Slovakia. I assisted on Roger Holeczy’s goal in that game. We thought this was a great accomplishment but then this was followed up by a game against Canada and they cleaned the ice with us. But we needed to taste this so to learn and use the experience to be back sooner. In 2016 in Russia we had a better chance to stay in the top division and we played some great games. We have been playing against top-level teams recently. When I first started in the national team we would play matches against teams that were at our level or just below us. In the past few years we have been playing games against stable top-level countries in preparation for the World Championship. This helps the learning process for us and it is easier for us to adjust to their pace if we face more countries like this.”
Just since 2016 Hungary has played Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Russia, Denmark and Korea outside of World Championship play.
The goal this season of course is to win promotion back to the top division under the guidance of new head coach Jarmo Tolvanen at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest.
“I really hope that the next step is that we become an ‘elevator’ country such as Austria or Slovenia and eventually be in the top division more often than in the Division I. We have more and more players playing in the top leagues in the world. We need a player to make it to the NHL and these chances are improving every year. Ádam Vay is right there and with a little luck he will have the breakthrough to make it to an NHL roster. With this eventually the national team will be in the top division. That would be a great experience not just for the players but also for the fans.”
Regardless of what happens in the next few years, what is for sure is that Hungarian hockey and anyone that Andras Benk has played with has only benefited with him being in and around the sport and he hopes to continue doing this for years to come. “I have two top-division appearances and good number of World Championships under my belt, this being said I am still only 30 years old, which in hockey is still a good age.”
Two years ago, on a balmy spring evening in Croatia’s capital Zagreb, an experimental and youthful Lithuania came within a regulation time goal from winning a sensational gold at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division I Group B. With the 13,500-seater Zalgiris Arena in Kaunas now ready to open its doors for the 2018 edition of the tournament, hopes are high for Lithuania to achieve home glory and claim that much-coveted top spot.
In a year when their nation celebrates 100 years since first regaining independence, the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation is marking the grand occasion in high spirits. With the Lithuanian roster being labelled as ‘dream team’ and the faces of Dainius Zubrus, Mantas Armalis, Nerijus Alisauskas, Tadas Kumeliauskas and the 45-year-old debutant Darius Kasparaitis adorning the posters promoting the event, Lithuania certainly hasn’t shied away from raising the expectations.
Boosted by impressive ticket sales it is now up for the big-name players to rise up to the occasion in front of a home support expected to beat the average attendance of 6,032 dating back from four years ago when Lithuania’s capital Vilnius hosted the tournament.
“This is the biggest sporting event in the Baltics this year and held in the largest sports arena in the region. If everything goes right we look to finish first. There is no question about this unless we get a lot of injuries,” said Lithuania’s head coach Haake ahead of a festival of hockey awaiting in the country’s second city as Estonia, Croatia, Japan, Romania and Ukraine awaits between 22-28 April.
Optimistic while still doing his bit to keep a lid on expectations, the man Lithuania puts their faith in to guide them up the promised land of Division IA comes with vast experience within a game he first picked up on frozen lakes in Western Germany in the 1950s.
Bielefeld-born Haake’s international coaching career started as a 28-year-old assistant coach of what was then West Germany’s U18 national team at a European Championship in France 1974. After spending an eye-opening 18 months in Canada where he also first got to know Lithuania’s current assistant coach George Kingston, Haake returned to Europe where his first international appointment was as assistant coach when Spain’s senior national team made its IIHF World Championship debut in 1977.
With an eclectic coaching resume that includes working for Windhoek Cazadores in Namibia, Australia’s Sydney Allstars, Portogalete in Spain to that of winning the Italian league as head coach of Bolzano and assistant coach of top-level German teams Kolner Haie and Iserlohn Roosters, Haake has never shied away from relishing a challenge which seen him coach on four different continents.
The opportunity to acquaint himself with Lithuanian hockey arose when the affable Haake struck up a conversation with the President of the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation, Petras Nauseda, in Helsinki during the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
Fresh from having staved off relegation at the 2012 World Championships Division I Group B, Lithuania was then in the hunt for a new head coach to replace Sergei Borisov. They found their match in Haake, who jumped at the opportunity to try and reverse the waning fortunes of a national team that in 2006 had been one victory away from winning a place at the top-division of the World Championship.
“I became the first coach from a western country to coach Lithuania’s national team. In the past, they always had coaches from Russia, Belarus or Latvia. My first World Championship was in Donetsk 2013 and this is now my sixth year,” said Haake who also during three of those seasons worked as assistant coach of Lithuania’s U20 national team as well as the country’s top club Energija Elektrenai.
While greatly admiring the hard graft put in by the growing Lithuanian hockey community with its limited resources, he also readily points out some of the challenges he feels is holding back further progress in the Baltic nation.
“When you have the power you don’t want to lose it. To translate this into Lithuanian context, teams are not cooperating at youth hockey level and instead look after their own interests. We need strong teams from U12 to U18 level and have them come together once a month to play in tournaments, but it is not possible. We should look at Slovenia and what they do with their resources. Instead in Lithuania, we now have three to five good players in each team, but as they are not being challenged their level is now going down instead of up between the ages of 12-16,” said Haake, who also has started to feel the effect of this in certain positions at a national team level.
“The problem for Lithuanian hockey for the near the future is that we don’t have defencemen. We have the four veterans, Kasparaitis, Rolandas Aliukonis, Arturas Katulis and Mindaugas Kieras, all of them over 35. For the young players to continue their development they have to go abroad but it is not easy as a Lithuanian player to find a team to play for,” said Haake, who hopes the star-studded roster and wins out on the ice can add exposure to the Lithuanian game at home and beyond.
“People in Lithuania like hockey. We saw that already at the 2014 World Championships in Vilnius. This time around we will be helped by Kasparaitis who is playing for his own country for the very first time at a World Championship. Born 1972, like (Jaromir) Jagr, he is on the ice three times a week during the season, he played for us already in November and he is still in unbelievable good shape,” said Haake, who also has high hopes for another troika of big-name returnees ready to turn on a show in front of their home audience and offer that extra bit of edge that got them so tantalisingly close of getting their hands on the gold medals two years ago.
“Zubrus plays with together with Kasparaitis during the season in Miami and just as in 2014 he will be very good for us. Armalis is back in goal after two years and for the first time in many years, Tadas Kumeliauskas will play for us, so it looks like we will have a strong team,” said a hopeful Haake.
Growing up in Canada I was a huge hockey fan, but it wasn't until the 1972 summit series and the 1976 Canada Cup that I became a big fan of international hockey. The best players in world all playing on a sheet of ice.
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