When you think of sports in Yugoslavia, ice hockey doesn’t exactly skate to mind. But not only does hockey have a tradition in the former Yugoslavia, in one unexpected part of the disappeared country the beautiful game is on the up and up.

With Amil Delić and Will Richard.

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Episode Transcript

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[JINGLE]

PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. Welcome to the beautiful game. Hi, my name is Peter Korchnak and I’m a hockeyholic.

The 2022/23 season of the National Hockey League started a month ago and I’m beyond excited. Ice hockey is my native Slovakia’s national sport; here in the U.S. the NHL has the best hockey around.

Each year Slovak players help their teams compete for the Stanley Cup trophy. The number of players in the NHL with Slovak origins has been dwindling–long story–but things are turning around. And this year is more exciting than ever: Number One and Number Two, as well as Number 26, picks were players from Slovakia, a historic first. To boot, the Number One draft pick, Juraj Slafkovský, picked by the Montreal Canadiens, is from my hometown, Košice.

But, this is a Remembering Yugoslavia not Remembering Czechoslovakia podcast, so let’s get back on track, I mean ice.

The sports section of Remembering Yugoslavia is nearly non-existent; Episode 52, “Sarajevo 1984/2030” about the Winter Olympic Games being a lone standout. Now of course, when you think of sports in Yugoslavia, ice hockey probably doesn’t exactly skate to mind. I’m gonna fix it with today’s slapshot of an episode.

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Two NHL rookies this season boast ex-Yugoslav backgrounds. Both are defensemen and both happen to be Slafkovský’s teammates on the Canadiens. Both skated in the season opener, in which the Habs defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 4 to 3, and in every game of the season thus far.

Johnathan “Johnny” Kovacevic is a 25-year old defenseman born in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He grew up in Hamilton. Last year Kovacevic, playing on the Manitoba Moose, was said to be one of the best defensemen in the American Hockey League, a tier below the NHL, for which the Winnipeg Jets, who had drafted him in 2017, rewarded him with four NHL games of play. This season the Jets determined he didn’t fit their plans and the Canadiens claimed him from waivers.

His father, Novica Kovačević, is from Montenegro. He immigrated to Canada from Sarajevo weeks before the first war of Yugoslavia’s dissolution broke out in 1991. Johnny’s mother, who goes by Angie in Canada, is from Bosnia and she immigrated to the U.S. when she was eight.

Kovacevic’s journey to the NHL was marked with rejection after rejection. He was cut from several teams and went undrafted two years in a row.

But like a good Balkan kid, he persevered and again, like a good Balkan kid, he gives a lot of credit to his parents. Earlier this year Kovacevic told The Athletic that “it’s “100 percent” fair to connect the dots between his parents’ backstories and his own sense of gratitude. Quote, “They’ve instilled hard work in me and my siblings too—that whatever we do, we’re going to do it to the best of our abilities. At the same time, they’ve instilled an appreciation for the life that we have and not to take it for granted because…they’ve seen a lot harder times. I think what’s cool is that neither of them had ever put on a pair of skates before. They didn’t necessarily know hockey but at the same time, I feel like they’ve given me absolutely everything I need in order to become successful at hockey. (…) I just know I wouldn’t be as good of a player if I didn’t have them as role models as parents.”

The other rookie with ex-Yugoslav background is the 21-year old Arber Xhekaj, also a defenseman. He traces his lineage to Kosovo, via his father; his mother is from what’s now the Czech Republic, so Czechoslovakia, another disappeared country. Xhekaj too is from Hamilton, Ontario, and his younger brother Florian is also a hockey player.

Commenting on his play in the Ontario Hockey League, the Hockey News called the undrafted Xhekaj a “bruising, overly aggressive, and downright punishing as a defender.”

When the OHL canceled a season due to COVID, Xhekaj worked in Costco, a discount big box store.

SB Nation wrote Xhekaj is “developing into being a well-rounded defenceman.”

In the NHL season opener he was second on the Canadiens in hits. That day he also became the first NHL player whose name starts with the letter X. He scored his first goal in the big league on October 22nd, against the Dallas Stars.

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Xhekaj also had an assist in that game.

Over the years, there have been a number of NHL players with Yugoslav backgrounds. And ice hockey has a tradition in the former Yugoslavia as well. In fact, in one unexpected part of the disappeared country, hockey’s on the up and up.

In this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: ice hockey in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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You’re listening to a regulation version of this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia.

A version exclusively for Patreon supporters and other contributors goes into overtime, featuring additional stories and extended versions of guest interviews. To get access to the extended, overtime version of this episode as well as to all the past and future extended and bonus episodes, visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and become a true fan today.

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PETER KORCHNAK: Football (soccer) and basketball dominated (and still dominate) the sports scene in Yugoslavia and its successors. Handball and water polo are also popular, and the country’s athletes also enjoyed international success in gymnastics, wrestling, boxing, and of course tennis. Winter sports in the sunny Yugoslavia, not so much, except perhaps in the mountainous Slovenia, which has had a number of successful skiers and ski jumpers.

Teams from Slovenia dominated the Yugoslav Ice Hockey League in its 49 seasons, dating back to 1936/37. Akroni Jesenice won the championship 23 times and Olimpija Ljubljana 13 times. Partizan Belgrade won 7 times, Medveščak Zagreb three times.

No surprise then, that the Yugoslav successor states where ice hockey makes any notable mark to this day are Slovenia and Croatia.

Who can forget one of the most awesome sights in the history of hockey, from 2012, when Medveščak Zagreb faced off against Olimpija Ljubljana at the Pula Arena, a 2,000-plus-year-old Roman-era amphitheater, in front of 20,000 spectators? Alas, I wasn’t one of them.

Ninety percent of Yugoslavia’s national ice hockey team consisted of Slovenes; the entire Sarajevo Olympics squad was from Slovenia.

Yugoslavia’s ice hockey team participated in five Winter Olympic Games, from 1964 to 1976 plus in 1984, as the host country of the XIV Olympic Winter Games. In Sarajevo, Yugoslavia lost all but one game by a combined score of 37:9 and placed next to last in the tournament (my team, Czechoslovakia, got silver).

Yugoslavia never advanced to the top, A pool, of the International Ice Hockey Federation world championships. It oscillated between the lower-tier B and C pools, with the best placement at 2nd in the B pool in 1974.

Slovenia has had six players selected in the NHL draft; two of them made it to the NHL. Jan Muršak, or Mursak, from Maribor, played three seasons with the Detroit Red Wings.

Anže Kopitar was drafted in 2005 by the Los Angeles Kings and was the first Slovene to play in the NHL.

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He is still in the league, now team captain, and, as far as I know, he is the only active player in the NHL who was born in Yugoslavia: in 1987 in Jesenice, Socialist Republic of Slovenia, SFR Yugoslavia, He won the Stanley Cup with the Kings twice, in 2012 and 2014.

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In 2014, it was a Slovak player, Marián Gáborík, who handed the trophy to Kopitar to hoist.

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Kopitar has been an All Star five times, won the Selke Trophy for the best defensive forward twice, and once also the Lady Byng trophy for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct and the Messier Award for leadership. Kopitar has represented Slovenia in international tournaments since the juniors. He remains the best Slovenian ice hockey player of all time.

PETER KORCHNAK: A number of additional active NHL players have ex-Yugoslav ancestry.

  • The Vancouver Canucks captain, Bo Horvat from Ontario, is the son of second-generation Croats.
  • Milan Lucic from British Columbia is the son of immigrants from Serbia. “Looch” won the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011 and is now with the Calgary Flames. His maternal uncle, Dan Kesa, also played in the NHL in the 1990s.
  • Ontario-born, two-time Stanley Cup winning superstar on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Steven Stamkos, has a father of Macedonian descent.
  • Brothers Christopher and Brandon Tanev from Ontario are the grandsons of immigrants from Macedonia. This season they’re with the Calgary Flames and Seattle Kraken, respectively.
  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic from Quebec has half-Croatian roots and is a longtime defenseman for the San Jose Sharks.
  • Detroit Red Wings goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic from Ohio is the grandson of immigrants from Serbia. He is so proud of his Serbian descent he had the back of his helmet emblazoned with the 4C symbol that’s part of the Serbian coat of arms.

Historically the biggest NHL star with ex-Yugoslav ancestry is Joe Sakic, son of Croatian immigrants from Yugoslavia, Marijan and Slavica Šakić. Marijan is from Studenac, near Imotski, and Slavica is from Lika. The Šakićs raised Joe in Burnaby, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver, speaking Croatian; Joe did not learn to speak English well until kindergarten.

He still understands the language, though speaks very little.

Sakic decided to become a hockey player at the age of four when he attended his first NHL game. He played 21 seasons, from 1988 to 2009 with the Quebec Nordiques and Colorado Avalanche, winning the Stanley Cup twice; he is in the Hockey Hall of Fame and for the past few years has been the general manager of the Colorado Avalanche, winning the Cup with them last season. By the way Borna Rendulić from Zagreb is the only Croatia-born player to have played in the NHL, in fact under the GM Sakic.

There are quite a few past players with ex-Yugoslav ancestry. I list them all in Overtime.

Nevertheless, few of these players ever publicly refer to their ancestry and if they do, it’s typically at the prompting of reporters from ex-Yugoslav countries. Like when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup last season, Joe Sakic was once again for a minute the world’s most famous Croat.

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One former Yugoslav republic that’s notably absent from the story so far is Bosnia and Herzegovina. As a hockey fan I read quite a bit of news about the sport. I listen to only one podcast about the game, 32 Thoughts the Podcast, with Jeff Marek and Eliotte Friedman.

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PETER KORCHNAK: Marek and Friedman are the Gretzkys of the hockey commentariat. The person who produces 32 Thoughts the Podcast is Amil Delić.

AMIL DELIĆ: I was born in Bosnia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I was born in Mostar in ‘86, and spent the first six years of my life there. Obviously, civil unrest, and we needed to pack up and leave. It was a difficult time for my family.

We came over as sponsored by some family members that were living in Canada, not far from Toronto. We came over in 1993. And what an adjustment that was for all of us, acclimatizing to a completely different culture with a completely different lifestyle and even sports culture, you know. Hockey is not a common thing, or was not a common thing, back in former Yugoslavia. Though it was present, it was not it was not a common sport.

We’re very grateful that we were lucky enough to leave and, you know, have a life.

PETER KORCHNAK: Delić worked as a music director at various radio stations before he transitioned into podcasting, first at CBC, where he worked on a true crime podcast, and then at Sportsnet, where he co-created the 31 Thoughts podcast (31 being the number of NHL teams at the time and the podcast’s name originating in co-host Elliotte Friedman’s famous blog).

AMIL DELIĆ: Now I’m the Senior Producer of original podcasts at Sportsnet.

PETER KORCHNAK: What was that adjustment to the different sports culture for you? How did you how did you become a hockey fan, if you can call yourself a hockey fan?

AMIL DELIĆ: I’m a fan of all sports. I play American football growing up, I played basketball growing up, and I played a lot of baseball growing up. I’d never played soccer / football growing up in hockey, I definitely didn’t play. I’m an atrocious skater, terrible skater, to the point where it’s embarrassing.

But I always loved numbers. I always loved strategy and tactics, and grew up watching hockey with all my friends as I was going through elementary school and high school, and—

PETER KORCHNAK: Canadian friends.

AMIL DELIĆ: —Canadian friends, yes, Canadian friends, I grew up watching hockey with and, and just sort of fell in love with beauty on ice, I guess you could say. And I thought it was just a what a you know, it was poetry at times when you watch the game, when you see certain players do certain things and kind of wonder how do they make this black thing on the ice go the way they want it to go and they get around a certain player at such great speeds and they’re able to position this puck in certain places where they know exactly where the goaltender is at his weakest. It’s just all these little things that they had to take into account to make this thing happen at such a high speed, while also being very physical. I’ve always found it fascinating.

And then as I grew older and many of my friends played at a pretty high level of hockey, I began to go to a lot more games and began to kind of look at these hockey figures as kind of like heroes in Canadian society, because they were for a lot of people they were heroes in Canadian society.

People ask me all the time, what’s it like to like, be sitting in a room with Wayne Gretzky or Gary Bettman.

PETER KORCHNAK: The greatest hockey player of all time and the current NHL Commissioner, respectively.

AMIL DELIĆ: It’s just like sitting in a room with my brother or my dad, I’m just talking to them.

I’m a journalist at heart, I love to tell stories. That’s why I do what I do. And I just completely dropped that whole stardom feeling I had growing up, and I just put that behind me. And you focus on telling a much bigger story, because there’s a much bigger audience listening to the story as you’re trying to tell them and walk them through this path of the way your mind thinks and the way you’re trying to express yourself and the storytelling methods. But yeah, I’ve always enjoyed hockey, because there’s something beautiful about the game.

PETER KORCHNAK: When you speak to hockey players, or hockey people etcetera does your name ever come up as, oh something’s different about that? Because obviously, you do have a, if I may say so, Canadian accent, but does your name ever come up? And do you have to ever share your story with these superstars or anyone like that?

AMIL DELIĆ: It does come up. It comes up in like public relations circles, and it comes up sometimes at work with my peers and that kind of stuff. But with current players right now, not as much.

There’s a generation of players right now on the come-up, that I think it’s going to become much more of a question, as I continue down this journey, because I’m starting to see players from all walks of life enter the game. There’s kids who are playing in junior right now across North America, you know, who had families who are, you know, Jamaican descent, or they were from the Balkans, for example, or there’s a couple of Australian hockey players right now in the NHL. Those are the kind of stories that you see and you begin to kind of talk to them about their accents or you begin to talk to them about their lineage and you begin to share those stories. But right now, as we stand, I think hockey itself is very much a North American sport with several Europeans and Russians. But I think those small pockets have not been discovered. I think the first week of July when the NHL draft was held in Montreal to see so many players, Slovak players go in the first round, along with the Finns, the Swedes, an Austrian, like that was great. Usually, if you don’t see a Slovakian player go till maybe late first or second, possibly third round.

And that’s the kind of thing that you begin to say, oh, there’s change, we’re beginning to see change, we’re beginning to see other nations get more involved in the game. And I think that’s when we’ll start begin to have some of those questions.

And I’m also kind of waiting for the day where I can actually have a full on fledged conversation with somebody in my native tongue, because I think that will be a massive game breaker in terms of like the growth of the game.

PETER KORCHNAK: There is one up and coming player with Bosnian origins. His name is Kocha Delic, and he plays forward on the Sudbury Wolves, in the Ontario Hockey League. No relation to Amil. His parents Željko and Svjetlana Delić immigrated to Canada from Sarajevo in 1995. Željko worked three jobs, Svjetlana worked two jobs and attended university, to make ends meet.

Writing in The Score, John Matisz described Delic thusly:

“This insatiable work ethic is evident in the younger Delic’s game, and in how he interacts with teammates, coaches, and other staff in Sudbury. There’s no entitlement. He’s about as low-maintenance as a junior hockey player can get. “Kocha never complains, and he just wants to play,” is how the Wolves GM put it.

“He’s relentless,” [the GM] continued. “It’s in his DNA. Whether he’s chasing a puck or an opportunity to play, he doesn’t know what the word ‘quit’ means.” End quote.

To teach Kocha and his little brother a lesson about hard work, Željko did, let’s say, an interesting, if not a very Balkan thing. He took them to, quote, “a place where the people who did nothing ended up.” The place was a homeless shelter.

“In life you’re going to have to take initiative, work hard in order to be successful,” Kocha said to Matisz as he reflected on the story. “That experience, learning that lesson from my dad, helped me out for the rest of my life.”

Delic has competed for Team Canada in the Under-18 World Championship earlier this year. The NHL ranked him 122nd in the draft. He went unclaimed. “If it happens, I’ll be grateful,” Delic said about getting drafted. “If it doesn’t, I’m going to keep working and keep progressing my game to make it to that level one day.”

AMIL DELIĆ: I was hoping to actually meet him at the draft. Because he was projected to go at some point the draft, but he never went, there was actually quite a few players that were supposed to go that didn’t go. I don’t know what those conversations were like. But I was hoping to meet him at the draft and he was not present. But I’m going to meet him this year. He’s going to play another year of junior, I’m definitely going to try to when he’s in the Toronto area. I watched him a couple months ago. He really is a talented player, a little undersized, but a very, very talented player and it’ll be cool. I’ll be able to–if he does make the NHL one day–it’ll be cool to actually buy a jersey with my name on it.

PETER KORCHNAK: Do you follow hockey in the former Yugoslavia? So obviously, Slovenia has probably the most developed program or most developed culture around that. But do you follow it elsewhere in other countries, including, and especially, of course, Bosnia, and Herzegovina where you’re from?

AMIL DELIĆ: Yeah, I actually I do and not to the extend I follow the NHL. But I definitely do, because— I mean, it’s nice that there’s actually Croatia as the representing the KHL, which is a huge deal, because the KHL is a second best league in the planet.

PETER KORCHNAK: The Kontinental Hockey League is an international pro hockey league based in Russia, with teams from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and China. Medveščak Zagreb played in the league from 2013 to 2016. Teams from Czechia, Finland, Latvia, Slovakia, and Ukraine participated in various years as well.

AMIL DELIĆ: I have some colleagues and some old friends that live in Zagreb and I will fly into Zagreb and I will hang out with them, and they will tell me how much they love hockey and how it’s growing and in their part of part of town and whatnot, and how there’s more hockey rinks being put in, all this kind of stuff. And that’s amazing to see.

But it’s also good to see like the surrounding nations, like Serbia, actually beginning to grow the sport.

One of the biggest surprises to me is the growth of hockey in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Like that really caught me off guard, you know, a country that doesn’t really have too much in terms of sports infrastructure, to see them playing on the IIHF level, to see them actually playing against other nations is surprising, but it’s also an amazing feeling to see that there’s actually people in that region who are there supporting the sport.

I’m surprised to see like press releases that like Bosnia is being represented in this, you know, IIHF tournament in like South Africa or whatever, like those types of things I just never expected.

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AMIL DELIĆ: I didn’t think that I would see something like that until maybe 2035, 2040. So to see it happening in 2022 is an amazing feeling. And, you know, I hope, one day, I can be able to play a part in the growth of the game, where I can go back home and contribute to it in some capacity. But it is amazing to see.

PETER KORCHNAK: This is an abridged version of my conversation with Amil Delić. He shared more of his life’s story, and we also spoke about his work on 32 Thoughts the Podcast and discussed an existential question about the future of Bosnian ice hockey. All this in Overtime, available exclusively to Patreon and PayPal supporters of Remembering Yugoslavia. Head over to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and contribute today for access.

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PETER KORCHNAK: To be honest, I never thought such a thing as Bosnian hockey existed until I spoke to a guy from Maine. Born and raised in that great state, Will Richard came to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2005 as a 20-year-old student on an exchange program. He returned after graduating, in 2007, on a one way ticket, and from 2008 to 2017 worked with a couple of big international organizations. Following a two-year hiatus back in the U.S., he’s been back in Sarajevo since 2019. He is a co-founder of the soon-to-be-opened Ex-YU Rock Center–check out the next episode for that story–and most importantly for today, an assistant coach of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s men’s ice hockey team, nicknamed the Ice Dragons.

PETER KORCHNAK: How did you become a coach of the Bosnian sorry, assistant coach of the Bosnian team?

WILL RICHARD: Honestly, this all happened almost by accident. I had been living here in Sarajevo for a couple years. And honestly, I didn’t even know there was there was ice here. And then, one day, I was walking by Zetra—

PETER KORCHNAK: The Zetra Olympic Hall was built for the Sarajevo 1984 Winter Olympics. In addition to ice hockey, it hosted figure skating, speed skating, and the closing ceremony events. It seats 12,000 people.

WILL RICHARD: —it looked like they had some public skating going on, so I walked inside and sure enough, there were some public skating, and I saw that they had boards and glass as well as, you know, obviously, the ice surface. And so you know, the light bulb went on, so to speak, and I realized, okay, there’s hockey here in Sarajevo and I immediately asked around, and I think it was the next night they placed me on a team. I think it was the– we were called Lisice or the foxes and all of a sudden I’m playing in the Bosnian Hockey League. And that was in 2010 and for the past 12 years, I’ve been involved with the Bosnian hockey program. It’s a really good group of guys and gals, and it’s a fun group to be around.

And honestly, I can say that it’s become a real success story. Bosnian hockey is on the right path. You know, we’re seeing major steps forward, just in the past couple of years. And, you know, I’m really proud to be part of this program. And I think the future is looking quite bright for Bosnian hockey.

PETER KORCHNAK: Ice hockey is of course not a sport that anyone will associate with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

WILL RICHARD: But hockey is quickly growing. And over the past three or four seasons, we’ve seen a real, let’s say increased interest in hockey.

I think we can collectively attribute this to the fact that we now have ice here in Sarajevo for about seven or eight months per year. And this is a huge change compared to 2010 when I started when we had ice for maybe seven or eight weeks per season. And so now you know, with more ice, we can see more progress. Parents see us as more serious, more kids are signing up, more kids are learning how to skate , more kids are signing up for our hockey clubs. And at the same time, our under 18, our under 20s, and our senior team, we’re seeing progress at all levels.

PETER KORCHNAK: Why is it in recent years that there’s more ice, more of the time? What’s the impetus behind that?

WILL RICHARD: That’s a good question. I mean, you would think, okay, Sarajevo is an Olympic city. You know, the whole world was here in 1984, for the Winter Olympics, you know, hundreds of world class hockey players were here in the city, you know, including some NHL players. And so then you’d say, Okay, how did it go, you know, from that to having ice for seven weeks per year? And obviously, the answer is, you know, the war in the 90s put Bosnian hockey back one or two generations. Really, it’s taken about 20 years, I’d say, to recover.

But I feel like now the program is really accelerating. Like I said, the key to this is ice without ice there’s nothing for hockey. And although, you know, there are facilities in Sarajevo, namely Zetra and Skenderija, that can have ice almost all year round, they will only put ice in when it can be profitable for them.

And so the game changer for Bosnian hockey was, we had four or five parents, they decided to invest in a rink, and now there’s a private facility which is technically called Vukovi, or the Wolves, Ice Rink here in Sarajevo, and this is located right next door to the Zetra stadium. And with this being in private hands, there’s much more willingness to open the season earlier and to extend the season longer. And, you know, with now seven or eight months of hockey, kids can really develop, you know, we can have proper trainings for the national programs. We just seem more serious. And I think that’s really key for getting parents on board and getting them to stay committed.

PETER KORCHNAK: Now, of course, in a country like Bosnia and Herzegovina, and this is probably the case elsewhere, to play soccer, to play football, to play basketball, you need a ball and maybe a hoop and a goal. But for hockey, there’s a lot more equipment needed, you know, you pay for the time, etc. So is it more of a domain of wealthier, people with means, Bosnians with means? Or is there any sort of a everyone can play hockey type program, by maybe the Hockey Federation, to involve kids of all backgrounds?

WILL RICHARD: Yeah, we’re trying to make hockey open for everyone. And we have several learn to skate programs that are free. And I believe there are also subsidized programs as well for joining clubs. I don’t think there’s ever been a case where a kid hasn’t been able to play because of financial reasons. And I think the Hockey Savez is aware that, you know, hockey has this image of being, let’s say, a more expensive sport. And it’s true, I mean, skates are not cheap, equipment isn’t cheap, ice isn’t cheap. But for kids, there are resources available, and I feel like we are making sure that you know, this isn’t some kind of an elite sport here.

PETER KORCHNAK: Is there other ice in Bosnia Herzegovina, or is Sarajevo the only place where people can skate?

WILL RICHARD: Sarajevo is the only place in the country where there’s ice on a long-term basis, you know, several cities across the country have ice, you know, small surfaces in the winter outside, but you know, you can’t consider that a proper ice rink.

PETER KORCHNAK: Yeah. And I remember when I was there you mentioned that there’s not even a place to buy a hockey stick in the country. Is that still true?

WILL RICHARD: There is no place in the country to buy a hockey stick, there’s no place in the country to buy hockey skates. Equipment here is impossible to come by. And so the nearest cities for equipment are probably Belgrade and Zagreb, and then if you go a little bit further north into Slovenia, there’s obviously a larger, let’s say, a market for hockey.

But I do have to say for the kids, you know, say you’re a parent listening to this podcast, if you’re interested in hockey, we do have equipment here available. It is part of the startup package. And we’ve received a lot of donations of equipment over the years. And we have a pretty good collection of equipment ready to go for kids.

PETER KORCHNAK: For skilled adults—

WILL RICHARD: There are a couple hockey clubs here in the city. There’s Medvjedi or the Bears, which has been around for about seven, eight years, I would say, and then there’s Vukovi, the Wolves, which has been around for maybe a little bit longer, 10-12 years. And there’s also a girls or women’s program called the Lavice, there’s a club for them as well. But I should say for the youth hockey, the boys and the girls are playing together, which is how it works across the world.

There are three clubs plus the Savez. But you know, we all have the same interests. And everyone is really working towards developing the sport and developing the national program.

PETER KORCHNAK: So what happened to Lisice?

WILL RICHARD: That’s a good question. There have been teams that have come and gone. There’s Lisice, there’s Divlje Mačke, there’s Ajkule. And I think these were connected to various sponsors over the years. And I think Lisice might have had some connection with the old HK Bosna, which was the main club here before the war in the 80s. And this was a kind of a legendary club. And in sort of the glory days, from what I’ve heard, they would sell out Zetra for seven, eight thousand people. And hockey was incredibly popular here. There were, I believe three Canadians that played on the team and these guys were superstars here in the city.

PETER KORCHNAK: Hockey Club Bosna was established in 1980 in the run-up to the Olympics, which gave ice hockey in Bosnia and Herzegovina a huge boost. The team’s gold-red-white logo featured a lowercase b, a silhouette of a hockey player, and the Olympics logo. The team was the only Bosnian representative in the Yugoslav Hockey League.

WILL RICHARD: And so, you know, there is a bit of a legacy of hockey that dates back to the 80s. You know, I really believe that the city in general would love to see, let’s say, a semi professional hockey here at some point again.

PETER KORCHNAK: The first season of the Bosnian hockey league was played in 2002/2003 with four teams. The league was then on hold until 2009/2010. In the 2019/2020 season, which seems to be the most recent that the league was active, Will Richard ranked fourth in the league in assists. All games were played at Zetra.

Established in 2015, Lavice, the Lionesses, was the first women’s hockey team in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The amateur squad includes engineers and musicians, an architect, an economist, a lawyer, a psychologist, a linguist. As of last year, the team plays in a regional development league with teams from Croatia and Serbia.

“Our success isn’t in winning games,” team captain Majda Hanić told the Ladies in Glamour magazine. “Our victory is in winning over ourselves and telling the story of the first women to play ice hockey in our country.”

PETER KORCHNAK: You get roped into playing for a rec league team, if I can call it that, I don’t want to insult anyone–

WILL RICHARD: Yeah that’s a good way to put it.

PETER KORCHNAK: –essentially a rec league team. But then, you are now the assistant coach of the national team. So what’s that journey been like? How did that happen?

WILL RICHARD: Back in 2013, 2014, we decided to put together the national program again. There had been teams a few years before but it hadn’t been, let’s say continuous. So they would put together a team for one tournament, put together a team couple years later for another tournament, but nothing really sustained. So in 2014, 2015, we reached out to the International Ice Hockey Federation and we ended up being invited to the Division Three World Championship in Izmir, in Turkey. And, you know, we were lacking some coaches, and, you know, for me without citizenship I’m not eligible to play for the team. And so, you know, I wanted to be part of the program and they needed someone to help out with the practices and the drills. So I said, “Yeah, I’d love to be part of the program.”

Now, it’s kind of a strange transition to go from teammate to coach, but I think it worked out pretty well. And we had our first International Ice Hockey Federation-sanctioned tournament in 2015 in Turkey. And for me, it was a real honor to be part of the team, to wear the blue and yellow, to be part of the BIH squad. And that was sort of the beginning of it, and I’ve been involved kind of off and on ever since.

At the moment we’re 50th in the world, which doesn’t sound so bad but at the moment, there are 56 countries that are ranked. So obviously, we’re towards the bottom, but we are, in many ways, going in the right direction.

PETER KORCHNAK: The IIHF changed the A, B, C, D classification of its division pools in 2012. Winners of each group move up a division, last place teams move down.

The Championship group includes the world’s best hockey teams, including, under the current ranking, Finland, Canada, Russia, currently expelled from all competitions, the United States, Sweden, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany, and Denmark. Then there’s Division I A, which includes Slovenia, 1 B, which includes Serbia, II A, which includes Croatia, II B, III A and–

WILL RICHARD: Three B is where we’re at.

PETER KORCHNAK: The Ice Dragons started competing internationally in February 2008, on the 34th anniversary of the Sarajevo Olympics. Their international record so far is 10 wins and 29 losses.

The 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III, Group B will take place in Sarajevo, from February 27th to March 5th, the third time the city is hosting this tournament. The Ice Dragons will face squads from Hong Kong, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, and Singapore. The winner of the tournament will advance to Division III A.

I plan on going and supporting the Ice Dragons in Sarajevo. Hajmo svi na hokej!

[SOUNDBITE]

That’s a little band called Dubioza Kolektiv with the team’s chant song.

[SOUNDBITE]

In the last Division III B championship, in March and April 2022 in South Africa that Delić alluded to earlier, Bosnia and Herzegovina lost all of its four games. With 4 goals and 2 assists Mirza Omer ranked fourth in tournament scoring.

[SOUNBITE]

By the way, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Kosovo do not compete in international ice hockey at this time.

So everything is getting better in terms of ice hockey, the ice, the equipment, the enthusiasm, the people, and so on. So what is the future of ice hockey in Bosnia-Herzegovina?

WILL RICHARD: I think the future is looking quite good. I mean, at the moment, we have about 130 kids under 18 playing hockey. And this is a really big increase compared to, like I said, when I started here back in 2010. And if we compare where we’re at with some of the neighboring countries, Serbia and Croatia, which are ranked around 30th and 31st, I believe, they have about 300 to 400 kids playing. And until we’re able to increase our numbers, we’ll need some time, let’s say, to catch up to these neighboring countries. And then if you look at the powerhouse in the former Yugoslavia, with Slovenia they have about a 1,000 kids playing. So we’re a long ways away from that level.

But for hockey, I guess similar to other sports, you know, the key is starting young. And the key is ice time. And now that we have these three clubs really well established, you know, kids are getting on the ice, you know, when they’re three or four. And this is really what’s required. And now, you know, 2022, we’re starting to see some of these kids that were four or five back in 2010, twelve years older. Now, you know, playing for the national team. And for us, if we can, if we can develop, you know, five or six kids every year to be, let’s say, national team material, so we have five or six 18-year-olds coming into the program every year for the national team, that’s as to where we where we want to be. But in order to get those five or six kids per every year to be able to play at that level, you know, you need hundreds of kids involved. So, you know, I think we’re on the right track.

PETER KORCHNAK: Earlier this year, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national teams achieved some historic successes.

First, in April, the Under-18 national team–that’s players aged 14 to 17–won gold at the U18 Division III B World Championship, on home ice in Sarajevo no less, and advanced to Division III A. This is the country’s first-ever gold medal at any IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship event. Baby Ice Dragons topped the individual rankings as well: Nikko Gaković was the tournament’s leading scorer with 14 goals and 6 assists, followed by Tarik Mrkva and Adi Drnda.

Bosnian Ice Hockey - Ice Dragons in Mexico

This past summer in Mexico, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Under-20 squad achieved its own historic success: the first ever victory at the Division III World Championships. In a nailbiter of a game, with the score tied at 4 at the end of regulation, Adi Drnda scored at 2:01 of overtime and the young Ice Dragons defeated South Africa 5 to 4.

[SOUNDBITE]

And the women’s national team competed in its first international tournament this year. At the IIHF Division III B World Championship, which took place in Belgrade, they defeated Israel 5 to 1 and lost to Serbia, which also made its debut here, and to the eventual winners Estonia. Irma Kapić tied for second in tournament scoring; by the way the roster, which is pretty much the same as Lavice’s, ranged from ages 14 to 48, and their coach, Anthony London, is from Canada and plays on the men’s team. The Bosnian women’s team currently ranks 42nd out of 44 teams in the world, ahead of Serbia and Israel.

WILL RICHARD: This is something that’s going to take probably another generation to develop. But, you know, if you look at our under tens, or under twelves, under fourteens, there’s some really good players there. I mean, we have a handful of kids that are excellent players that can compete with anyone in the region, including Slovenia.

You know, I would go as far to say that we probably have the best 12-year-old in the whole ex-Yugoslavia here in Sarajevo.

We’re probably still another, you know, several years away from rapidly climbing up the world rankings. But, we’re going in that direction.

PETER KORCHNAK: I also spoke with Richard about that best 12-year-old hockey player in the former Yugoslavia, about his meeting with Delić, which I humbly helped to make happen, and about his take on that central question concerning the future of Bosnian ice hockey. It’s all in Overtime, available exclusively to Patreon and PayPal supporters of Remembering Yugoslavia. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and contribute today for access.

[BACKGROUND AMBIENT NOISE]

PETER KORCHNAK: Few things are as personal to me as ice hockey, dating back to my childhood. Just a few years after I moved to the U.S., I started playing rec hockey in Sherwood, Oregon, even won championships a couple of times with my teams, in two different levels. I hung my skates after twelve years of an illustrious, average one goal per game career.

When the season is on, I watch NHL games a few times a week, and even more during the playoffs, and I follow Slovakia’s national team as much as I can from over here on the West Coast. I’ve only seen World Championship games live on TV so the prospect of sitting at Zetra Hall to watch Bosnia and Herzegovina’s team at their tournament just blows my mind. And someday, I look forward to being able to say, I was there when…

Hajmo svi na hokej!

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]

PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:

ZENIT DJOZIĆ: We want to give all these bands and all these great musicians and people real honor for all what they deserve.

PETER KORCHNAK: Rock in Yugoslavia, well, rocked. Now there’s an initiative in the works to commemorate and celebrate rock music in the former Yugoslavia. On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, Will Richard and others will tell all about the new Ex-YU Rock Center in Sarajevo.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s the end of regulation for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening—and cheering.

Remember, this episode goes to Overtime for Patreon and PayPal supporters. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate to get access today.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons; the organ version of “Hej Slaveni” by Mark Lloyd used with permission – thank you.

Sound effects courtesy of Forever Publishing, Gnistan 122, Montreal Junior, N2B Goal Horns, Sound Ideas, Sound Effects, and Spiritual Alchemy—thank you all.

I am Peter Korchňak.

Keep your head up and stick on the ice!

[SOUNDBITE]