Slovenian Kristanite

A goalie’s job is simple—keep the puck out of the net. Robert Kristan, in the line of fire, has done just that.

05.05.2008
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Robert Kristan has faced more shots than anyone so far, and his play has been remarkable. Photo: IIHF/HHoF/Jukka Rautio

HALIFAX – Who would you rather have on your team—a goalie with a goals-against average of 5.00, or a goalie with a save percentage of 90.2? Of course, you’d choose the save percentage, yet oddly goalie Robert Kristan owns both the above statistics. This is thanks to his super-human play in the busy Slovenian crease and the not so stellar play of his teammates (excepting Anze Kopitar, of course).

Kristan is emerging as one of the unsung heroes of this year’s tournament, an easy-going goalie who is playing out-of-this-world (championship) hockey for his team. Although he has allowed five goals in each of his team’s 5-1 losses to Canada and the United States, he has also saved 92 of 102 shots faced. The next busiest goalie so far has been Denmark’s Peter Hirsch who has faced just 75 shots.

Kristan has come to Halifax sporting a new pair of brown pads, giving him the vintage look of an Original Six goalie like Johnny Bower or Gump Worsley. But his long hair and mask are modern, and his spectacular play has also contributed to his popularity. “I chose the pads to give people something to talk about,” he joked. “I just like the look and feel of them,” he added, more seriously. “I wear a red jersey in my league, and I thought brown pads would look good with it.”

Kristan grew up in Jesenice, Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia), where his father played professionally in the country’s league. Alexandr Kristan was also a goalie, and Robert wanted to be just like him.

“I had good coaches when I was little, so my dad didn’t have to teach me too much,” he said. “They taught me how to move and play, and after a while I learned a lot by myself.”

His hero? “Patrick Roy. I loved watching him play. That’s why I wear number 33.”

Kristan has plenty of experience in international play, starting with three years at the U20 tournament succeeded by several appearances at the World Championship. He has been to the top level three times—2003, ’05, ’06—and in the last of these he was also the team’s best player.

Professionally, Kristan has played mostly at home, but two years ago he played for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League. “They saw me play at the 2006 World Championship in Latvia and liked me, so they invited me to try out. I managed to stay the whole year.”

Of course, the SEL is many levels above the Slovenian league, and Kristan learned by leaps and bounds. “Oh, it is much better,” he said in praise of the Swedish league. “The players move faster, shoot harder. I learned a lot there.”

But he also missed home, and so, after just one year, he returned to Jesenice to continue his career. He sees no need to challenge himself by playing in Sweden or Russia or even trying the NHL. “It is the same everywhere. A goalie has to stop the puck, that’s all. But I don’t know where I’ll play next year. I’ll think about that after the tournament here.”

Scouts, managers, and coaches can consider this, though. Kristan is 25 years old, has gobs of international experience playing for a weak country, and has played better than any goalie in the tournament so far. He is sure to receive several offers from around the world.

“I feel I am ready and can play anywhere. I’m in good shape and playing well. We’ll see.” Indeed, we’ll see. Kristan’s story is far from complete.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

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