Continental Cup anniversary starts with surprise
For the first time a Turkish team won a round robin tournament and gained a place in the second round. Zeytinburnu Istanbul, national champion in the last two seasons, was a class ahead of the opposition in the event, held at the Winter Palace in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.
The team from the Turkish metropolis will play its second-round tournament in Group B in Jaca, Spain, with the Nottingham Panthers (Great Britain), HK Liepaja (Latvia) and CH Jaca (Spain) from 21st to 23rd October. Group C will be played at the same time in Tychy and includes GKS Tychy (Poland), DVTK Jegesmedvek Miskolc (Hungary), Dunarea Galati (Romania) and Acroni Jesenice (Slovenia).
The team led by head coach Deniz Ince was assured of the first-place finish already on Saturday after the second day of action has finished. Zeytinburnu won its first two games against the champions of Bulgaria and Serbia, respectively 5-1 over host Irbis-Skate Sofia on Friday and 8-3 versus Partizan Belgrade the next day. When Irbis-Skate defeated HC Bat Yam 6-4, it became clear that Zeytinburnu will finish on top of the table no matter what happens in the last game against the Israeli team, which lost its first game too (5-4 vs Partizan).
“We came here to win the tournament, but honestly we didn’t expect to do it so early – after the second day,” said Deniz Ince. A year ago Zeytinburnu was leading CSKA Sofia 5-3 in the last minute of the second period in a game for the first place in Group A. In the end CSKA won 9-5 scoring five unanswered goals in the third period. Now it was the other way around. The Turkish champion was tied going into the last period in both games – 1-1 with Irbis-Skate and 3-3 with Partizan – but scored four and five goals respectively to win them.
“Last year was much more difficult for us because we had only three practice session before the start of the tournament in Belgrade. This time we came to Sofia with seven. A year ago one period cost us the first place and it was quite tough to digest it. So the players were very motivated to win this time around. They were aware that they have to play on their highest level for full 60 minutes and were confident that this can be done. Both games were won in the third period,” explained Ince after the second win.
The decisive moments in the opening game against Irbis-Skate were the two goals within a span of 74 seconds that Serkan Gumus scored to increase the lead to 4-1 with 3:39 left to play in regulation time. 23-year-old Russian Konstantin Kuchkin had two goals and assist and his compatriot, 24-year-old goalie Nikita Sandrey, had 27 saves. Kuchkin and Sandrey (also known as Sandyrev) played last season in Turkey for Erzurum and the two players hailing from Magnitogorsk have experience from the highest Russian junior league MHL.
“They came to us and said that they want to play for our team. At the same time we were able to keep the roster from last season. Only the Salt brothers (Kaan and Hakan, which were born in 1999 and 2000) went to play in USA. Our foreigners are not only good young players, but also good people. The whole atmosphere is great – the players are buying into the team game philosophy and they have a good time together on and off the ice. Our goalie played very well and the offence was quite effective,” said Ince.
Olexi Voitsekhivsky had a goal and three assists in the third period against Partizan and was 4+6 in the rout over HC Bat Yam (19-2) on the last day of the tournament. In that game the other Ukrainian on the roster, Oleg Zadoyenko, had five goals and Gumus tallied four. Zeytinburnu scored 11 of the 19 goals in uneven situations on the ice – six power-play and five shorthanded goals (one during a 3-on-5).
“We are much stronger than last year when we had only one [strong] line and this line had to play like 35 minutes a game. Now we have three good lines and the other teams just can’t skate with us. We are too fast for them,” said the Finnish forward Anton Peronmaa, captain of Zeytinburnu. “This is my third season in Turkey. I started in December 2014 and at that time there were not many imports because there was no money in the sport. We had too many easy games, but hockey is growing up and last season four teams had foreigners on their rosters. We have more games in the season; also junior hockey is developing better. Hopefully the level will keep going up and we will not have easy games in the future.”
Peronmaa applied for Turkish citizenship last season and is waiting for the decision. He hopes to play for Turkey at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B, which will be held in Auckland, New Zealand, 4-10 April. Kuchkin and Sandrey will also apply for citizenship, but Zadoyenko and Voitsekhivsky would have to wait a couple of years to become eligible because they played for Ukraine at IIHF events.
“To be the first Turkish team in the second round of the Continental Cup is a special thing. I am very lucky – I have so many firsts in Turkish hockey. This is another one and I’m very happy for my players. They really worked very hard and now they will have their place in the history of Turkish hockey,” said Deniz Ince, who was the captain of the Turkish national team in its first win at a World Championship event in 1998, the first goal scorer for the national inline hockey team and the first Turkish player to play abroad, in 1999/2000 for Levski Sofia in Bulgaria.
“Last season I was coaching the team that won the gold medal in Division III and I had eight players under 18 on the roster. That was the biggest accomplishment for the senior national team, having such a young roster and to be successful. We have a good group of young players, they really work hard and they want to develop. That’s our goal and we have been working in this direction in the last couple of years with the new administration, to develop young players. I’m really hopeful because there are so many new rinks coming in the next couple of years and that’s going to help a lot. Now we need better coaching education and we work on it too. Maybe we will bring some foreign coaches to work in our programs with the youth groups. We work very closely with Finland, their federation helped us a lot. This year for example our goalies were educated by a Finnish goalie coach.”
“When you’re playing or coaching for a young hockey country you have opportunities to put your name in history. It was a special feeling, especially to do it here in Sofia, to comeback after 16 years and to meet so many friends. We won the Turkish title with Stoian Batchvarov (now executive director of Bulgarian Ice Hockey Federation) in 1998 when we were teammates at Istanbul Paten Kulubu,” Ince said.
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