CORTINA D’AMPEZZO – In many countries, running the national ice hockey federation is a job for a retired player. His opinions are often reinforced by the jingle of medals won over the course of a long career. But in Serbia, things are slightly different.
Shortly after the team won its first-phase Olympic Qualification group in Valdemoro, Spain, last November, captain Marko Milovanovic became president of the Serbian Ice Hockey Association.
Changes followed swiftly: head coach Nikola Bera was replaced with Marko Kovacevic and Serbian hockey is looking at a new focus on youth to help it build for the future.
President Milovanovic, meanwhile, is continuing his on-ice role for one last season and looking to add to the four goals he scored in Spain when his team plays in Cortina d’Ampezzo.
“I can’t say a lot about [the presidency] right now because I’m still a player,” Milovanovic said. “But even in the last three months we’ve made a lot of changes and seen some results. Our U20s won bronze in Division IIB last month, the senior team is here in Italy and we’ve got a domestic competition that is going well this season.
“We know it will take many years to improve the level of our hockey but things are moving forwards and that is the most important thing.”
Milovanovic’s manifesto for the presidential election included a pledge to focus far more on youth hockey, especially given the problems the county has had developing teams at U18 and U20 level in recent years. That commitment to youth has had a direct impact on the party that travelled to Cortina d’Ampezzo for the second phase of Olympic Qualifying.
Incoming head coach Kovacevic is just 30 years old, making him one of the youngest coaches in the international game. Two of his charges here, Srdjan Ristic and Pavel Popravka, are older than him. As a player he was a legend of Serbian hockey and, until very recently, was on the other side of the bench as captain of the national team. He is also the country’s leading goal scorer in international hockey with 26 goals.
Kovacevic selected an even younger playing roster than before – in Spain the average age was 24, here it’s down to 23. The new faces are all in their teens: forward Mirko Djumic, from MAC Budapest, turned 17 last month. His clubmate Pavle Podunavac celebrates his 19th birthday on Monday, while fellow defenseman Ivan Anic of Crvena Zvezda Belgrade doesn’t turn 20 until the summer.
“If you look at our roster here we have a lot of under-20s players,” Milovanovic said. “These are great prospects for our country and we have a much younger team compared with the one that went to Spain.”
Another on-going debate in Serbian hockey concerns the future of the domestic league. This season Crvena Zvezda Belgrade has entered the Slovenian league and there has been talk of Partizan Belgrade linking up with Russia’s second-tier VHL. That’s a pattern seen elsewhere in the region, with Medvescak Zagreb playing in the KHL and Slovenia having a team in the Austrian EBEL.
But for Milovanovic the future lies closer to home. He wants to see the Balkan nations form a joint league.
“We need to develop a league in the Balkans, maybe with Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia,” he said. “I think that’s something all these countries need as a strong domestic league.”