Month: February 2019

A Mexican Hockey Player Looks for a Place to Lace Up His Skates

Hector, a star forward for the Mexican national team, plays for Hockey Punks of the largely unknown Lithuanian pro league

By Tal Pinchevsky New York Times

After being deported from the United States as a collegian, Hector Majul has bounced around, most recently landing in Lithuania.

Perhaps the only thing more unusual than being a Mexican in Lithuania is being a Mexican hockey player in Lithuania.

So the general astonishment that has greeted Hector Majul since his arrival in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, in late November does not surprise him.

At 24, he is a forward for the Hockey Punks, one of four teams in the country’s largely unknown professional league. That move was another unforeseen step on an unconventional hockey path, which shifted when Majul was deported to Mexico during his college career in the United States.

“He is an impressive skater,” said Boris Dorozhenko, Majul’s childhood coach and mentor. “The only problem for him was always his Mexican citizenship.”

Like a growing number of international athletes who want to pursue careers in the United States, Majul found that his immigration status — and what some view as suddenly stringent enforcement of technicalities — had become a major impediment.

In a country that has long tried to attract athletes and artists with special talents, what once appeared to be a fairly clear path to at least semi-permanent residency has become a far more arduous road. The possibility of deportation can arise with just one unsatisfactory answer to an immigration official, whether spoken or written on a form.

In Majul’s case, an incorrect response a year and a half ago led to a dizzying journey back to Mexico, then on to Switzerland and now to Lithuania, with no promise of a return to the United States in the near future.

Dorozhenko, who played hockey in the former Soviet Union, discovered a 6-year-old Majul in Mexico City after becoming a coach with the Mexican national program in the early 1990s.

Dorozhenko eventually landed a hockey job in Arizona, and Majul, 14 at the time, followed him. Because he was attending high school, Majul entered the United States with a student visa, then became a fixture at hockey clinics in the area, alongside a local standout named Auston Matthews. Drafted first over all by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016, Matthews is now among the N.H.L.’s brightest stars.

Majul was allowed to stay in the United States after high school, first on an amateur athlete visa, known as a P1, then on another student visa when he landed at Curry College in Massachusetts to play Division III hockey in 2015.

By then he was a star for Mexico in international competition. In his first appearance in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Division II Group B world championship tournament in 2014, he tied for the team’s scoring lead and helped Mexico finish one win shy of promotion to a higher division. He was named the tournament’s top forward in 2015 and again in 2016.

“I know there have been professional players that have Mexican descent or Mexican parents,” Majul said, referring specifically to the N.H.L. (Matthews’s mother is from Mexico.) “But there has never been a Mexican-born pro hockey player. I want to be that guy.”

Majul, second from right, with his Hockey Punk teammates before the start of practice last month

But on Aug. 22, 2017, as Majul returned to the United States from a trip home to see family, Customs and Border Protection officials at William P. Hobby Airport in Houston discovered a makeup box belonging to his girlfriend, Katy Weizman. An American, Weizman had accompanied Majul on the trip and returned to the United States the previous week. The makeup kit contained a week’s supply of Concerta, her A.D.H.D. medication and a controlled substance.

Majul said that the Houston Police Department had declined to further investigate his possession of the drug, but that he was detained and questioned that night and into the morning. According to an appeal filed by his lawyer, Majul told a customs agent that he had left Mexico “to pursue a career in ice hockey.”

Based on this admission, Majul was found to have expressed an intention to violate the terms of his student visa. The visa was canceled, and he was deported after almost a decade of legally living and training in the United States.

When contacted about this case, the Customs and Border Protection agency said in a statement that officers had found that Majul “provided differing answers when asked about his trip to the U.S. and the reason he departed his country of origin.”

Majul’s lawyer submitted an appeal in September 2017, saying the officers had overreached in their decision. The appeal was denied.

Marian Daugherty, who took Majul into her home when he first moved to the United States, set up a “Bring Hector Back” Facebook page and reached out to the office of then-Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, to no avail.

Majul was left to train in Mexico City, unable to return to the United States until 2022 and without the services of an agent. But with only 1,552 registered hockey players in Mexico, compared with more than 562,000 in the United States, Majul knew he would need to go elsewhere to keep up his game.

Majul and Dorozhenko canvassed their hockey network. Their search drew the attention of Arno Del Curto, who for 22 years had led the Davos hockey club in Switzerland. Equipped with a 90-day tourist visa, Majul ventured to Switzerland. Within three weeks, he was told that the team wanted him to stay.

“It was a huge relief,” Majul said. “I’m going to be honest, I think I teared up a little bit when I talked to my parents.”

But immigration would again become a hurdle. To qualify for certification, Majul needed to have been considered a professional before arriving in Switzerland. Because he had most recently played competitive hockey in college and with the Mexican national team, he was deemed an amateur and denied a visa. The club in Davos appealed to the Swiss government, even offering to hire Majul as a skills coach in the hopes that might provide a legal workaround.

By November, with only five days remaining on his tourist visa and all his options exhausted, Majul went to train with a coach and former colleague of Dorozhenko’s in Serbia. Days later, he received an invitation to join Hockey Punks.

The Lithuanian club signed Majul to a contract, provided an apartment in Vilnius and helped him stabilize his immigration status. In perhaps the most unexpected turn of this hockey escapade, Majul is not the only Mexican on the team. His countryman Arunas Bermejo joined the club while studying in Lithuania.

“It’s a steppingstone, something to help me get to the next level,” Majul said. “Usually when people say they’re going to Europe, nobody thinks of Lithuania or Vilnius.”

He acknowledged that the transition to life in Vilnius was difficult, especially considering the abrupt nature of his arrival. But he has come to enjoy his new surroundings.

“It’s actually a really nice town,” Majul said. “Great food, people are very friendly. I think the only downside is how cold it is.”

The average high temperature in Vilnius in February is 30 degrees — not frigid, unless your reference points are Mexico and Arizona.

Majul has been approved for worker certification that for the next year or two will allow him to work within the Schengen Area, a region of 26 European nations, including Switzerland. That would make it easier for Majul to rejoin Davos for the 2019-20 season. (That hope was muddled when Del Curto announced his resignation in November.)

Daugherty helped Majul enroll in online classes through Arizona State University, and he is working to complete his degree.

In his first professional game, on Dec. 22, a 5-2 loss to Kaunas, Majul registered an assist. In his first eight games with the club, Majul collected a goal and six assists. He has not given up on his pro hockey dreams, including a potential return to the United States.

“I think in North America I have this label of, ‘Why is a Mexican playing hockey? He should be playing soccer,’” Majul said. “Don’t get me wrong. Here it’s also a shock when they hear there’s a Mexican hockey player. But after they see me playing, they see the level that I have, it kind of speaks for itself.”

“I think that was maybe the way it had to go,” he added. “Maybe for me to be able to go on to the next level, I had to come and make it through here first.”

Hollywood to hit the ice? North Pole to host hockey match for global celebrities in 2020

First Deputy Chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee on Physical Fitness, Sports, Tourism and Youth Vyacheslav Fetisov

By Tass Russian News Agency

An ice hockey match involving politicians, Hollywood celebrities, athletes and public figures will take place at the North Pole in April 2020, First Deputy Chairman of the Russian State Duma (the lower house of parliament) Committee on Physical Fitness, Sports, Tourism and Youth Vyacheslav Fetisov said at a press conference in Russia’s Far Eastern city of Vladivostok on Monday.

According to earlier reports, Fetisov, who is a two-time Olympic ice hockey champion and former NHL player, discussed the idea to hold ice hockey matches at the North Pole with Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov.

“The current global climate situation is unfavorable,” Fetisov told reporters. “I got the idea to bring together famous athletes, Hollywood stars, politicians and public figures to play ice hockey, sending a message to the world about how serious the situation is,” he added.

“Today, the climate issue is what can unite people and get them to leave all political, regional and other kinds of conflicts behind… Unfortunately, we were unable to arrange a game this year due to lack of time but it will happen in April next year where we planned it [at the North Pole],” Fetisov emphasized.

According to him, in order to arrange such a game, coordination with environmentalists would be needed. As for now, the organizers have secured the support of the global academic community and mapped out the logistics. “Yet, we haven’t had enough time to bring together the celebrities,” Fetisov noted.

Canada beats U.S. to win inaugural women’s hockey Rivalry Series

Goaltender Shannon Szabados, seen at the Four Nations Cup in November, made 38 saves to help Canada to a 2-0 win over the United States in the deciding game of the inaugural Rivalry Series on Sunday in Detroit

By The Associated Press

The inaugural Rivalry Series was created to give Canada and the United States another opportunity to put the world’s best female hockey teams on the ice together.

It went so well, there likely will be a sequel.

Brianne Jenner and Blayre Turnbull scored, Shannon Szabados made 38 saves, and the Canadians beat the Americans 2-0 in front of 9,048 fans Sunday in Detroit to win the three-game series.

“It always means a lot when you play these guys and there’s no love lost on the ice, so to get a win in their barn felt pretty good,” Jenner said.

Gina Kingsbury, director of women’s national teams for Hockey Canada, declared the event was a success in every way.

“We would love to see this repeat itself every year for sure,” Kingsbury said. “It would help generate excitement about our game outside of Olympic years.”

The Canadians beat their rivals nearly a year after the U.S. won Olympic gold in a shootout thriller and a few months after it won the Four Nations Cup against them.

They will meet again in April at the world championship in Finland.

“That’s the hardest part,” Alex Rigsby said after making 15 saves for the Americans. “You come off a loss and now we have to wait another six, seven weeks until we play each other again.”

‘Thankful’ for NHL support

The top U.S. and Canadian teams have not played regularly outside of the Olympics, world championship and Four Nations Cup, but that will change if the Rivalry Series becomes an annual event.

“It fits really well with our program,” USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said. “And, it’s good for us to have the NHL involved as well.”

The league supported the event that USA Hockey collaborated with Hockey Canada to conceive, making the arenas used by the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs available along with promoting the event. That likely helped an average of 8,725 spectators attend the first two games and for even more people to show up in the Motor City for a game that started at noon.

“We couldn’t be more thankful for the Red Wings and the NHL to help us out,” American forward Brianna Decker.

Fans filled almost the entire lower bowl of Little Caesars Arena where scores of girls in hockey jerseys could be seen and heard.

“There’s always more and more young girls watching and you can hear them in the crowd,” U.S. forward Dana Trivigno said. “You’re their role models and you’re what they aspiring to be. We’re just trying to create a path for them to follow and do the same thing.”

And as usual, the women helped their cause to market the game by playing highly competitive games.

The U.S. won the opener 1-0 on Tuesday in London, Ontario, and Canada evened the three-game series with a 4-3 victory Thursday in Toronto.

The Americans generated a lot of offence in the finale, especially during goal-mouth scrambles during a 21-shot second period and in the final minutes. Savannah Harmon had a goal for the Americans negated by a crease violation early in the third period when Trivigno made contact with Szabados.

“Canada plays a physical game so I was trying to get to the net and create some havoc in front,” Trivigno said. “I bumped off one Canadian and got into the goalie and couldn’t get off her quick enough. Unfortunately, that was enough to make it goaltender interference.”

Uzbekistan dreams of ice hockey

By Eurasianet

Fans hope that team Binokor will revive the winter sport’s fortunes in a nation not often associated with cold weather.

It is 8 o’clock in the morning at an ice rink in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, and little can be heard over the shouting, scraping skates, smacking pucks and the ref blowing on his whistle. It is training time for kids at Binokor, a hockey club with a complicated past and, its supporters believe, a hopeful future.

When the club appeared in 1971, it was a sensation. Tashkent was the southernmost city on the planet to host an ice hockey team. Seventeen years later, the team folded. 

And then, in 2012, the club was brought back to life. Management hopes Binokor will revive the winter sport’s fortunes in a nation not often associated with cold weather.

One of the loudest voices heard at the Binokor rink is that of chief trainer Alisher Azimov, one of only a few people in Uzbekistan to have made a living playing hockey. It is thanks to Azimov that the sport has received another lease on life.

“When I came back to Tashkent in 1989, after doing my service in the Soviet army, Binokor had already ceased to exist. And my dreams of becoming a hockey player disappeared along with it. I was devastated, in shock. Our majestic and luxurious ice palace lay empty. I kept going back there for a long time hoping to hear any encouraging news about my team,” Azimov told Eurasianet.

Binokor’s director Abdumadjid Nasirov got into hockey when he was just nine years old. He spent his childhood honing his game at Binokor, but he too never got to play with the club. 

“In the year before [doing my military] service, I was already training with the first squad,” Nasirov said. “After two years, I came back from the army, and there was already no Binokor.”

There is a well-established narrative about the ways in which the Soviet Union used sport to make a political point – to demonstrate the superiority of the socialist system over their capitalist rivals.

But away from the global stage, there was an equally ferocious rivalry between the various republics within the union. Teams from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in particular would vie for primacy among the Central Asian republics.

So in soccer, for example, the Kazakh SSR’s capital, Alma-Ata, got its own club, Kairat, in 1954. Tashkent’s Pakhtakor appeared two years later, in 1956.

It was a similar story with hockey, one of the Soviet Union’s most beloved sports. The first competitive hockey tournament in the neighborhood took place in Kazakhstan in January 1956. Unwilling to allow the Kazakhs to claim all the glory, the first secretary of the Communist Party in the Uzbek SSR, Sharaf Rashidov, ordered the construction of what he insisted should become Central Asia’s finest ice-sports venue.

In 1970, that area, built near a university campus in Tashkent, opened its doors. As it was inaugurated in the year of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, the arena was called Jubilee.

Major Moscow teams like CSKA and Spartak were among the many that turned up for the opening ceremony. Before then, the closest most Uzbeks had seen of a hockey player was on their TV screens.

A Tashkent hockey team called Spartak was formed in 1971. It was renamed Binokor – Uzbek for “builder” – in 1973. Jubilee became the club’s home.

There were few Uzbek players to begin with. The backbone of the club was made up of athletes from other Soviet republics. As interest mounted, hundreds of local boys were developed through the local training system. It was still hard though.

“To be honest, the Russian trainers preferred to send their own guys, the incomers, onto the ice. Of course we were indignant about this. We wanted to play!” said veteran hockey player Sabir Alihojayev.

Alihojayev caught his trainers’ attention when he was only nine. He got to play for Binokor for two seasons.

It was the death of Rashidov, the longest enduring Soviet-era ruler of Uzbekistan, that spelled the beginning of the end for Uzbek hockey. With the loss of their main patron, Binokor limped on for another five years. 

The Jubilee arena would suffer an even greater indignity. In the early years of Uzbekistan’s independence, the main section of arena was turned into an exhibition hall. The training area became a wholesale market. Dozens of talented hockey players hung up their skates.

In the early 2010s, a group of hockey fanatics decided to revive not just Binokor, but the sport itself.

“I lived for 20 years without hockey. In 2008, I moved to the United Arab Emirates for work. I was amazed when I learned that there was ice hockey even in this hot country. I played with some old-timers, and then in the first league, and finally in the professional Emirates Hockey League,” Azimov, the chief trainer, said.

The vast majority of EHL players are from Canada or Europe. With his two-year stint in the professional ranks, it felt like Azimov had achieved his dream.

This was only the start, however.

Azimov immediately returned to Uzbekistan when he heard news that Tashkent was about to get a new ice rink.

Jumping forward a few years, to March 2018, and Uzbekistan saw the creation of a National Hockey Federation. In addition to its adult squad, Binokor has several youth teams in various age groupings.

Uzbekistan Ice hockey Federation Logo

“Having an internal league is a basic requirement to join the IIHF – the International Ice Hockey Federation,” said Nasirov, Binokor’s director. “But for that, we need the right infrastructure: ice arenas, training facilities and other things. There are now four Tashkent clubs playing on a rink in the park.” 

That field is 50 meters by 25 meters, way below the IIHF-mandated standard of around 61-by-30 meters.

Luckily, hockey in Uzbekistan has found a new and important champion in another national leader – President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. In 2017, Mirziyoyev ordered construction of a new, large arena.

The project for the Humo Arena envisions a 12,000-person stadium with another smaller venue attached that will be able to seat 300 spectators. Similar undertakings are planned for other cities, including Samarkand, Andijan and Qarshi. Work is expected to be complete by the end of 2018.

But perhaps the greatest brake on development of hockey in Uzbekistan is the sheer expense. A full outfit, from uniform to skates, can cost parents upward of $500. The hockey federation is helping younger players by underwriting the cost of traveling to international competitions.

Russian journalist Oleg Dmitriyev, who regularly comments on hockey in his own country, believes all the same that Uzbekistan has good chances of reviving the sport.

“It will be very interesting to see Binokor revived. The Uzbek team will play in the Continental Hockey League [KHL], like Barys from Astana [in Kazakhstan] does,” he said.

Dmitriyev suggested China as a good model of what could be done if the funding can be found.

“Of course you won’t be able to get by without legionnaires. In China, you have Belarusians, Swedes, Finns and Canadians with a Chinese background,” Dmitriyev said. “There is enough money to go around in Tashkent.”

Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov has spent many millions on developing Tashkent soccer club Pakhtakor. Hockey fans hope a similarly generous benefactor will give their sport a fillip.

Back at the training session, 70-year-old Jahongir Tajibayev is watching from the sidelines with his grandson, Maruf. Tajibayev recalls fondly how he would go to watch Binokor play.

“I had always wanted to see Binokor play in the higher leagues, the same as Pakhtakor did in soccer,” Tajibayev said. “Now I dream of seeing a new Binokor. I dream of seeing my grandson play in this team with Canadians, Americans, Russians and Czechs.

Wins for Russia, France and Denmark

Russia’s Anna Shokhina was named best forward of the women’s Euro Hockey Tour Final, the last tournament before the Women’s Worlds.

By Andy Potts –

Ahead of the big Canada vs USA rivalry series that starts Tuesday in London, Ontario, Europe’s top teams continued their preparations for the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship with the final stage of the Euro Hockey Tour in Russia. Elsewhere, France and Denmark enjoyed success at two Four Nation tournaments, while Korea celebrated the anniversary of last February’s Olympics by winning a Legacy Cup in Gangneung.

Russia triumphs on home ice

Russia hosted the final stage of the women’s Euro Hockey Tour and came out on top in a six-team tournament in Dmitrov in the Moscow Region. The Russians topped their three-team group ahead of Sweden and Switzerland, with an impressive 5-0 victory over the Swedes. That took the host to a gold-medal game against a Finland team that pipped them to Olympic bronze this time last year.

This time, though, Russia came out on top. The home team made a fast start and got an early lead thanks to Alyona Starovoitova’s goal in the fourth minute. Midway through the first period Anna Shokhina, who was named as the top forward in the competition, doubled the lead and prompted the Finns to call a time-out.

That pause helped Suomi. Susanna Tapani pulled a goal back late in the first frame and the second period was a tight contest that produced no further scoring. Finland began the final stanza with a storm on the Russian net, but Nadezhda Morozova held firm and Yekaterina Dobrodeyeva struck on the counter-attack to make it 3-1. A late power-play goal from Rosa Lindstedt kept the game in the balance until the final hooter, but Russia held on to take gold.

Third place went to Sweden after a 2-1 victory against the Czechs in Saturday’s play-off game. Adela Skrdlova gave the Czechs a seventh-minute lead, but second-period markers from Julia Ostlund and teenager Maja Nylen-Persson earned the Tre Kronor the win. Switzerland beat Germany 3-1 in the fifth-place play-off thanks to third-period goals from Dominique Ruegg and Isabel Waidacher.

France flexes its muscles ahead of the Worlds

The French women’s team enjoyed a confidence boost ahead of April’s Women’s World Championship debut after winning all three of its games in a four-team tournament in Epinal. Les Bleues started with a 3-0 success against Hungary then defeated Norway 4-2. In the third and final game of the competition, Slovakia took the lead in the 29th minute through Tatiana Istocyova. However, France replied within four minutes through Clara Rozier and went on to win it with two goals in the third period. Lara Escudero’s short-handed tally broke the deadlock on 48:01 and Athena Locatelli wrapped up the win with a third late in the game.

A similar competition in Austria saw Denmark come out on top. The Danes were impressive on defence throughout the event, allowing just three goals in three games. Cassandra Repstock-Romme, Amalia Joa and Lisa Jensen shared the goaltending duties and each allowed one goal. At the other end, Josefine Jakobsen (4+3) and Nicoline Jensen Sondergaard (1+6) led the scoring as Denmark enjoyed 3-1 wins over Austria and Italy and 5-1 success against Kazakhstan. The Italians took second place after defeating Austria in the last game of the competition in Tefls. Kazakhstan failed to get a single win.

The Netherlands hosted two exhibition games against Poland and won both. The first was a 2-1 victory and the second finished 5-1.

The Olympic legacy lives on in Korea

In Korea, celebrations of the first anniversary of the PyeongChang Olympics continued with the Women’s Olympic Legacy Cup. Read more about Korea’s Olympic legacy here.

The Korean women’s national team took on Latvia and a Hungary U25 roster with the top-two teams from the round-robin meeting again in the final on Tuesday. The host nation won both its group games, edging Latvia 2-1 on goals from Eunji Lee and Jongah Park before beating Hungary 6-0. However, the Hungarians bounced back to defeat Latvia 3-2 in a shoot-out and advance to the tournament final.

In that final, Korea brought home the gold medal. A 5-1 victory for the host nation secured a perfect record in this mini-tournament. The next challenge for the Koreans will be a Division IB World Championship campaign in Beijing, where the team is seeking to improve on last year’s second place finish as it looks to climb the world rankings in search of another Olympic appearance. At the same time, the Korean roster continues to develop talented youngsters. Heewon Kim, 18, and Jiyeon Choi, 20, were among the leading scorers for Korea in this tournament, highlighting the depth of emerging talent that Korea can call upon.

Czechs succeed in Sweden

Czech forward Jan Kovar is all smile after scoring a goal. The Czechs won the Sweden Hockey Games during the February International Break.

By Andy Potts –

A busy program of international saw the Czech Republic win the Swedish stage of the Euro Hockey Tour for the first time in 25 years, while Gangneung staged a hockey celebration to mark the first anniversary of last year’s Winter Olympics.

Czechs on top in Swedish Hockey Games

Stage three of the Euro Hockey Tour saw the Czech Republic take the honours thanks to victories over Finland and Sweden. Milos Riha’s team wrapped up first place in the tournament after just two games and could afford a 1-3 loss against Russia on Sunday. It was the country’s first tournament win in Sweden for 25 years.

The Czechs were boosted by the return of Jan Kovar. The two-time Gagarin Cup winner began the season in North America, but after failing to win a place with the Islanders line-up and going through a trial with the Providence Bruins in the AHL, he returned home to play in the Czech league and is available for selection once again. He made an instant impact on his return, scoring a hat trick in Thursday’s 5-2 win over Sweden. However, the HC Plzen forward didn’t have everything his own way. In Saturday’s game against Finland he took a game penalty late in the Czechs’ 3-1 win. By prior arrangement with his club, Kovar did not play against Russia; Plzen team-mate Milan Gulas and Ak Bars forward Jiri Sekac were also rested.

Head coach Milos Riha had mixed feelings about the team’s overall performance at the tournament – and especially the way several players failed to take the chance to impress in the final game against Russia. “I expected that the guys who stayed here would want to show more,” Riha said after that match-up. “I was disappointed with that. But both Hynek and Tomas Zohorna did well – they took their chances while some of the others underperformed, especially the youngsters.”

Russia took second place, with 20-year-old netminder Ilya Konovalov earning the prize for best goalie of the tournament after backstopping both Russian wins. The Lokomotiv Yaroslavl prospect secured a shootout win over Finland and stopped a penalty shot from Marek Kvapil during the game against the Czechs. Head coach Ilya Vorobyov said: “Overall, we got two victories in this tournament and we ran the rule over several new guys. Now we’ll go away and look at all the information we’ve collected. There’s still a long way to go before the World Championship. We’ve got part of the regular season and the whole of the playoffs. After that, we’ll shuffle the pack once again.”

Finland finished the weekend with a shootout win over Sweden following a 4-4 tie in an entertaining tournament finale. However, Tre Kronor took third place, one point ahead of its Nordic neighbour. Russia remains out in front in the overall Euro Hockey Tour standings, six points ahead of second-placed Finland.

Overall Standings EHT: 1. Russia 19, 2. Finland 13, 3. Sweden 11, 4. Czech Rep. 11.

Slovakia tunes up for home World Championship

This year’s World Championship host nation, Slovakia, continued its preparations with victory in the Kaufman Cup in Bratislava. Craig Ramsay’s roster started with a 2-1 shootout win over Belarus after a late tying goal from Radovan Pulis took the game into the extras. Then on Saturday, Slovakia defeated Russia B-team 5-1 with 20-year-old forward Samuel Bucek leading the way with two goals. The HC Nitra youngster made his international debut at the tournament. The other game in the three-team contest saw the Russians edge Belarus 2-1 thanks to goals from Vladimir Tkachyov and Alexander Khokhlachyov.

Korea celebrates Olympic Legacy

year after the Winter Olympics, international hockey returned to PyeongChang with a special four-team Legacy Cup followed by a three-team women’s tournament going on now. The men’s competition ended with Kazakhstan taking top spot ahead of Latvia, while Korea finished third thanks to a 2-0 win over Japan. Goals from Eric Regan and Sangjin Park secured that win against Korea’s biggest rival. For Kazakhstan, the tournament was a useful warm-up for next month’s Winter Universiade, with the team selecting a relatively youthful roster and leaving the KHL players of Barys Astana at home. Kazakhstan will then in April host the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A.

For Korea, meanwhile, the competition represented the start of a new era. Jim Paek’s team called on just three of the seven dual-nationals who played at the Olympics and took the opportunity to welcome several youngsters to the roster. 

One of the veteran dual nationals, goalie Kevin Dalton, is looking forward to seeing the next generation develop like the group that won promotion to the World Championship elite and represented the country at the Olympics. “It reminds me a lot of when we started. We had a lot of good players but we hadn’t really had coaching,” Dalton told the Korean Times. “We have these guys that are excited to be here. They have a lot of energy, but they haven’t really played a lot. Once they start to get the experience, it’s going to be like the process that we had before. I feel like they’re going to start taking on roles of the older guys that were here before.”

Read more about the 2018 Olympics’ legacy in Korea and beyond here.

Kazakhstan went up 3-0 against both Japan and Korea to eventually win the games against the Asian rivals 5-2 and 5-1 respectively. Arkadi Shestakov and Nikita Leshenko scored Kazakhstan’s goals in the deciding game for first place. Kazakhstan had the upper hand for most of the game with a 40-29 shot-on-goal advantage against Latvia but Rudolfs Maslovskis tied it up in the third period. Anton Nekryach scored Kazakhstan’s game-winner at 3:07 of the overtime period.

More EIHC in Austria, Slovenia

At the Osterreich Cup in Klagenfurt, three nations finished tied on six points. Denmark claimed first place ahead of Austria and Norway by the narrowest of margins – just a single goal in the three-way head-to-head put the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship host on top. Austria took second place thanks to a 2-0 victory over Norway in its final game. France completed the group but failed to win a game in the competition.

The Euro Challenge tournament in Slovenia ended with the host nation on top. Victories over Hungary (4-1) and Italy (2-1) gave the home team an unassailable advantage in the four-team tournament and even an overtime loss to Belarus B in the closing game could not deny Slovenia gold. Italy came second thanks to a 1-0 overtime win over third-placed Hungary, with Belarus ending in fourth despite that last-day win.

Games in Germany, Great Britain, Ukraine

The week’s other exhibition games saw Germany and Switzerland play two B internationals, with honours shared between the two countries. The Germans enjoyed a 4-2 victory in Memmingen on Tuesday, but the Swiss responded with a 5-2 success in Bietigheim the following day. Romania surprised with a tournament win thanks to victories against higher-seeded Poland and host Ukraine. Great Britain defeated Dinamo Riga 3-1 on Wednesday in its first warm-up game ahead of the World Championship.

NWHL all-star Mrazova’s game speaks volumes as she makes splash with Whale

A Czech national team standout at an early age, Katerina Mrazova chased her dream of playing in the United States and is turning in a whale of a rookie season in Connecticut.


Katerina Mrazova always knew she wanted to make the leap to the United States from her home in the Czech Republic. It was her dream to play stateside. And on-ice, making the move was seamless for Mrazova, who had been a standout at a young age with the Czech national team and an alternate captain at the U18 World Junior Championship. She was a gifted offensive talent with untapped potential.

Off-ice, however, she faced a significant hurdle.

“I didn’t know English,” Mrazova, 26, said. “I couldn’t speak it at all. So, the transition to come to the U.S. was very hard. The culture wasn’t that different, but more difficult was English. I had to figure that out.”

But Mrazova wasn’t heading to North America without a plan. Following her turn at the U18s, where she was named a top-three player for the Czech side at the tournament and notched five points, all assists, in five games, she set her sights on what was then the lone professional women’s league, the CWHL, and managed to land with the Boston Blades.

On that squad, Mrazova, then just 19 and the Blades’ youngest player, skated alongside some of the game’s elite, including Hilary Knight, Meghan Duggan, Kacey Bellamy and Gigi Marvin. The experience, Mrazova said, was one of great growth. She took great strides in Boston during the 2012-13 campaign, one that saw her become the first European player to hoist the Clarkson Cup. But Mrazova’s intentions weren’t to remain in the CWHL. Rather, she had a desire to take her game to the NCAA, finding a fit at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. And it’s with the Bulldogs that Mrazova really began to round into form.

Offensively, the growth was evident. A steadily contributing freshman, Mrazova scored one goal and eight points in her first college campaign, and she saw an upturn and continued as a steady contributor through the final three years at Minnesota-Duluth. In 101 games from her sophomore to senior season, Mrazova scored 24 goals and 67 points. However, it was what the college game taught her away from the puck — and off the ice — that took her game to the next level.

“For me, I’ve always played center and (the NCAA) helped me a lot to figure out the defensive zone situations,” Mrazova said. “The systems were the most important thing that I really learned at college, and preparation for the games, how to get ready.”

With what the college game taught her, and how it rounded her out as a professional player, Mrazova’s message to her national teammates is that they should do what they can to follow in her footsteps. “I think to come to the US is the best decision I’ve ever made…When I go back to Czech, I always say to the younger players that they should come to the U.S.,” Mrazova said. “It’s the highest level, best hockey they can play.”

Playing at such a level, too, has made Mrazova’s second foray into the women’s professional ranks far more successful than her first, from a statistical standpoint. After finishing her tenure with the Bulldogs, Mrazova signed on with and has made a splash as a member of the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale. In 12 games, her six goals — the sixth-best total in the league — and 10 points put her first in team scoring. And with her team-leading point total in her back pocket, Mrazova is headed to the NWHL all-star weekend, which takes place Feb. 9-10 in Nashville. She’ll compete in the skills competition’s trick shot challenge Saturday before lining up as a part of Team Szabados in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

Once the dust settles from the all-star weekend, though, Mrazova will head back to Connecticut, where the Whale are looking to reverse their fortunes. Last in the league and nursing a league-worst minus-37 goal differential, chances are Connecticut will miss the post-season or, at best, be bounced early in the post-season. With that, Mrazova’s goals for this season have changed. While an Isobel Cup would be nice, she’s focused on the World Championships with Czech Republic. What the future holds beyond that, Mrazova doesn’t yet know.

“If I can stay in the USA to play hockey, then I want to stay for sure,” she said. “We’ll see how the situation will go. I don’t know my plans for next year or the future. It’s still open. If I can stay in the USA, or even in Connecticut, then I will.”

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