BUDAPEST – Due to the lack of professional hockey at home, some of the best Lithuanian players have moved to many leagues from the NHL to Russia. 18-year-old Emilijus Krakauskas, who had his debut with the Lithuanian senior national team, found a new spot with Switzerland where he’s among the finest goal scorers of the major junior league Elite A.
The native of Kretinga made the way after years of hockey at Baltic Sea towns to mountainous Switzerland and leads EHC Biel’s U20 team in scoring with 22 goals and 31 points in 32 games, which makes him the second-best goal scorer of the Swiss junior league.
He also represented his country in two U18 and two U20 World Championship events at Division I and II level and with still one more year of junior eligibility he had his debut with the big guys at the Olympic Qualification Group H in Hungary.
“It feels great to be here, it’s the first time for me with the senior national team,” Krakauskas said. “It was tough against Hungary and Poland because they’re much stronger. They’re big guys but I like it.”
Emilijus Krakauskas and his older brother Vilius, who played together for the U18 and U20 national teams, learned to play hockey on Kretinga’s pond in the winter months. Like many players in Lithuania, their father just played hockey as a hobby but when he took the kids to the ice the love for the sport started and became the family’s dedication.
“We tried to skate and have fun and from there it started,” he said. “My father loved the sport and did everything so we can become hockey players. He even installed lights at the pond so we can stay longer in the night and he could watch us from the window.”
From the pond he went 25 kilometres away to Klaipeda, the biggest city in the region, to practise at a regular ice rink. He was coached there by former Lithuanian national team forward Jurij Merkutov, who passed away two weeks ago.
From there he did the next step north along the coast to Liepaja, Latvia.
“Every second day we drove 90 kilometres to go to practice and then I was asked to play there. I went to live there when I was 11 and stayed at my coach’s mother,” said Krakauskas, who along his way learned to speak in Lithuanian, Russian, English and German.
“Some years later I got a message from a Swiss agent and went to a camp in Davos with another player from here, Ugnius Cizas. But it was expensive for us to live in Davos,” he explained.
“One year later I went to the camp of EHC Biel. I went there and the coach told me they’ll take me. So I was there alone 1,000 kilometres away from home. It was a bit tough first but it got better every day, I had more friends, more fun. I’m there four years now and after five years of playing I will get a Swiss licence and hope to make the senior team.”
Like a handful of players from neighbouring country Latvia in Switzerland such as goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, Krakauskas aims at the status of a Swiss-licence player by playing five years of junior hockey in the country. Like that he could join a pro team without counting against the strict import quota.
“I really love it in Switzerland. It’s such a perfect country for me and I don’t want to leave it now,” he said and hopes to make EHC Biel’s team in the National League A for 2017/2018.
“To make the NLA is my main goal. The hockey and organization and everything is at such a high level. It’s my dream to make it.”
In the city famous for its watches such as the IIHF’s official timekeeper Tissot, which also gave the club’s recently opened Tissot Arena its name, Krakauskas shares an apartment with two of his teammates.
Sometimes he misses his relatives and friends from Lithuania while working on his hockey career abroad.
“My parents came to me for Christmas so we did cepelinai and all the traditional Lithuanian food,” he said with a smile.
But for now hockey is on his plate. Lithuania will conclude the tournament on Sunday against Estonia, which was also winless against the group’s two favourites. The Lithuanians aim at a win and defending their position as number-two Baltic country in ice hockey behind Latvia.
In two months the two countries will meet again at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Zagreb that also includes host Croatia, Ukraine, Great Britain and Romania.
“I hope I’ll make the team. It’d be fun. It would be a great experience for sure,” he said.