The return of Rendulic
With the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B, marking the centenary year of the first official ice hockey game played in Croatia's capital Zagreb, fitting for such a celebration has been the arrival of Borna Rendulic.
Being the first Croatia-born and trained player to suit up and score in the NHL, the 24-year-old's impact on his return to Zagreb this week is instrumental as Croatia is stepping up the hunt for a medal in front of a home audience in Dom Sportova.
Welcome home. What made you decide to return to Zagreb and represent Croatia?
I've told the Croatian federation that if I have time I'll always come and play for the national team. My season was over and I was coming to Zagreb anyway. I've been playing together with half of the team since the age of 16 when I've first joined the men's national team, so it's always good to be back and also nice to play in front of our home crowd.
You've made your NHL debut and scored your first goal in your first season at Colorado Avalanche in 2014/15 and then were to spend most of this season in the AHL playing for San Antonio Rampage. How has your American dream been so far?
It's been a good experience. When I first got there I didn't think I was going to play in the NHL at all during my first year an instead needing time to adjust to the smaller ice surfaces. But then they [Colorado] called me up. I was playing well, Patrick Roy was playing me more and showed bigger trust in me. Everything was perfect but then I got injured. It was my first bad injury [broken left shinbone] and it basically meant the season was over.
Then ahead of this season I started out with a great training camp. I made the team, but then we lost three out of three and they sent me down to the AHL. Thinking back at it now I think I could have played a lot better in the AHL but it was hard to adjust to the hockey that was played there.
In what ways did you find it hard to adapt to life in the AHL?
It's so much easier to play in the NHL as you play with much better players. In the NHL it is all so structured so you know when you've got the puck and when in defense where your teammates will be. But in the AHL you have to improvise and there are also many mistakes made as the pace of the game is much faster with younger players wanting to prove themselves good enough for the NHL.
How do you feel your time in North America has improved you as a player?
I feel like my skating has gotten better. When I played in Finland a few years ago I would control my skating more and I would not skate as fast, but in the AHL you got to stop, start and skate hard all the time. I have also added more grit to my game. I've been taught to always finish my checks and I also blocked a lot more shots than I ever used to. You never know where I might be playing next, but a player who can work defensively and produce is something every team would want.
Now back playing at the World Championship in Zagreb where it all once started. What was it that made you pick up hockey?
I was six years old when we went skating with kindergarden at the historical Salata rink here in Zagreb. A coach from Medvescak noticed me as I was both bigger and a better skater than the other kids. He asked me if I would like to start playing hockey for their youth team and after several days of thinking my parents said yes. I liked it from the first day of training. Besides hockey, I played football and handball as well, but when I was 14 and I decided to put all efforts into hockey, because it was what I liked the most and where I felt I had the best chances to succeed.
Did the success of Anze Kopitar from neighbouring Slovenia influence you in any way as a youngster?
I liked him a lot as a player, but I've only met Anze Kopitar for the first time last summer. It was thanks to my personal trainer Jurica Frankovic who one day surprised me by saying that we would go and practise with Kopitar. It was in Bled, Slovenia as he was skating there, so I went along and it really nice to meet that calibre of a player, one of the best players in the world.
At the age of 15 you moved to Finland to continue your development. How did that opportunity come about?
I had been taking part at a IIHF camp in Vierumaki as a 14-year-old. The former GM from Medvescak and the Croatian National team, Dragutin Ljubic had some Finnish friends involved with youth hockey in Finland. I was 15 when I moved there to play for S-Kiekko [in Seinajoki]. I had several sponsors that helped me and my parents with finances, and I am very grateful to them because of their support. I was very young, but at the same time very mature for my age and that’s the reason why my parents let me go to Finland. Although it was hard to leave my life, school, friends and everything I had back in Croatia, I knew what I wanted and that was to play hockey and be successful in it.
You made your senior debut in Finnish top division for Assat Pori in December 2011 and then played two successful seasons for HPK Hameenlinna before moving to North America. Would returning to Europe be an option for you at this stage of your career?
I am currently a restricted free agent, so Colorado has my rights, and they will have meetings in May so I will probably find out then what their plans are, if they will re-sign me or trade me or what is going to happen.
You've mentioned in the past about coming home to finish your career here in Croatia with your parental club Medvescak. Is that still in your plans?
It is still an option, they are playing in the KHL, so it would be nice to come home and play for your home crowd, but I don't think I am ready for that yet.
What are your thoughts of Croatia's chances at this World Championship? Following your first two games, against Great Britain (1-4) and Ukraine (1-4) you bounced back to beat Romania, 12-5. Is the team good enough for a medal?
The first two games were both tight. My flight was delayed so I only arrived just in time to play in the second game and we were still only 1-2 down against Ukraine in the second period. But we knew ahead of the tournament that the last three games, against Romania, Estonia and Lithuania would be the key for us.
We won the silver a few years ago [2014 in Vilnius] in this division which was our best performance to date. Then last year we had ten Canadian guys playing for us and expectations were so high, aiming to win the division and then ending up fourth.
Now things have changed and we have a generation change in the team at the moment, with a lot of young good players trying to get more experience, so to win a medal would be huge for us.
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