KHL debutant aiming for medal
With the Croatian players eager to give a good account of themselves in front of a home crowd ready to turn up the heat at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Zagreb, none of them will have more to play for than 21-year-old Ivan Jankovic.
A silver medallist, top scorer in the Austrian-based EBEL U20 league and a winner of this season’s Croatian national championship, the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Zagreb offers local boy Jankovic another opportunity to add to his medal haul in an eventful season which saw him become historical when suiting up for Medvescak in the KHL.
Good things come when you least expect them. In February this year, Ivan Jankovic was in a snowy Sapporo fully focused on the Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round 2 with Croatia when he was summoned up for a chat due to a small altercation in his travel itinerary.
"We were playing in Japan when our coach Danijel Kolombo told me that instead of going to Zagreb on our way home we go to Moscow and then travel on to Yaroslavl," said Jankovic.
Having already missed out on the playoffs from KHL’s Bobrov Division, Medvescak Zagreb was at that time short of players in what was their final road trip of the season. When the call came of the blue to take the plunge into a world of seasoned scarred professionals at the very top level, it was initially met with mixed emotions.
"I was made aware of the plans two days ahead of our departure and at first I started sweating, but then when I then started to pack my equipment before leaving I started to think it will be ok," Jankovic recalled candidly.
Eased by the fact that he previously practised two months with the team during pre-season, Jankovic was well looked after by his teammates and his KHL debut in mid-February on the road against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is now a cherished memory for life.
"They were all big and strong, but I didn't show them any respect and I've played against one of the Kronwall brothers," he said.
"I got five minutes in that game and in the second game against Sochi I did not play, but it was a big experience and honour being the first Croatian player who isn't a goalie to play for Medvescak in the KHL," said Jankovic who started playing hockey at the age of four in Zagreb and have since progressed through the youth development program in the Croatian capital.
But one swallow does not make one summer as found out by Croatia's first choice netminder Mate Tomjlenovic. Becoming the first home-grown player to get minutes for Medvescak when he featuring in goal during the first period during a home against Dinamo Riga in February last year, Tomjlenovic has since left Croatian hockey with its massive gulf between junior and domestic championships to that of stepping up to KHL level.
Entering a similar watershed stage in his career is now awaiting Jankovic who played most of his competitive matches this season as an overaged player at the EBEL U20-league scoring points for fun as Medvescak's playoff run took them all the way to the finals where they pushed eventual winners Salzburg in five matches.
With only senior hockey awaiting Jankovic as of next season, the contrasts would be striking would the 21-year-old stay in Zagreb where Croatian teams this season played against Slovenian opposition as well as Crvena Zvedza from Serbia's capital Belgrade, as the number of games and level of hockey would be cut down severely as he now is entering a critical stage of his career.
"This season I've played 50-60 games. It could have been more had it not been many matches clashing with each other. But if I would stay and only play in the championship next season it could mean 15 maximum 20 games a season," said Jankovic who is level-headed of his prospects and also firmly keeps one eye on the future as he will sit through his final exams of Sports Management studies this June.
Danijel Kolombo, played for Croatia and has since embarked on a coaching career which has seen him represent Croatia at around a quarter of a century of World Championships. Now head coach of the U18 and U20 national teams as well as assistant coach of the senior national team, Kolombo is well aware of the predicament they are facing in trying to bridge the gap in Croatian hockey.
"This is the seventh year of pro hockey in Zagreb. The KHL is a good story, but we haven't taken advantage of that as we have not built any rinks. In many ways my hands are tied if I speak as the coach of the junior national teams as players don't have a place to play after they finish junior hockey," said Kolombo.
"But it is hard for a Croat to play as an import. For most people Croatia does not exist on the hockey map, so why would a club sign a Croat to take up one of the import places, unless you are Borna Rendulic, but he is a great expectation" said Kolombo, who would like to see the following changes made in the current set-up which he believes could benefit Croatian hockey.
"EBEL U20 is a pretty good league, but my idea would instead be to play with a team in the EBEL U18 league and then have a team in the second Austrian league," said Kolombo.
Since stepping into the fold, new Croatia head coach Alan Letang has together with his two assistants Ivo Ratej and Kolombo tried their bit by adding more youthful verve out on the ice. Seven players on the Croatia roster for the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B are for instance younger than this season's KHL-debutant Jankovic, who at the age of 21 is now about to play his third World Championship at a senior level.
"During my first World Championship in Lithuania in 2013 I was more or less back-up, I was there, but only played penalty killing, maximum ten minutes per game. In last year's tournament in Eindhoven I was on the second line and did ok until I started to have problems with my shoulder. This year will be better as I've played a lot this season," said Jankovic setting out his goals ahead of the tournament. "A medal, a few goals and no penalties."
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