The Crvena Zvezda Belgrade celebrate a win. As of today they will host the first round of the IIHF Continental Cup. Photo: Marko Sredojevic
Serbian powerhouse front-runners in development
Despite a domestic title drought dating back to 2005, Continental Cup first-round host Crvena Zvezda Belgrade is now ready to rise up again at all levels.
For a multi-sports club of such great magnitude where only top spot is deemed good enough, Crvena Zvezda (”Red Star”) has been forced to endure twelve painstakingly long seasons as second best.
First arch-rivals Partizan Belgrade embarked on a trophy haul of 11 consecutive league titles between 2006-16 before new boys HK Beograd came to the forefront to hoist the domestic championship last season.
But with Partizan's senior team currently in hibernation and HK Beograd deciding to pull the plug after just one season in what was then the Hungarian-Romanian MOL Liga, Crvena Zvezda is now stepping out from the shadows for their much-awaited place in the limelight.
Hosting Group A of the Continental Cup in Belgrade's Pionir Ice Rink this weekend, the Serbian traditional powerhouse will take on Irbis-Skate Sofia from neighbouring Bulgaria, Turkey's Zeytinburnu Istanbul and newcomers Esja Reykjavik from Iceland.
In an attempt to hit the ground running during a season which promises a lot, Crvena Zvezda sharpened their skills in Belarus during an intensive pre-season camp ahead of getting their 2017/18 season underway in the new cross-border International Hockey League, IHL, with road games in Slovenia this month.
In the ten-team strong joint-venture between Slovenia, Serbia, and Croatia, Crvena Zvezda appears to have found a fitting stage for their continued progress.
“The IHL is a perfect match for us,” said the club's Belarusian head coach Igor Krivoshlyk. “Our goal is to develop Serbian players, not to spend a huge amount of money on imports. At the moment we can afford this league and we are hoping it will be the long-term plan for us. We hope to be competitive with our domestic players and then in the future, we'll see if we are capable of bigger things,” he said.
Krivoshlyk first got introduced to Crvena Zvezda during a stint as head coach in 2000/01. Having since amassed vast experience from coaching in the Belarusian leagues as well as in the Russian second-tier league VHL and the junior league MHL, he answered the call to return to Crvena Zvezda last season when he also worked as the head coach of the Serbian U20 national team.
Ahead of this season came the sudden demise of two rivals in the Serbian capital, which directly was to benefit Krivoshlyk in his quest for success. With players jumping ship from what once had been HK Beograd, Crvena Zvezda turned effectively overnight into a club version of the Serbian national team that won bronze at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A in Galati last April.
With the senior team now having been considerably bolstered, further down the pecking order Crvena Zvezda is continuing to make strides. Former national team player Jovica Rus is the coordinator for the junior program at Crvena Zvezda where the development of youngsters is following the path of the senior team. Following years were strengthening ties with Hungary had been in focus, attention for the continued progress for the club's next generation is now focused on cooperation with Slovenia and Croatia. During the 2017/18 season, Crvena Zvezda will compete with four different age groups ranging from U12 to U18 in a blossoming international exchange, which the club hopes to reap the rewards of in years to come.
“If we play against better opponents we will also get better,” said Rus, who also lines up a few of the challenges hindering hockey’s future prosperity in Serbia: “We need more clubs to have a clear development strategy if we want progress of Serbian hockey. Also, we need improvements in infrastructure. At the moment we only have one operative rink in the whole of Serbia. At least three more are needed,” he said.
With an emphatic 7-1 win on the road in Slovenia's Maribor being a fine dress rehearsal for Crvena Zvezda ahead of the Continental Cup, the hosts now hope to turn up the heat in front of their home crowd where sealing top spot would mean participation in the next round played in Brasov, Romania.
“Every team wants to win and we are no exception,” said Crvena Zvezda head coach Krivoshlyk. “We have a young team, but also experience with imports and Serbian national team players in our dressing room. Now we want to show the Serbian hockey community that we can play a high level of hockey,” he said.