BUDAPEST – Having made significant strides of late, Hungary's illustrious ice hockey heritage is displayed on sacred ground - with plenty more expected to come its way in the near future.
Dubbed as "the only museum you can enter with your skates on" by its founder Bela Tejfalussy, a myriad of hockey-related memorabilia dedicated to Hungarian hockey awaits the visitor at the gateway of the scenic tranquility of Budapest's City Park, adjacent to the Heroes' Square.
It was right at these premises, at the City Park skating rink overlooking the magnificent Vajdahunyad castle, that Hungary edged Great Britain 1-0 to record their first official international win on home ice on 24 January 1929. As water turns to ice, the tradition for winter sports is kept alive to this day with the City Park housing one of the world's largest artificial outdoor ice surfaces where as recently as last year games from the cross-border leagues MOL Liga and EBEL were taking place under wintry Budapest skies.
Tejfalussy, a former international referee and the brainchild behind the small museum endured five years of trials and tribulations before the permanent hockey exhibition was officially inaugurated in front of a VIP cast including the country's two IIHF Hall of Fame inductees, Gyorgy Pasztor, Honorary President of the Hungarian Ice Hockey Federation and an IIHF Life Member, and former referee Laszlo Schell being among the luminaries in a setting which played great significance for the country's rich hockey history.
I feel like a kid again when I am sitting here and looking at the photographs on the wall, says Gyorgy Raffa, a former Hungarian national team defenceman. Now in his early 70s and an inductee of the Hungarian Hall of Fame, Raffa sits in one of the museum booths where the surrounding black and white framed photos takes him a stroll down memory lane. "Many of these players on these photos played a big part in why I started with hockey," says Raffa who caught the hockey bug at the City Park as a kid where the speed of the game and electric atmosphere by the up to five figure crowds soon got him hooked.
One of the photos up on the wall depicts Bela Haray of Budapest club BKE. Captured in the prime of his youth and not a hair out of place, Haray was one of Hungary's first shining stars in a sport which initially had entered the country as bandy but very soon morphed into ice hockey. The Hungarian national team competed consecutively at the World Championships throughout the entire 1930s and a few years later with the ongoing World War II being in full throttle, the national championships were still taking place, played in separate geographic divisions including teams from present day Slovakia and Romania before the final series showdown took place at Budapest's City Park.
But with the Iron Curtain crashing down in the aftermath of World War II, hockey entered a long period in the doldrums. Former territories were once again lost and communism meant the end of the road for BKE's hockey dynasty, but their legacy lives on to this day even at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto where the team's hockey sweater is on display.
As Raffa takes a stroll inside the compact museum with its brightly coloured tangerine walls and glass cabinets full of exhibits, personal memories from a bygone hockey era come to life where the stance of the Hungarian authorities for long were to put a spanner in the works on the development of Raffa's beloved sport.
After the Second World War it became a tough time for hockey, and during communism there were three categories of sport, he says. "The top category was sports which were to be developed and encouraged. The second group was sports accepted by the authorities but which they didn't want to invest in and then there was the third category for tennis or golf which were strictly forbidden. Ice hockey belonged to that second group," says Raffa, who dedicated his senior playing career between the years 1953-71 wearing the green and white of Budapest club Ferencvaros.
On the international level, Raffa received his first call up for the national team in his late teens, coinciding with another precarious time in the country's history in the direct aftermath of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. The highs and lows in his international playing career came in short succession during the mid-1960s.
In 1964 we played the Soviet Union at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck and it became clear from the start that they were chasing an Olympic record win. They didn't quite get there, but in the end we lost that game 19-1, says Raffa. Despite suffering eight straight defeats in what was Hungary's third Olympic appearance, it was all smiles the following year at the World Championship Group B played in southwestern Finland.
Our performance in Finland is my favourite hockey memory in my career. We were ranked 12th in the world and in terms of the final ranking this has not since been beaten by any Hungarian national team, Raffa says proudly.
Raffa had called time on his active career by the time the country's first indoor rink opened in Dunaujvaros in 1974, which coincided with the ascent of the active career of Tejfalussy, as the founding father of the hockey museum started to come to the fore in his career as a referee.
In what was to become a long and esteemed career working as a game official in a total of eleven World Senior and Junior Championships, Tejfalussy was at the pinnacle of his career as the C-pool of the 1983 World Championship was held on home ice in Budapest. A favourite career memory for him which also proved to be of significance for Hungarian ice hockey as they sealed promotion thanks to a final day 4-3 win against China.
From a personal standpoint taking part in such a big event at home in 1983 was a favourite memory in my career and it was big honour for me to work together with names such as for instance Swedish referee Dag Olsson, says Tejfalussy.
For Hungarian hockey the event also became a first step for us on our upward journey as we won promotion to the B-pool, says Tejfalussy who then two decades later saw the serious push upwards start to gather momentum.
The big jump started around 2003/04. We had Canada playing here in 2004, a team from Szekesfehervar joined the EBEL in 2007 and we were led by players such as (Krisztian) Palkovics, (Balazs) Ladanyi and (Gabor) Ocskay Jr, says Tejfalussy nodding towards one of the screens inside the museum where the three aforementioned players are lining up for the Hungarian nationaly hymn in jubilant mood. The scenes are from the direct aftermath of clinching a historical landmark in Sapporo, Japan, during the spring of 2008 when Hungary clinched their return to play with the big boys after a hiatus of 70 years.
Ocskay, the talisman of that generation, tragically died of a heart attack a mere month before Hungary would play at the 2009 IIHF World Championship in Switzerland at the young age of 33. He is commemorated at the museum with a shrine as his legacy lives on as an inspirational figure for his former teammates and the next generation of players who last spring in Krakow, Poland, sealed their return to the big time to play at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Russia.
An exhibition commemorating those two milestones of 2008 and 2015 opened this winter at the hockey museum while celebrating the hockey heritage in Hungarian-speaking communities outside its borders is another project in the pipeline.
But with the current crop of players eager to break new ground and with the sport today receiving strong support from governmental level - expect plenty of more chapters in an upbeat note to be added in the near future as Hungary's hockey history rushes ahead to add to its riches.
HENRIK MANNINENThree Hungarian hockey heroes at Budapest's hockey museum (from left to right) Gyorgy Raffa, Gyorgy Pasztor and Bela Tejfalussy. Photo: HIHFBudapest's outdoor rink Varosligeti Mujegpalya where the rink is located. Photo: Martin Merk