2020 Top 50 Men’s U23 Players. #3

We have now reached the top five of the list. When making the list, I had about three tiers of players divided by what I believe the player was most likely capable of. The top five are their own tier of players that I would label as the definitive players that are the future of Polish hockey. These five players have the potential to elevate Polish hockey to a new level. They’re all more than capable of being top players in Poland, or key players outside the country. Poland reaching the elite division and staying there relies a lot on these players reaching their full potential.

Players 50-41 Players 15-13 Player 9 Player 5
Players 40-31 Player 12 Player 8 Player 4
Players 30-21 Player 11 Player 7
Players 20-16 Player 10 Player 6

Rank – Player Name (Position), Age During Next Hockey Season, Team (Ranking in 2019, change in rankings

3 – Paweł Zygmunt (F), 21, HC Litvinov, (6 +3)

Making it outside of Poland is something that a very few select Polish players ever try, and even fewer succeed at it. You can’t call Zygmunt’s career outside of Poland a success after one year. But unlike a lot of Polish talent that have ventured outside their homeland, this is not a one and done season for Zygmunt. The talented young forward has already re-upped on another one-year-deal with HC Litvinov.

It was quite a busy year for Zygmunt in his first year in the Czechia. He earned a lot of praise from Jiří Šlégr, a former Czech hockey star, and HC Litvinov head coach. In total this year, he recorded four points (1-3-4) in 20 Tipsport Extraliga games, along with three points (1-2-3) in nine Chance Liga games. His season would end in February with a broken hand he suffered while representing Poland at the Olympic qualifiers.

Among U23 players, Zygmunt .20 PPG ranked 32nd, it was 11th among U21 players. His point per game comparables is actually quite an interesting list, with quite a few NHLers and NHL draft picks, like Dominik Kubalik, Dominik Simon, Karel Plasek, and Tomas Nosek. He had a total of 34 matches. A vast majority of which went on to at least play 100 Tipsport Extraliga, or a league of similar status, games. 8 played 100 games in minor leagues around Europe like the PHL or lower Czech divisions. Then the remaining 7 have played 100 plus AHL, KHL, NHL, NL, or SHL games. Overall three-fourths of Zygmunt’s comparables have been able to play a large majority of their careers in leagues stronger than Poland, which bolds very well for Zygmunt.

The big 6’3 Polish forward is only the second Polish player to re-sign with a Tipsort Extraliga team after their debut season. This draws a lot of comparisons to Aron Chmielewski, the only other Polish player to do so. When Chmielewski made the jump to the top Czechia league, he was a few years older than Zygmunt though.

stats

Like Chmielewski, Zygmunt is going to need more time to prove himself in the lower Czech leagues at first. This is just not to earn a spot, but to improve his skills and continue the adjustment to Czech hockey. It may be a couple years before Zygmunt is a full-time player in the Tipsort Extraliga, but he is on the right path.

The Krynica native is one of four Polish national team members slated to the play in the Tipsport Extraliga this year; Chmielewski, Lyszczarczyk, and Raszka the other three. He is the youngest one of them and was the youngest member of Team Poland at the Olympic qualifiers. The Olympic qualifiers were his senior IIHF debut that was unfortunately cut short when he suffered a broken hand in the first period against the Netherlands.

This injury would be the end of his year, as mentioned earlier. It was a very promising year for the big forward. Continuing to use his size to his advantage, and improving his skating will only do him wonders. He turns 21 in November and is already a lot further than most Polish players will ever be. His development will be exciting to watch, but his floor is already leaps and bounds above most players in the Polish system. While it would be great for Poland to have an NHL or KHL player, having a stream of players like Zygmunt that can make it in stronger leagues like Czechia’s top league is a sign of things to come and the first step to NHL quality players.

If you want to keep up with all the offseason news, make sure to follow us on Twitter @PolandHockey and like our Facebook page.

2020 Top 50 Men’s U23 Players. #4

We have now reached the top five of the list. When making the list, I had about three tiers of players divided by what I believe the player was most likely capable of. The top five are their own tier of players that I would label as the definitive players that are the future of Polish hockey. These five players have the potential to elevate Polish hockey to a new level. They’re all more than capable of being top players in Poland, or key players outside the country. Poland reaching the elite division and staying there relies a lot on these players reaching their full potential.

Players 50-41 Players 15-13 Player 9 Player 5
Players 40-31 Player 12 Player 8
Players 30-21 Player 11 Player 7
Players 20-16 Player 10 Player 6

Rank – Player Name (Position), Age During Next Hockey Season, Team (Ranking in 2019, change in rankings

4 – Dominik Paś (F), 21, JKH GKS Jastrzebie, (4, 0)

Paś is the most complete young forward in Polish hockey. He has a great two-way game that makes him the most crucial player going forward for Poland. Last season, he finally had his true offensive breakout year, despite him only be 20-years-old. His year was so impressive he has started to generate some interest outside Poland.

This year for JKH GKS Jastrzebie, Paś posted 39 points (17-22-39) in 52 games. This set new career highs in games played, goals, assists, and points. It was 25th overall in the PHL and sixth on Jastrzebie. The 5’10 forward was also very impressive at the Visegrad Cup, where he posted five points (3-2-5) in nine games. Eleven of his points did come against Janow or PZHL U23, which is just above the league average for his production. That would leave him with 28 points though against quality competition, which is nothing to scoff at. It also would still be a career-high.

pas goal 1

Since 1999-2000, his year was tied for sixth-most points by a U20 player, his points per game ranking 14th. That is quite the impressive season by him, giving the amount of young talent, especially recently, to put up substantial numbers in the PHL. It is the 26th best year in points by a U23 player overall. Given the strength of the PHL this year, his season is definitely something that should be putting him on the radar for teams in stronger leagues all over Europe.

 

His season comes with just three points per game comparables that performed the same, age-wise. This list includes Grzegorz Pasiut, Teddy Da Costa, and Tobiasz Bernat. Obviously, Pursuit and Da Costa went on to have great careers in Poland and outside the PHL. Pasiut, before his national team retirement, was one of the top forwards for team Poland, while Da Costa is a valuable part of the French national team. Bernat, the outlier of the two, was a solid player in the PHL, but nothing special.

The Jastrzebie native also made his senior IIHF-debut for team Poland at the Olympic qualifiers. He was the second-youngest player on team Poland, after Pawel Zygmunt. He would put up a goal and assist versus the Netherlands on day one of the tournament. He would play just above 13 minutes in the final game against Kazakhstan, being entrusted in must-win situations by Tomek Valtonen. He also finished fourth on the team in shots.

pas goal 2

Moving out from the statistics, Paś is an excellent leader and has a great two-way game. Staff and teammates that I have talked to praise those abilities of his. He is a brilliant player, and that is at both ends of the ice. He could be stronger in the faceoff circle, but that is a very minor critique.  I think Paś is a lock to be at least a middle-six forward for Poland in the future. His floor is higher than most, while his ceiling is incredibly high.

It was reported earlier this offseason that Paś was considering an offer to play in the top league of France. While the league may be a minor step up on Poland overall in my opinion, it is generally held in a higher regard. It seems that as of right now, Paś will be staying in Poland. While I may too often suggest that players should leave Poland, I think he is in an excellent place in Jastrzebie this year.

pas goal 3

He will be under the guidance of national team head coach Robert Kalaber for another year, with a chance to increase his role again in the team. The national team will be an excellent stage for Paś to show off his game while getting another year of top-line experience under his belt. Paś should definitely leave Poland for a stronger league eventually before he gets too old. There is nothing wrong with staying in Poland this year. Rub shoulders with Marek Hovorka, and get that national team spotlight. Paś is the glue for Poland’s top lines that will help evaluate them to another level.

Player 3

If you want to keep up with all the offseason news, make sure to follow us on Twitter @PolandHockey and like our Facebook page.

Wiktoria Sikorska Signs with Göteborg HC in The SDHL

Wiktoria Sikorska has made a huge career moving by signing in Sweden with Göteborg HC. Göteborg HC plays in the Svenska damhockeyligan (SDHL). The SDHL is the best women’s league in Sweden. The 17-year-old is the first Polish player to appear in the league. Kamila Wieczorek did play in Sweden’s Division 1, which is just below the SDHL.

Sikorska mostly played in the top Czechia women’s league last season. In her third year with SK Karvina, she recorded 21 points (11-10-21) in 11 games. This ranked fifth in the league overall, and the second by any under 18 player in the league. Sikorska also played five games in EWHL for Poland’s Silesia Brackens, where she posted three assists.

Sikorska also represented the Polish U18 squad at various events, including the division 1B IIHF U18 World Championships. At the Olympic Hopes tournament, she was Poland’s best player. She scored three goals, including two highlight-reel ones. At the IIHF U18s, she recorded four points (3-1-4) in 5 games. This was down from her ten points the previous year. She did post 33 shots, an average of 6.6 shots per game. Sikorska will be able to represent Poland at the U18s one more time next year, and every opponent should be scared.

If you want to keep up with all the offseason news, make sure to follow us on Twitter @PolandHockey and like our Facebook page.

2020 Top 50 Men’s U23 Players. #5

We have now reached the top five of the list. When making the list, I had about three tiers of players divided by what I believe the player was most likely capable of. The top five are their own tier of players that I would label as the definitive players that are the future of Polish hockey. These five players have the potential to elevate Polish hockey to a new level. They’re all more than capable of being top players in Poland, or key players outside the country. Poland reaching the elite division and staying there relies a lot on these players reaching their full potential.

Players 50-41 Players 15-13 Player 9
Players 40-31 Player 12 Player 8
Players 30-21 Player 11 Player 7
Players 20-16 Player 10 Player 6

Rank – Player Name (Position), Age During Next Hockey Season, Team (Ranking in 2019, change in ranking

5 – Damian Tyczyński (F), 20, Zaglebie Sosnowiec, (8, +3)

Tyczyński proved this year he has what it takes to make it in professional hockey. He returned to Poland after always being overlooked in Slovakia due to his status as an import. HK Poprad’s loss was Zaglebie Sosnowiec’s gain though.

The former KTH Krynica did not sign anywhere in the offseason and began his year playing with PZHL U23. After a handful of games with the Polish u23 squad, he would sign with Zaglebie Sosnowiec for the remainder of the season. In total, between PZHL U23 and Zaglebie Sosnowiec, he recorded 34 points (12-22-34) in 40 games. This was the most among U20 players in both points and points per game.

More impressive, it is the best season by a U20 player in the PHL since Aron Chmielewski recorded a 1.36 PPG during the 2011 season. He has three production matches in Damian Kapica, Grzegorz Pasiut, and Jarosław Dołęga. Kapica and Pasiut are national team stars that can play and succeed outside of Poland. Dołęga is the outliner of the two. He was a constant top-line player in the PHL with sporadic national team appearances. You also have to factor in how much better the PHL was this season, making his rookie year in pro hockey all the more impressive.

giphy (5)

Ten of his points did come against Janow or PZHL U23. Which is around about more than average compared to other PHL players. The 5’10 forward didn’t get much help from his team either this year, as Zaglebie Sosnowiec finished third last in the league, along with in third last in goals for. Sosnowiec didn’t qualify for the PHL playoffs, which led to Tyczyński returning to Slovakia to continue his season. He returned to HK Spisska Nova Ves, the first Slovak junior team that he played for. The team plays in the second level of Slovak hockey. There in 9 games, he would add 11 assists to his year.

Tyczyński also represented team Poland at the U20 World Championships. With the Polish U20 team, he recorded one goal and five assists in five games. This was fifth in points on team Poland.

No matter where Tyczyński goes, he produces at a high rate. He led the Slovak U20 league in scoring by six points during the 2019 season with 70 points (22-48-70) in 47 games. This was after he missed the playoffs with an injury. Despite that, he was never given a chance to play at the senior level in Slovakia. He returned to Poland this year and proved he is more than ready to tackle professional hockey.

giphy (6)

There are not many players that have a better offensive IQ than Tyczyński in all of Polish hockey. He is a real quarterback when on the attack. He is setting up plays and hitting crips and powerful passes to set his teammates up. He will never be a prolific goalscorer, but defensemen should never leave him unguarded. He is easily Poland’s most productive playmaker of the future. He has already been named a reserved for Kalaber’s upcoming national team grouping in August.

In his interview about his retirement, Polish hockey legend Damian Slabon talked about how the future of hockey in Poland. In the interview by Hokej.net, he was asked about who he saw as a big part of the future. One of the players he mentioned was Tyczynski.

Damian Tyczyński has the papers to play, a good predisposition to play in the national team for many years. I wish him to play abroad. Please God.

That is going to be crucial for the future of Tyczyński’s development. While he could improve his all-around game by staying in Poland, a player with his hockey IQ and playmaking skills needs to test his skills and make mistakes against stronger players. There is a ceiling to his potential in Poland, but that ceiling is much higher if he goes abroad.

Player #4

If you want to keep up with all the offseason news, make sure to follow us on Twitter @PolandHockey and like our Facebook page.

Hockey Heartbreak in Gdańsk. The Disappearance of Light at the End of the Tunnel.

When you look at hockey in Poland, there is one big thing that sticks out on the Polish hockey map, and that is Gdańsk. Most teams are close to the borders of Czechia and Slovakia. You go to Northern Poland, and there are just two teams, KH Torun and PKH Gdańsk. The coastal city of Gdańsk is positioned all the way on the coast on the baltic sea, the most northern club in the PHL. Their nearest rival, Torun,  is almost two hours away by car. PKH Gdańsk was pretty isolated from the rest of the league. It was a hockey family that had risen from the ashes of an extremely prominent fall. PKH Gdańsk restored hockey in the city, and now their own fall has come. Their fall at the hands of the same group that orchestrated the ashes they formed from.

Stoczniowiec Gdańsk was a prominent member of Polish hockey, as other northern clubs in Poland fell, they stayed alive into the 2000s. The team didn’t achieve great success during this time. They made it to the bronze medal game quite a few times and won bronze in 2003. They also just escaped relegation multiple times during this span. Things were not on the way up, and the 2011 season hit. The team was in financial ruins.

I remember how in 2011 Stoczniowiec’s band broke up. There were large arrears and we know that this happened thanks to President Marek Kostecki. He could come before Christmas when he hadn’t paid players for months and told them to enjoy having dinner before the match. I had a full fridge as a young boy with my parents, but older players with their own families had tears in their eyes. They could not buy gifts for their children, and they had debts and loans themselves. As I watched it, something burst inside me. What happened when Stoczniowiec fell apart is unthinkable. – Aron Chmielewski

The team did not pay their players, and according to Jan Steber, PKH Gdańsk’s captain, and former Stoczniowiec Gdańsk forward, those debts are still not paid to this day. The conductor of this orchestra of chaos was team president Marek Kostecki. His acts in the final days of the original Stoczniowiec Gdańsk would have tainted his reputation forever and had him exit the field entirely, but not in Poland. 

 I will start with the history of years ago, when before the first season in the Premier League I was at talks with president Marek Kostecki. The conversation was conducted as if he did not even know what position I was playing. He offered me a contract for 5 years for PLN 800, and the contract did not provide for the possibility of raising it in subsequent years. President Kostecki noted that he gave me the opportunity to sign the contract, just because I’m a Polish youth representative, he also mentioned that if I don’t sign this contract I won’t be able to train with the senior team. I was there with my father who, after leaving, laughed and advised me not to sign anything with this man. – Szymon Marzec

Despite winning their placement game to end the 2011 season, the team would not play in the PHL the following year. They wouldn’t play anywhere, and Gdańsk fell off the hockey map. The Stoczniowiec Gdańsk organization would play in 2013 in the Polish second league, under the name KH Gdańsk. This would be a one-season show, and the team would not return afterward.

In 2014, there was a light in the tunnel for the first time. A new Gdańsk organization was formed, PKH Gdańsk. The team would assume the Stoczniowiec Gdańsk name, but they were not at all the same organization. In their first season, they lost in the semi-finals of the Polish second league.   The following year though, they would defeat UKH Debica in four games to earn promotion to the top league.

15541008_10153912732782142_6216414418807821733_o-1024x663

Once being promoted to the premier league, the team would assume the name MH Automatyka Gdańsk. They had a long way to grow, as Stoczniowiec Gdańsk’s destruction really impacted the junior divisions in Gdańsk. In the first two seasons, they barely stayed in the top league, being saved in the relegation round twice.

People behind PKH are not motivated by financial reasons . All volunteers – to which I myself belong – support this project free of charge, often investing their own resources and time to implement the mission of popularizing ice hockey – a sport forever cursed for underfunding. – Maciej Kołek

PKH Gdańsk was a family of hockey supporters hell-bent on growing the sport in the city. They were a team facing a lot of roadblocks. The deflated junior system, high travel cost, were just some of the things the team was up against. The biggest thing building walls for them to try and smash through was Stoczniowiec Gdańsk. Stoczniowiec Gdańsk and team president Marek Kostecki charged an enormous amount for rent and didn’t give the team anything return. Almost zero maintenance was done to the arena under their watch. 

I have always said that for 6 years we even played “away” in Gdańsk. During these 6 years. Spilled water, holes in the gate, it’s only me and Adam Rozenberg know how many times we cleaned the locker room of our team and guests 2 hours before the match. The first two years we had a counting office 2 by 2 meters, between two halls, there was half a shower, there were rats, and the holes in the walls were filled with pucks, which we exchanged as they were bitten. And so it looked. Then two years we had two rooms, and the last two years just one. Me, Adam, Aneta, two trainers, equipment, sometimes CEOs came, everything was there. In addition, each time an hour before and after the match we had to spread all the ads, extension cords, dryers and promotional materials because the hall host refused to leave them in a visible place. Everyone in the hall tried to help us. But when it comes to the management board of GKS Stoczniowiec, never, never. People in the hall tried to help, selflessly, often on a “just don’t tell anyone” principle. As for the cloakroom, Adam and I bought the carpet ourselves, we made all the cabinets, hooks, names, GKS Stoczniowiec did NOT do anything. There was a movie from the 50th anniversary of Hala Olivia and what cloakroom is shown? Ours, they’re ashamed of others. The showers for this year only had one working, shared with youngsters, pathology. Nothing has changed for 20 years – exactly so many years ago I was on the slide, this season we played the first match with SMS and the same, for those 20 years, water drips from the roof into the player bags. The guys have not yet gone out for the first shift and are already soaked from this water. – Krzysztof  Mieliński. PKH Gdańsk Technical Manager

At one point, Stoczniowiec Gdańsk did not even have the strength to run the junior teams. PKH Gdańsk took control of the development system. This led to the junior championship in 2016, along with a decent junior system starting to develop in the city. Stoczniowiec Gdańsk would retake control of the junior system but had an agreement to lend young players to PKH Gdańsk.

PKH Gdańsk began to flourish with growing fan support and climbing up the PHL ladder. The 2019 year saw new highs in wins and points, and a spot in the PHL playoffs, after beating Opole in two games. This led to an exciting series with eventual champions GKS Tychy. They took the back to back champions to game seven, where they lost 2-0.

This past season the team once again posted new highs in wins and points with a 16 point improvement from the previous year. They allowed the least amount of goals in club history while scoring the most. This year would be another first-round playoff elimination, this time at the hands of Unia Oświęcim in five games. Despite the quick exit, things were looking up for the club.

Covid-19 would end the PHL season in the semi-finals. The virus continued to hit the world harder and harder. It had its effects on the economy of Poland as well, with sponsors and cities not being able to offer much. To accommodate this, the PHL decided to lower the requirements needed to play in the PHL, and a much cheaper wild card for teams that did not compete in the league the previous season.

The lower cost led to a few teams to throw their hat in the ring for a hopeful return to the PHL, including STS Sanok and KTH Krynica. The third team was Stoczniowiec Gdańsk, led again by Marek Kostecki. When I first heard the news, I honestly didn’t think they would get off the ground, but they kept advancing. Mid-June, it was announced that Stoczniowiec Gdańsk was ending its player loan agreement with PKH Gdańsk.

Stoczniowiec Gdańsk kept advancing in the licensing process, and with another enormous rent bill coming, the writing was on the wall for PKH Gdańsk. On June 26th, they announced they would not be playing in the PHL during the 2019-20 season. There was immediate sadness and outcry from fans and the Polish hockey community. In the days following, so many people released letters appealing to the city of Gdańsk to save the team. Along with criticism of Stoczniowiec Gdańsk. They have been quoted all throughout this article. I encourage you to read all the letters from players, supporters, and staff. They have all be complied here.

I don’t think PKH Gdańsk is dead entirely, and I hope to see the organization return in the future. This will only happen though with the construction of a new rink in Gdańsk or the removal of Marek Kostecki. While not everything about the team was perfect, I believe, at the professional level, they did a fantastic job of being a great sign of how good Polish hockey can be. The team finished towards the top of PHL attendance, and I have a feeling in the next decade, we will have a whole new crop of Gdańsk natives in PHL thanks to their short run.

It is my opinion that the set up of Stoczniowiec Gdańsk is both bad for hockey in Gdańsk and for Poland. Lotos PKH Gdańsk was a very competitive team that appeared very professional in their actions and transactions. Their supporters were rabid and passionate. It is the kinda team that helps lift up the reputation of Polish hockey, that is has been too easily spoiled by organizations that should have never been in the PHL in the first place. You just need to look at how many imports, have made Gdańsk their new home after playing for the club. Listening to players, staff, and supporters of Gdańsk hockey, it appears that Stoczniowiec Gdańsk is the exact opposite of them.

I wish Josef Vitek, Mateusz Rompkowski, and Michał Kieler the best in trying to lead this team, but a group of twenty junior players with a few random veterans is not going to succeed in the PHL. The league doesn’t need Janows, Opoles, or Polonia Bytoms anymore. That is the road I see the team heading down, and it is going to drag some talented players down with it. I hope that at the least, the players are treated better than the ones, who were there to witness and be apart of Stoczniowiec Gdańsk’s first unraveling.

I wanted to finish my career in Gdańsk, not in Silesia or somewhere else. In Gdańsk, but not under Mr K. Even if he paid with gold. I wanted to end up in our club with honest management, loyal sponsors and real supporters. With people who love hockey. – Jan Steber 

If you want to keep up with all the offseason news, make sure to follow us on Twitter @PolandHockey and like our Facebook page.

Poland Shifts Around Women’s Coaching Staff

In the past few weeks, we have seen the PZHL make multiple coaching changes. The Men’s senior, U20, U18, and U16 team will have new leaders behind the bench next year. With all the changes on the men’s team, it is not that surprising that some changes have been made to the women’s side as well. Ivan Bednar is out as the national team head coach but will be staying on as staff coordinator for both the senior and u18 squads. Tomasz Marznica has been named the senior team head coach, while Magdalena Jabłońska will be leading the U18 squad.

Tomas Mrazinica is a former PHL defenseman who played briefly with GKS Katowice in the mid-2000s. He has been working in coaching since 2007. Training the various youth teams for MUKS Naprzód Janów. In 2015 and 2017, he served as the head coach of Janow’s U20 team. Starting in the 2017-2018 season, he became the head coach of Naprzod Janow’s women team. He also became Ivan Bednar’s first assistant in the same season. The 38-year-old has served in that role until his recent promotion to head coach.

Magdalena Jabłońska is also a former defenseman playing in the PLHK from 2013 to 2019 with Naprzod Janow and Atomowki Tychy. The 30-year-old is the first female to assume a head coaching role with either of the women’s national teams. She is also the tenth female to hold a staff position with either of the teams. Jabłońska has served in a coaching role for both JKH GKS Jastrzębie and Naprzod Janow.

Marta Zawadzka, vice president of the PZHL, commented on the changes on the PZHL website. “We have made changes, but Ivan Bednar remains in the staff and will support Tomasz Marznica. They both worked together and know each other perfectly. We invest in our trainers and follow the footsteps of the best. In the national team of Finland and Switzerland, women’s teams were handed over to young trainers who have the support of more experienced trainers. Our team was taken over by Magdalena Jabłońska – explains Marta Zawadzka, vice president of PZHL.”

If you want to keep up with all the offseason news, make sure to follow us on Twitter @PolandHockey and like our Facebook page.

Poland Shakes Up Men’s Junior Coaching Staff

With a new head coach installed for the Men’s senior team, it is not the biggest surprise that Poland has made some changes on the junior level as well. Jarosław Morawiecki (U16 head coach) and Piotr Sarnak (U20 head coach) are out. Artur Ślusarczyk, who was in charge of the U18 squad last season, will now take over as the head coach for the Polish U20 team. Łukasz Sokół is taking over as the U18 squad leader, while Tobiasz Bigos is now at the helm of the U16 staff. These coaches will all work closely with Robert Kalaber.

The 42-year-old Artur Ślusarczyk was a long time GKS Tychy and Zaglebie Sosnowiec forward, with over 600 PHL games to his resume, along with representing Poland at eight World Championships. From 2017 to 2019, he served as the assistant coach for the Polish U18 squad and was the head coach for the 2020 season. During this time, he was also a coach with SMS PZHL Katowice and the Polish U16 team that plays in the Czech Republic. The former national team forward was also an assistant coach on Zaglebie Sosnowiec in 2016 and 2019.

38-year-old Łukasz Sokół is now at the helm of the U18 squad after a long playing career. He played in over 600 PHL games, mostly with GKS Tychy. The former defenseman represented Poland at five World Championships. Since his retirement, he has worked as an assistant coach on both the U16 and U18 men’s national team squads.

The youngest new coach is 34-year-old Tobiasz Bigos. Bigos is a former long-time JKH GKS Jastrzebie defenseman. He was named an assistant captain under Robert Kalaber from 2017 to 2019 when he retired. With 400 plus PHL games under his belt, Bigos is a new coach. He assisted the Jastrzebie youth teams, along with as an assistant on the U16 squad.

In the PHL release of the news, PZHL president Miroslaw Minkina commented,

“We have made changes, but it is an evolution, because each of the three mentioned trainers recently worked with our youth, but in different positions. The training staff has been rejuvenated and the trainers will work closely with coach Robert Kalaber. All teams have to play by a single system and thus it will be easier for young players to go to the senior staff .”

If you want to keep up with all the offseason news, make sure to follow us on Twitter @PolandHockey and like our Facebook page.

 

 

So You Want To Play Professional Hockey In Poland?

One of the most common things I get emailed about is players asking me what to expect when playing hockey in Poland, along with if I had any connections to help them get their foot in the PHL door. While I love to see the excitement of players and hope they succeed in their hockey career. I don’t believe it is my place as a journalist to help teams and players find each other. That is why I created this guide to playing hockey in Poland. As a note, a lot of this information was collected pre-COVID-19. Some things may be subject to change.

Yes Poland has hockey

I will never forget one interaction I had with a player who messaged me, saying they had an offer from Poland. After I asked them which city, they replied, confused at my question and seem to think Poland was a city in Germany…

Poland has a long hockey history. They have been members of the International Ice Hockey Federation since January of 1926. Both the men’s and women’s senior and junior national teams play in the IIHF Division 1 Group B Championships. The most significant success came in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Poland regularly competed in the Elite divisions of the IIHF being led by NHLers Mariusz Czerkawski and Krzysztof Oliwa.

The men’s national team is currently led by Slovakian head coach Robert Kalaber. The team recently advanced to the final round of Olympic qualification, after an upset win over Kazakhstan. Some current prominent players include former Minnesota fifth-round NHL draft pick Marcin Koulsz who plays in the Liiga, Aron Chmielewski who plays in the Tipsport Extraliga, PatrykWronka in the Polska Hokej Liga, and Alan Łyszczarczyk in the ECHL.

The League

Poland’s top league is the Polska Hokej Liga (PHL). The league has been in operation since 1925. In the past, the PHL has also gone under the name 1 Liga, Ekstraklasa, and Polska Liga Hokejowa. It has been referred to as the Polska Hokej Liga since 2013. In 2019 the league made a significant change to abolish a previous limit on imports. This is a strongly controversial topic, as though it raised the quality of the league. Many feel it will hurt Polish players in the long term. In 2020, the league featured 11 teams, with one team, Naprzod Janow, falling out mid-season due to financial reasons. Twelve teams have submitted applications to play in the 2020-21 PHL season. The season will be around forty plus games, with an eight-team playoff.

Only two teams will not be returning to the top league from the previous year in Naprzod Janow and Lotos PKH Gdańsk. Gdańsk was pretty much forced out by a second Gdańsk team in the PHL, SA Stoczniowiec Gdańsk.

The Teams

GKS Tychy – The premiere team of Poland. They have made it to the finals every year since 2014. In that time, they have won three championships. They also were named the champions for the 2019-20 PHL season, which was suspended due to Covid-19. GKS Tychy also will compete in the Champions Hockey League this season, which is a competition of top clubs from around Europe. The team that finishes first in Poland is guaranteed a spot in the Champions Hockey League. GKS Tychy is a top organization all-around. There is no one better in Poland.

Unia Oświęcim – They are a club on the rise, finishing second in the PHL for the time since the early 2000s. A lot of credit goes to Slovenian head coach Nik Zupancic. The team is based in the city that was the place of the Auschwitz nazi concentration camp. The Athletic.com did a great piece on what it is like playing in the city. The team itself has some of the most passionate fans in Poland, along with a great mix of imports and Polish talent. They will be playing in the Continental Cup this season A smaller Euro club tournament featuring teams from Kazakhstan, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and more. The winning club gets a spot in the Champions Hockey League.

Podhale Nowy Targ – One of the most historic clubs in Poland has had a bit of an up and down ride lately, with some rumored financial struggles. Despite that, the team is full of national team talent and remains a force in the PHL. Their success shows no signs of changing in 2020, as they continue to bring back their core, along with hiring head coach Andrei Gusov, who helped make GKS Tychy into the dominant force they are.

JKH GKS Jastrzebie – Jasztrzebie is the talent factory of Poland. No club produces more young talent than they do. Current national team head coach Robert Kalaber is at their helm. A great team that uses imports to supplement and grow their young talent. Although a Polish championship has evaded them recently, they are a considerable threat.

Cracovia Krakow – Krakow is a weird club. They are like the New England Patriots of the PHL. They can never be counted out. Every time it seems like the team is at its end. They somehow still pull off a great year. Czech coach Rudolf Rohacek has been behind the bench since 2005. He runs the team like a well-oiled machine, even if unpopular at times. Krakow is one of the largest and most exciting cities in Poland as well. This year due to Covid-19 related budget cuts, the club is looking to mix mostly their junior talents with strong imports.

KH GKS Katowice – Katowice is a top team in Poland that just hasn’t gotten the results many expected of them. They returned to the PHL in 2016 after a short hiatus. In 2019, they finished first in the league but lost in the semi-finals. They have an absolute gorgeous arena, and great behind the scenes staff. The expectations are high in Katowice, but it is a great environment.

KH Torun – There is a lot of fan support for Torun, and they finish towards the top of the PHL in attendance every year. Torun is also a pretty place. Their club has a smaller budget than most PHL teams. Belarusian head coach Yuri Chukh deserves a lot of credit for being able to find diamonds in the rough. Torun is always able to find a few players in the lower leagues of Eastern Europe that become PHL stars. They do go through imports quick though, and a lot of players are just brought in for try-outs.

Zaglebie Sosnowiec – They have been hard hit by COVID-19 and have a much smaller budget for this year. They are looking to supplement their junior talent with imports like a few teams in the PHL. The team has a lot of potential for the future, but this will definitely be a step back year for them as they regroup. For imports though, this means a lot of ice time and chances to show their skills.

Other clubs in Poland that maybe in the import market include KTH Krynica-Zdrój, ŁKH Łódź, Naprzod Janow, Polinia Bytom, SA Stoczniowiec Gdańsk, UKS Niedźwiadki MOSiR Sanok. With the exception of maybe Gdańsk and Sanok, all these team operate at a much lesser scale of all the teams listed above. We did a larger dive on hockey in the city of  Łódź here.

What the Agents Say

If you are going to play in Poland, you will most likely need to get there through an agent. At the end of the article will be a list of agents that have worked in Poland. Teams in Poland will often contact agents with the list of positions they’re looking to fill.

From my perspective, I’ve had clients in the PHL the last few years, all of them carrying EU or Polish passports. I enjoy working with teams in the league.
The PHL as a whole does not take many North American imports, as they are more expensive due to visa and travel costs typically. That is not to say they don’t want to have more North Americans in the league. But for a North American player to come to Poland they often have to take a lower salary than they would ideally prefer. The nature in which some Polish teams try to sign imports to “tryout contracts” as well makes the league a tougher sell sometimes to other comparable leagues. Polish teams expect a lot from their imports. The league has no import limit which has helped in increasing the level of the league. Most of my clients who I have sent to Poland have had fine experiences that I sign to standard player contracts. A couple have not, all whom signed “tryout contracts,” to begin with, and I avoid this at all cost unless the player wants to go for it and has no other decent options. – 83, LLC

1.liga is a good league for younger players looking to jump into men’s hockey and gain exposure to Polish hockey and PHL clubs as the PHL has no import limit, the sky is the limit for young players to earn potential opportunities! The PHL is a good league which continues to improve each season. Now with the no import rule, teams can add as many import players as they wish to strengthen their lineup and boost the level of the league! The winner gets to participate in the ChampionsHL while the runner up participates in the Continental Cup, two high level European tournaments! – 93 Hockey Services

I tell the players to be pleasantly surprised with the caliber of play. It is close to echl level. The travel isn’t as bad as some leagues which is a selling feature. (When asked about pay) Very reasonable it is on par with EIHL and DEL2 and Denmark and Norway – Darryl Wolski of 2112hockey

What the Players Say

I have talked to countless players about their experience in Poland, some players really enjoy it and want to stay for the long term. There are a lot of players that don’t even make it until the end of their contract. A very mixed bag, the biggest thing I have noticed is that players with prior European experience suffer less of a cultural shock to how European hockey runs and are more likely to stay.

Playing in Poland has been a great experience for me. I truly enjoy the lifestyle, the hockey, and the people. The hockey culture might be a little bit behind the modern countries such as Sweden, Finland and so on, but I’ve enjoyed my playing experiences way more in Poland than any other place in Europe. Great and supportive fans as well. – Nick Vilardo former Opole and Podhale Goaltender

I could write a book after one season. On ice: There was a big gap between best and weak teams but also between 1st and 4th line. Off ice: Off ice practicing is crazy. Running running running… everyone works with same weights and drills. It’s like soviet union style what they used in Finland 30 years ago. And one more thing. Everyone should learn to speak polish even little bit if you are not living in big cities. With my experience 25-50% of players can speak English. – Anonymous former PHL defensemen. Player did add he wouldn’t be against returning.

Training styles are a bit ancient at times, but the travel and pay are decent enough with nice cities. In my experience players either love or hated it. No in between. I would love to return one day. – Anonymous former PHL forward.

What the Staff Says

well I guess a lot depends on a team, our league is getting better, it was before that virus thing and right now no one knows how will it look like when whole this situation is going to end. We mostly expect from import players that they are going to be better than polish ones. – Roch Bogłowski, Manager GKS Katowice 

Imports need to make a great first impression teams won’t hesitate to cut them after a couple poor performances. You’re taking a Polish players’ spot, so you better prove you’re worth the extra money fast. Imports usually widely accepted by their teammates quickly though. Lot less travel compared to past coaching jobs. – Anonymous former PHL coach 

Agent List

Again if you want to play hockey in Poland, you will most likely need an agent. Here are some agencies that have handled and negotiated deals for players in the PHL. There are plenty more agents out there, but these are ones I have heard positives things from when talking to players and have had multiple players in Poland.

Name (Based) – Links

2112 Hockey Agency (Canada)2112hockeyagency.comTwitterElite Prospects Page

83 LLC (USA) 83llc.comTwitterFacebookElite Prospects Page

93 Hockey Services (North America) – FacebookTwitter

Hockey Progress Management (Poland) – FacebookElite Prospects Page

Import Sports Management (Canda) –  ImportSports.caFacebook │ Elite Prospects Page

 

Robert Kalaber Named Men’s National Team Head Coach

Robert Kalaber has been named the head coach of the Polish national team. Kaláber replaces Tomek Valtonen, who led the team for two seasons. The new head coach will also be consulting on the youth national team and supervising the Szkołę Mistrzostwa Sportowego (School Of Sports Champions). Kalaber is currently the head coach of JKH GKS Jastrzebie and has been since 2015. He will be combining his national team duties with coaching Jasztrezbie. He has served as the head coach of the Bulgaria Men’s national team for the past two years. He helped Bulgaria earn promotion to division two group B after being stuck in division three sine 2014.

The 50-year-old Slovak has been coaching since 2006. From 2006 to 2008, he was the head coach of HC Dukla Senica in the second tier of Slovak hockey. In his final season with the team, he led them to a fourth-place finish, which stands as one of their best seasons to date. He would take a break from coaching hockey, until replacing Dusan Gregor midseason for HK Dukla Trencin, who play in the Tipsort Liga. Kalaber would coach both the senior and U20 team for Trencin, til being recalled and replaced, by Milan Stas, in 2014. During this time, he attended Comenius University in Bratislava, where he studied hockey management.

Kalaber than came to Poland and was named the head coach for JKH GKS Jastrzebie. The team was slowly rising up the ranks of Polish hockey, coming off a bronze game win during the 2014 season. In his first year with the club, he took JKH GKS Jastrzebie to the finals, losing to GKS Tychy, who were about to begin their reign of terror. Jastrezbie has lost in the quarterfinals every year since that first finals run. Their core was aging, and the team needed a substantial injection of youth talent. Kalaber and Jastrzebie have become the model that every PHL team should strive to be. No team has the amount of strong young players that they do. Although this year resulted in another disappointing quarterfinals loss, JKH GKS Jastrzebie did capture both the Polish and Visegrad Cups. The Visegrad Cup being a significant achievement as it showed their core and young talent could beat and compete with clubs from the Chance Liga, Erste Liga, and Tipsport Liga.

There are a lot of benefits to Kalaber. He will be in Poland full-time, and that shows no signs of changing. He has been in Poland for over five years now. He has seen the turmoil that the national team and league have gone through. He better understands the problems than any other foreign coach. Not only that, but he has helped build a successful hockey team in Poland based around young talents. Something that some people would claim is impossible based on the training conditions for U20 players in Poland. Kalaber may not have the pedigree or name-value like Ted Nolan or Tomek Valtonen, but his success and time in Poland are more critical to the team right now. I give his hire an A-plus, and I’m excited to see what he and his staff can accomplish.

If you want to keep up with all the offseason news, make sure to follow us on Twitter @PolandHockey and like our Facebook page.

A Band-Aid Over A Bullet Wound. The End of the Tomek Valtonen Era

When you were a child, and you tripped and fell scraping up your knee. Your skin burned, and the scrapes started to turn red as blood filled the knicks in your skin. It could be cured by just a simple band-aid, especially if you had the Pokemon-themed ones; they were super effective. The Polish national team was bleeding and put a band-aid over the wound. This wasn’t a small cut though, it was a bullet wound.

Poland had been demoted to Division 1 Group B, and the Ted Nolan experiment was a complete failure. Ted Nolan was a high profile hire. It was kinda embarrassing how quick it went bad and failed. Poland was relegated to Group B after a 6-1 loss to Kazakhstan. Six goals against are fitting because it probably matches the number of times Ted Nolan was in Poland. Ted Nolan and Poland parted way pretty quickly after the tournament. Now, although Poland did do a formal coaching search, it seemed from the start there was only one true candidate; Tomek Valtonen.

Valtonen was the dream candidate. A young coach with Polish roots, he was going to be coaching in Poland with Podhale, he spoke Polish, and he had a background being a head coach in Finland at both the Liiga and top junior level. I don’t think there was another coach that checked off the number of boxes that Valtonen did. It looked to be off to a great start as well when Valtonen added well-decorated Finnish coach Risto Dufva as an advisor to the team.

From the coaching standpoint, it seemed everything had fallen into place for Poland, but in reality, everything was close to burning down. The financials for the team was not in a good position by any means. Then many prominent players joined together to form the Polish Ice Hockey Players Association (PIHPA). The PIHPA fought for better conditions for national team players, as they felt pay and training conditions were not adequate. Most of the players’ association would boycott the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge tournament that Poland was hosting.  Quite a few players retired from the national team overall. Then on day 1 of the competition, the ice conditions were so terrible that games had to be canceled.

Despite everything going against them, it was a success for Poland. Tomek Valtonen and his staff created a roster of players that usually may be far off the usual Polish national team radar that was able to compete with the B teams, maybe C teams, of Austria, Denmark, and Norway. Poland was even beating Denmark until the game was suspended due to the poor ice conditions. Despite everything going wrong off the ice and with the ice, Valtonen and his staff put in an excellent performance.

The Finnish head coach continued to stick up for the players as well. He applauded their efforts to unionize together and fight for the conditions they deserved. While the heads of the PZHL didn’t seem to want to negotiate with the PIHPA, Valtonen’s support and strong relationship with players seem to get a lot of them back in the fold. He was the peacekeeper that Poland needed in the situation. Valtonen himself had also criticized the conditions that Polish players play in.

In Podhale, Valtonen created a team with plenty of national team talent mixed with an influx of Finnish imports. The group seemed to be quite promising and a possible contender to win the entire league. This was the beginning of the end of the honeymoon period with Valtonen because pretty much everything after that initial sign of hope before the hockey year never showed up again.

Podhale was progressing as the same team they were the previous year with the massive influx of import signings not being that impactful. Poland would then travel to Finland to train and face off with two Metsis teams. Both of these games resulted in one-goal losses, but nothing too wrong yet. It was also a pretty valuable training experience, along with showing how much work team Poland needed.

The next couple of tournaments would just be embarrassing for Poland. They suffered shutout losses to Lithuania and Romania while getting destroyed in matches against Hungary. The games against Hungary just showing how quickly Poland’s former rivals jumped past them on the development stage. The Lithuania and Romania were especially troubled as Poland was set to face them in their bid to return to Group A.

Back in Podhale, the team did improve their record and moved in the overall standings by one place, but would lose in the bronze medal game this year. While it may have not lived up to the pre-season hype, there was still a lot to be excited about as the team showed a lot of promise. It would already be the end of the Valtonen era in Podhale though, as the team announced he would depart from the team at the end of the season. Unchecking one of the biggest boxes and reasons, he got the national team gig.

Now came the big showing of the year, Poland was once thought to be a favorite that would easily win their way back to group A, but now that was rightfully in doubt. These doubts happen further when Cracovia Krakow seemingly refused to send the equipment of a few national team players that had yet to re-sign for the following season. Valtonen claimed he reached to Krakow, but they didn’t reply, Krakow later released text messages showing they did in fact reply. In the end, the national team lost defensemen Maciej Kruczek, as his equipment never arrived. This didn’t help team Poland at all that already had a few players drop out with injuries.

The tournament itself pretty much told the story of Valtonen’s first year in Poland. The team starting off strong with great showings versus the Netherlands and Ukraine, only for everything to go drastically wrong as they lose to Romania. Then with nothing on the line, they beat Estonia and Japan in games where you could see no one on team Poland really was giving their best. Their faith was already sealed with the loss to Romania.

It seemed Poland was destined for another coaching change. Valtonen was making more enemies than friends in Poland, as he wasn’t afraid to speak publically about some of the problems he saw with the sport in Poland. Him leaving Poland was also still a sore spot, along with a very disappointing World Championship and the international year overall.

Valtonen remained the national team coach in a bit a surprise announcement. Risto Dufva was also now added to his coaching staff and would be coaching GKS Katowice during the upcoming year. Valtonen was now set to coach in Germany and brought some youth players along to train and try out for German youth teams as well. It seemed like the positives were starting to rise up again!

With Valtonen gone to Germany, it was mostly a pretty quiet year. Poland competed in one Euro Ice Hockey Challenge tournament versus Hungary, Italy, and Japan. They won against Japan and stayed competitive against the first two. Nothing big of note from the two matches. It was all quiet, too quiet.

Risto DuFva would leave Poland just a couple weeks after the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge. Leaving GKS Katowice and the national team in pretty quick fashion. It came out of nowhere,  and only worsened the relationship between Poland and their Finnish staff.

It felt like a sure thing this staff would be gone the following year, and it was just getting through the final two tournaments. There is a magical cure for it all though. That is winning. Poland went into the Olympic Qualifiers without multiple top players and only six total defensemen after players having to drop out. Then in the first period of game 1, Pawel Zygmunt would break his arm and be done for the season. They steamed rolled over the Netherlands and Ukraine, setting up a winner take all game versus Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan is a literal KHL team loaded with talented imports as well. Poland beat them in the biggest upset in Polish hockey in years. It did take John Murray making an insane amount of stops, but Poland had done what looked to be close to impossible. Poland now advanced to the final round of Olympic qualification. There seemed to be a lot of optimism in the air, and renewed excitement for the team.

Then Covid-19 hit. The World Championships were canceled, and Tomek Vatlotnen’s contract had expired. It didn’t seem like this would be the end at all though. Valtonen seemed very excited for the future and looked like he expected to be behind the bench for team Poland when they played the final round of qualifications in August. The qualifiers were once again delayed meaning Poland would have to wait till next summer.

Meanwhile though in Kazakhstan, the loss to Poland rung hard. The team fired their national team head coach Andrei Skabelka. Skabelka was also let go from his position with Barys Nur-Sultan, the Kazak KHL team. They needed a new coach and who better than the man who got the original coach fired. Tomek Valtonen was announced as a candidate for the position, along with a few other Finnish coaches. Kazakhstan’s offer would one hundred percent be better than Poland’s offer in every way.

Throughout their coaching search, it was never known how serious a candidate Valtonen was for the position, but at the moment of writing, he is not considered the favorite. With the coaching search in Kazakhstan coming to an end. Tomek Valtonen returned to Poland to meet with PZHL leadership. This meeting could have gone plenty of different ways, but at the end of the session, it was announced that Valtonen was out as the head coach of the Polish national team. The end of the Valtonen era was official.

The team was at its highest that Valtonen had taken them. It seems like an odd time to split ways, but maybe winning didn’t heal all the past drama and disputes. Hokej.net reported that they wanted a coach in Poland, along with some financial constraints, also being a problem. Tomek Valtonen is a great coach that quickly made some necessary changes to the national team. Him moving Marcin Kolusz to a full-time defenseman revitalized Kolusz’s career at a time when people were questioning if he should be included on Poland’s roster anymore. Now Risto Dufva even took Kolusz to Finland with him, signing him to a Liiga contract. Some necessary young and new blood was injected into the line-up.

Tomek Valtonen is a good coach. His players seemed to like him, and I believe he could have taken Poland to the elite division of the World Championships if given the time and support that was required. The problem is Poland’s issues are not that small. They are much larger than what Valtonen could have fixed. The PZHL is not to blame for everything during the Valtonen era, but they shoulder a large amount of it. Poland still has so much left to work on and improve. Valtonen definitely helped slow the bleeding but didn’t stop it. No single band-aid can.

On a side note. I would just like to thank Tomek Valtonen for his professionalism that he always showed myself and other Polish hockey media members. He always made himself available for questions about anything at any time.

If you want to keep up with all the offseason news, make sure to follow us on Twitter @PolandHockey and like our Facebook page.