THN in Sochi: Slovenia shocking the world…and themselves

Ken Campbell
Slovenia

SOCHI – Consider this for a moment. Canada has more than three times as many players in the NHL than Slovenia has playing men’s hockey in the entire country. There is no strength in numbers for Slovenia, but the strength of spirit has carried The Little Country That Could into the quarterfinal of the Olympic hockey tournament.

On the same day the tiny country of just 2.1 million people celebrated its second gold medal of the Sochi Olympics when Tina Maze won gold in the women’s downhill, the hockey team continued its run as the darling of the hockey tournament with a 4-0 win over Austria in its qualifying game. That gives Slovenia the right to play Sweden, the top ranked team, in the quarterfinal.

“Make as few mistakes as we can, capitalize on our chances and work our ass off,” Slovenian forward David Rodman said his team must do to have a chance against Sweden.

No matter what the result is, the Slovenians have already pulled off a feat of biblical proportions. They shouldn’t even be here, having shocked heavily favored Denmark in the Olympic qualifying tournament. And here at the Olympics, they’re 2-2-0, for goodness sake. They have one NHL player in Anze Kopitar and one Kontinental League player in former Detroit Red Wings farmhand Jan Mursak. They have a couple of players in the Czech League, but most play in far lower pro leagues in France, Austria, Italy.

It’s remarkable, really. The Slovenians have succeeded in shocking the hockey world and themselves. The country is roughly as populated as Manitoba and Saskatchewan combined. There are just 950 players in the entire country, only 148 of whom play at the men’s level. There are just seven indoor rinks. In the kind of anomaly that can only happen in international hockey, Slovenia qualified for the Olympics, but won’t even be in the World Championship this year. The Slovenians will compete in the second tier of the World Championship in hopes of winning its group and being promoted.

“Yeah, we’re shocked with the result, but we knew even before we can play,” said defenseman Sabahudin Kovacevic, who plays for a Russian minor league team in Kazakhstan. “We would have been happy with one point before the tournament, but now we’re going for the gold medal.”

He laughed when he said that. But the one thing Slovenia has going for it is that it faces absolutely no pressure in the quarterfinal. Canadian coach Mike Babcock observed earlier this week that the smaller countries with less depth seem to have a lot of trouble in the second of back-to-back games, but Slovenia will go a long way on determination. And they’ll have a completely healthy Kopitar, who left Slovenia’s 5-1 loss to USA in the preliminary round with a stomach flu. But adequately hydrated and feeling good, he contributed a goal against Austria.

Asked when the success of this team will mean back home, head coach Matjaz Kopitar, Anze’s father, said: “I hope we get five more rinks. What we need are more rinks and more organization to develop players.”