Photo by Don Fennell
Only three players from Hungary have ever been drafted by NHL teams. It likely won’t be long before a fourth, and possibly more, join the list.
Following a 1-0 overtime victory over the Moose Jaw Generals in the Midget Major Division final Sunday, at the annual Richmond International Bantam Midget Hockey Tournament, Hungary’s under-16 team served notice the prospect pool is deepening. Quickly.
Even Bence Suesznek, head coach of the Hungarian national side, had to be pleasantly surprised by how much his boys—all aged 15, with the exception of one 14-year-old—played.
“We came here to feel and taste the North American style of hockey,” he said. “We think it’s going to help our kids get better and grow, specifically to become better players.”
Mark Schlekmann scored the OT winner for Hungary. It was his tournament-leading eighth goal and 16th point, helping his club finish with a 6-0 record in which they outscored their opponents 36-6 while amassing only 52 penalty minutes. It wasn’t like they shied away from the physical play, but maintained great composure while displaying tremendous offensive skill and puck possession. They began the tournament Boxing Day (Dec. 26) with a 3-1 win over Moose Jaw, followed by a 9-0 shutout of Prince George Cougars the following day, a 10-1 romp over Mission, Arizona on Dec. 28, and a 6-2 win over Everett on Dec. 29. They then advanced to the final with a 7-2 drubbing of Prince George in Saturday’s semifinal.
While Schlekmann may seem most likely to join Tamas Groschl (Edmonton Oilers in 1999), Levente Szuper (Calgary Flames in 2000) and Janos Vas (Dallas Stars in 2002) as NHL draft picks from Hungary, teammates Levente Keresztes and Tamas Monostori must also be considered. Keresztes showed a particular talent for setting up goals with 10 assists during the tournament, while goaltender Monostori gave up just a single goal in posting both of Hungary’s two wins over Moose Jaw.
This marked the second season in a row Hungary sent its under-16 team to participate in the Richmond tournament. While the 2016 team lacked the offensive polish of this year’s team, several of the players made its under-18 squad which competed in the Calgary Mac’s tournament in 2017.
Hockey is booming in Hungary. Its men’s national team is ranked 19th by the International Ice Hockey Federation and its women’s team 15th. A participant in the world championships and Olympics since 1928, Hungary won the 2008 IIHF Division 1 world championship to qualify for play in the world’s elite division in 2008. Hungary’s best result at the worlds was fifth in 1937, while it has appeared in three Olympic Games.
A country of nearly 10 million people, Hungary has 5,291 registered hockey players—4,054 of them juniors or minors. Suesznek is optimistic about the future.
“Over the last 15 years (registration) has been growing and growing,” he said. “I’d say growth has averaged more than 10 per cent yearly.”
But as interest rises and player skills increase, so do expectations. Suesznek says fans were disappointed by a fifth-place finish by the national men’s team at last year’s world championships.
Honoured to be a guest coach at the Portland Winter Hawks’ Western Hockey League training camp earlier this season, Suesnzek says while Hungary’s talent pool is growing players still have a ways to go to catch up to the North Americans. It’s why he’s so bullish on their participating in tournaments such as last week’s in Richmond.
“Last year’s team had a pretty good tournament too and we think experiences like this are going to help. At home we play an Olympic-sized rink and the play isn’t just north-south but also east-west. It means more time to move the puck and to think and see your options. Plus, the game is not as physical as here.”
OVERTIME: Chilliwack outscored Saanich 5-2 to win the Midget Tier 1 Division title. Seafair Islanders lost 3-1 to Saanich in the quarter-finals, picking up six points in five tournament games…Peninsula downed Fairbanks U16 by a 4-1 score to take the Midget Tier 2 title. Richmond Blues lost 4-1 to Vancouver Minor in playoff action, finishing with a 2-3 tournament record…Delta Hockey Academy Varsity won the Bantam Tier 1 title with a 5-1 win over Juan de Fuca Grizzlies…In all, 73 teams participated in the tournament.
*Video at www.richmondsentinel.ca