By Henrik Manninen – IIHF.com
Newly promoted Croatia continued their rise to win the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A in Kaunas, Lithuania.
With only a few minor tweaks to their roster, Croatia’s U20 national team has now jumped two levels of World Championship play within the space of just three months. In September this year they celebrated promotion from Division IIB in Belgrade, Serbia in a tournament pushed ahead due to Covid-19. Now competing at a higher level in Kaunas, Lithuania and with momentum clearly on their side, they continued their winning ways. Croatia finished top of Division II Group A with 12 points in Kaunas. They were level on points with Great Britain whom the Croats had beaten 7-4 during day two to squeeze past their main rival to grab top spot.
“We have more or less the same team as from the previous World Championship in Belgrade. They know each other well and the chemistry is very good among the players. But I think this win is a miracle. We have one ice rink in Zagreb, so we are very happy,” said head coach Marko Sertic.
Croatia’s second Olympic-sized indoor rink in the entire country is in Sisak, 55 kilometers south of Croatia’s capital Zagreb. Despite conditions being far from ideal, Croatia’s U20 national team upset the odds at the Kaunas Ice Palace.
Their recipe for success combines a strong team spirit and sending players abroad to push ahead in their development. Half of their gold-winning roster skates for clubs outside of their home country. One of them is 16-year-old Bruno Idzan, the youngest skater on the Croatian team. Playing for HV71 Jonkoping’s junior program in Sweden, Bruno Idzan was Croatia’s leading scorer in Kaunas and was also selected as the best forward of the tournament by the directorate.
“It was nice to win. We didn’t start the tournament very well, but got better as the tournament got on. But we are very strong collectively as a team. We work for each other and that´s what makes us good,” said Bruno Idzan.
Forming a formidable partnership with his older brother of two years and seven months, Vito Idzan, Croatia’s lethal duo possessed special offensive skills that could turn a game in Croatia’s favour out of the blue.
“We know each other’s game very well, but we are also pretty different as players: He is more physical and stronger but also a more all-round player. I am more offensively focused than him, but together we make a good line,” said Bruno Idzan.
But it was far from plain sailing for the Croats en route to winning gold. Following their late arrival and with no ice practice in Kaunas ahead of their first game, the Croats had to settle for a sole point in their opening 2-3 overtime defeat against the Netherlands. In their third game, the Croats long trailed against hosts Lithuania in a tight contest before Vito Idzan tied the game in the third period. With the game decided on penalty shots, Vito Idzan, Fran Zavrski and Ante Bebek all converted to grab Croatia two valuable points. After having brushed aside Spain 9-5 on day four, they lost a four-goal cushion against winless Romania in a nail-biter of a closing game. Vito Idzan came to the rescue once again when powering through with his game-winning 5-4 goal 5:11 from the end.
“The Idzan brothers are special to us. Two very, very good individual players,” said Croatia’s head coach Sertic.
Croatia’s most clinical performance came against their main rival Great Britain on day two. Thanks to a fine piece of individual skill, GB’s Bayley Harewood left Croatia’s Karlo Marinkovic in his wake at the right face-off circle to get GB in front on a one-man advantage. But when the same Harewood sat out an interference call, Niksa Juric levelled the game after tipping home a Tin Alic wrister at 6:29. When Jonathan McBean became the next Brit to sit out a two-minute minor at 7:34, Croatia needed just 12 seconds to go in front. Team captain Vito Idzan one-timed a cross ice pass from Zavrski past Daniel Crowe. Zavrski once again was the provider at 15:18 when winning the face-off from which Niko Cavlovic stretched Croatia’s lead to 3-1. 54 seconds before the first intermission and once again on a power play, Marinkovic picked out Bebek in the slot for a clinical 4-1 strike.
“The level is quite high over here. It’s quite fast and a change of pace from back home. But we were in the penalty box so much and they capitalized on that a lot,” said Great Britain’s Juha Lindgren.
Great Britain’s penalty worries continued to cost dearly during the middle frame. Jacob White-Sey was sitting out for a tripping call as Croatia scored their fourth goal on a one-man advantage. Juric reacted ahead of GB blueliner Liam Steele to score his second of the afternoon at 29:00. The influential Vito Idzan then scored his second of the afternoon as the Croats celebrated their six unanswered goal to run away with a 6-1 lead at 31:02. Crowe was then replaced by Benjamin Norton in the GB net who held out throughout the rest of the middle frame.
“I tried to play hard and give everything I could and see what I could do out there. It’s my last U20 tournament, but hopefully, I can make it for the GB men’s team later on in life. I also try to take what I have learnt here to impact on my game back home,” said GB’s Lindgren, who scored on a rebound to pull one back for the British on the power play at 42:59. They got another consolation in Archie Hazeldine’s goal at 47:08. Speedy Bruno Idzan scored Croatia’s seventh with an empty netter with 36 seconds left to play. 16 seconds before the end Great Britain’s Oliver Endicott closed the scoring, 7-4.
Defensively solid Lithuania finished with the bronze medals in front of their home crowd with Kazimieras Jukna selected as the best goalkeeper of the tournament by the directorate. Spain ended up fourth at this level for a second consecutive season with influential Jaime de Bonilla standing out and being picked as the tournament’s best defender.
Romania finished without a point and will need to regroup in Division II Group B next season. Croatia on the other hand will now get their credentials severely tested at the 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group B. They return to a level they most recently skated at in 2013. There they will play the likes of Slovenia, Ukraine, Italy, Poland and Estonia in a year.
“Four to five players will change for next year. We have won gold here in Lithuania with the junior national team and in Qatar our football national team won bronze at the World Cup, so for now we will just celebrate,” said Croatia head coach Sertic.