Hopefully Poland wants to stick around

Hockey fever is coming back to Poland. Once a familiar sight in the top division of the IIHF World Championship, the White Eagles are once again on the rise.

Under the guidance of Slovak head coach Robert Kalabar, the Poles won Division IB on home ice in 2022, then were promoted from Division IA a year later, beating Italy — Mike Keenan and all — to finish second in the group.

It ended a 22-year absence from the top charts and the excitement has been building ever since.

Team captain Christian Dziupinski was part of that trip. Now 35 years old, the Unia Oświęcim forward has grown in interest in the sport this season.

„People are paying more attention,” he said. “Some sponsors came [Polish Ice Hockey] Federation.

“Even in a year, it’s good. But we have to be there for another year, then another year. This will give our younger players an opportunity to play in stronger leagues.

Even a year ago, head coach Calabar was hoping to see precisely these prospects.

„We have some young players,” he said after being promoted to Nottingham last May. „They want to be in the best league. This competition is an opportunity for them to go to big clubs and develop as young players at a high level,” he said.

Currently, Poland has three players in the Czech League: Litvino’s 24-year-old forward Pawel Zygmunt, experienced Aaron Chmielewski, along with Ozelary Drinek, who was Czech champion in recent seasons but recovered from an injury-plagued season that limited him to 13 games. 22-year-old Kamil Valeka stands out on the promoted list after moving to Trineck this season.

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Goalie John Murray, American-born but 10-year Polish hockey player, is certainly seeing changes.

“I believe they said crowd [in the Polish championship] 30% more than last year,” he said. „The media coverage was a little more than before, but we can do more. When I first went to Poland 10 years ago, the league wasn’t as good as it is now, but we had more TV coverage.

He is coming off a busy season – his GKS Katowice team lost to Unia Dziupinski in the national final – and admits the warm-up games have been a struggle. The last five games have brought defeats against Slovenia (twice), Great Britain (twice) and Slovakia, with just four goals scored in that time.

„I can’t say we’re playing very well,” he said. „But we’re ambitious. We’re waiting for that spark. Now, it’s about the process, not the results.

The final warm-up game is against Denmark in Sosnovic on Tuesday, and then it’s time for the real work to begin. Poland plays its first elite pool game in 22 years against Latvia on Saturday.

Expectations are modest, but as with Austria in 2019, there is real hope that this will be the start of a long stay.

„We’re very realistic,” Murray said. „We want to do enough to maintain. We know we have to pick up points with Kazakhstan and/or France. Maybe a few points here or there from another team.

Dziupinski also focuses on survival. „We’re trying to catch up,” he said. „We know we’re not going to get it right every game, but we know where we can create chances and we’ll go from there.”

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With Poland playing in Ostrava, an hour’s drive from the country’s hockey heartlands of Silesia and Malopolska, he’s hoping for some enthusiastic support to boost the team.

„It will be full of Polish fans,” he laughed. „It’s going to be wild and I think that’s going to help us. That crowd is going to be really loud for us and it’s going to help us get points.”

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