Bulgarians develop abroad

“Czech-o-Slovak Line” leads U20 team to Division III medal


Bulgaria’s top offensive line develops in the Czech Republic and Slovakia: Ivan Hodulov, Martin Nikolov and Maksim Eftimov. Photo: Bonchuk Andonov

SOFIA – The 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division III finished Sunday with another impressive win for team China (6-1 against Mexico), which already gained a promotion to Division II Group B, while host Bulgaria completed a solid tournament by winning its last game 4-3 against Turkey.

Kristian Radovanov scored the game winner and was later announced as the best player of the game and the best defenceman in the tournament.

Bulgaria had one of its best showing in the new millennium with the U20 national team, thanks to a group of young men who were able to bring a silver medal home to their native country after moving to the Czech Republic and Slovakia to help realize their dreams of becoming professional hockey players.

As in the previous outings Bulgaria was led by the line of Maksim Eftimov,  Ivan Hodulov, and Martin Nikolov, players who left Bulgaria to develop abroad. Hodulov (SHK 37 Piestany) is improving his skills in Slovakia, Eftimov (BK Mlada Boleslav) and Nikolov (HC Melnik) are doing so in the Czech Republic as are two of their teammates – Bogdan Ivanov (HC Benatky nad Jizerou) and Alexandar Vasilev (HC Melnik).

Hodulov, the team’s best forward, was responsible for the first two goals against Turkey, assisted on the next two and finished the tournament as the scoring leader (10 points) and the top goal scorer (7).

Bulgaria had its best showing in an IIHF U20 World Championship, with regards to tournament placement (second) and number of victories (four) since 1988, when the team was third behind Denmark and Italy in the C-pool and won against Great Britain, Spain, Hungary, Belgium and DPR Korea.

In 1983-84 Bulgaria was second and in 1985 even won promotion to the B-pool (ahead of Hungary and Denmark) to be ranked an all-time best 16th overall in the program in 1986. But in the last ten tournaments the Bulgarian juniors had only won four games. Now, after a strong showing at the Ice Palace in Sofia, Bulgaria will be ranked 36th overall in the U20 program, its best placement since 2003.

With every game the enthusiasm and the attendance got bigger – from 1,115 fans for the first game to 2,100 for Bulgaria’s pivotal game against China. The main target for fans and cameras was the “Czech-o-Slovak line”, which produced the most fireworks on the ice. In the first game against Mexico (3-1), Hodulov tied the score just two minutes after Bulgaria allowed the first goal. Then he capitalized on a penalty shot in the third period and later Nikolov assisted on the last goal by Talev. The first line had 14 from the 23 shots on goal. Talev had two important tallies from long range against New Zealand (6-0) and Hodulov finished 3+1.

In the end Talev (4+2) and Eftimov (2+4) were tied for second in team scoring followed by Martin Nikolov (0+5). Nikolov (63.64%) and Hodulov (56.41%) finished first and second overall respectively in percentage of face-offs won.

“Hockey is a team game and three or five players can’t decide everything. We have some very tough local players that are doing the dirty job. It is not coincidence that Radovanov was picked as the best defenceman,” coach Milanov said after the last game before praising his top line.

“The first-line players have been in the Czech Republic and Slovakia for three, four years. They improved very much there, especially Hodulov in the last year, but still they were developed as hockey players in Bulgaria. The best thing for these guys is that they think and breathe hockey all the time and here it’s quite the opposite. It’s very hard to motivate 19-20 year old players to be professional in every aspect in a sport that has amateur status in Bulgaria. The locals and the ‘foreigners’ simply have a different lifestyle and I was able to galvanize them. They played as a team.”

Bulgaria’s Maksim Eftimov and Turkey’s Doruk Kamis battle for the puck in the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division III. Photo: Bonchuk Andonov

Martin Nikolov, the captain of team, has the most experience abroad as this is his fourth season in the Czech Republic. How did it all start?

“Four years ago there was a two-week training camp in Sofia, led by a Czech coach. There were kids from different age groups and he told me and four other players aged 14-15 years that we can go to the Czech Republic to train there, but without playing games in the first year. We were able to earn our places in the middle of the first season and we continued to progress further,” explained Nikolov, who played three seasons for HC Benatky nad Jizerou in Czech U16 and U18 leagues.

This season he was transferred to HC Melnik, which plays in the second-tier U20 league, but due to health problems he missed two months of training. The same route (Benatky-Melnik) was taken by Alexandar Vasilev. Eftimov is a year younger (born 1995) and after two seasons in Benatky he signed a two-year contract with BK Mlada Boleslav in the top Czech U18 league where he already played 11 games despite missing more than a month with a separated shoulder and fractured collarbone.

Bogdan Ivanov (born 1996) is still in Benatky’s U18 team for his third season. He and Eftimov are both eligible to represent Bulgaria in the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group A in March.

Last year Martin Nikolov made his debut with the men’s national team and expects to be invited again, maybe this time teaming with his line mates from the U20 team, Hodulov and Eftimov.

“It’s not an easy life. We’re in foreign country, away from our families and friends, but we chose this way because we hope and dream of becoming professional ice hockey players. We don’t have much free time and when we have, it’s usually used for rest and sleep,” said Hodulov. “We are based 400 kilometres from each other, so often we have conference calls on Skype.”

Sometimes they even talk Czech or Slovak on the ice when donning the Bulgarian jersey. Hodulov is a regular student in a high school in Piestany. He impressed the local team’s coaches in tryouts in 2010. Last season he was fourth in scoring (13+26 in 33 games) on the U18 team that earned promotion to the top league. Now he is on the U20 team that plays in the second tier where Piestany is in 5th place.

Nikolov and Eftimov have individual educational programs in Bulgaria and are coming home to take exams in the end of the school year. But every one from the trio has a target for the next years. Nikolov eyes a scholarship at a university with an NCAA ice hockey program, Hodulov is aiming for Finland or Sweden and Eftimov is thinking about Canada.

Asked who his favorite player is, Eftimov said Patrick Kane. Nikolov is all over him, because he “stole” his idol. “For me Pavel Datsyuk is the best one, but I will try to be better,” Hodulov replied, surprising everybody around with his serious face.

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