The Covid-19 pandemic was at one point thought to potentially have the power to kill off the PHL. Instead we are now having a arms race the league has never seen. So many teams are adding talented and well-kwon players to their ranks. That trend has continued as current champion GKS Tychy added former NHL forward Paul Szczechura and ECHL forward Alex Tonge.
Paul Szczechura is well known to Polish fans by being the brother of GKS Tychy forward Alex Szczechura. Alex, the younger brother, has played in the PHL since 2016. Paul, 35, during that time was playing in the top hockey leagues around the world. The Brantford Ontario native took the college hockey root playing for Western Michigan. After a standout career at Western, where he was the assistant caption in his final year. He would sign in the AHL with the Iowa Stars as an undrafted free agent. From 2007 to 2012, he played in three NHL organizations mostly for their AHL squads. He signed his first NHL deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008. He did play in 92 NHL games recording ten goals and assists for the Buffalo Sabres and Lightning. He owns a .71 PPG in 271 AHL games.
The 5’11 center has played in the KHL since the 2012-13 season, most recently with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. He appeared in five different clubs and four different countries during his KHL time. In 395 regular season games, he has 244 points (100G-144A-244PTS). The fourth most points by a Canadian skater in KHL history. He was named a KHL all-star during the 2018 season.
Alex Tonge joins GKS Tychy as well after playing in the ECHL. Tonge was an all-star in the OJHL during his junior career. The Canadian forward went the American academic route playing for Robert Morris University. In four years and 146 NCAA games, Tonge recorded 56 goals and 82 assists. Following his college career, he went pro in the ECHL bouncing around between three clubs, but posting strong offensive production for each. In 52 ECHL games, he owns a .71 PPG.
Unia Oswiecim continues their string of big moves under new head coach Kevin Constantine. This time it is former 6th overall pick Gilbert Brulé. The 34-year-old Brulé is a physical forward with 299 NHL games, along with 278 KHL games. He joins ECHL top scorer Brett McKenzie and former NHL defensemen Victor Bartley in recent big moves by the club.
Brulé was drafted 6th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2005 NHL entry draft, after a successful junior career with the Vancouver Giants. He made his NHL debut during the 2006 season playing in seven games recording two goals and two assists. After a few years in Columbus, he was traded to Edmonton for Raffi Torres during the 2008 offseason. Struggling with consistency he found himself scratched, injured, or playing in the minors a lot during his time in Edmonton. After a strong start to the 2012 AHL year, he earned a call up to the Oilers. He had to pass through waivers first, which is when the Arizona Coyotes placed a claim. He played the rest of the year in Arizona, along with getting his only NHL post-season action during the Coyotes’ playoff run. The following year, he signed in Switzerland during the lockout. He would request to terminate his contact though after just 14 games with the ZSC Lions. The Edmonton native would return to the Coyotes for the 2014 season, but would retire from professional hockey on January 1st, 2014.
This retirement would not hold as Brulé signed in the Kontinental Hockey League for the 2015 season. He would play the next six seasons in the KHL with six different clubs, most recently with Kunlun Red Star. In 2018, he was named to the Canadian Olympic team that took bronze at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Now in 2020, he signed in Poland with former Kunlun Red Star teammate Victor Bartley.
The expectations were high for Unia Oswiecim after their second place finish in 2020. Injuries and few disappointments among imports led to the team struggling from the start. Things reached a peak when head coach Nik Zupancic resigned from the team after an altercation with an official. The team hired former NHL head coach Kevin Constantine in his place. It appears they are making a quick turn around as well, as the team has made it to the finals of the Polish Cup vs. JKH GKS Jastrzebie.
Alan Łyszczarczyk will be returning to the USA, and back to playing the in the ECHL. The top Polish forward started the year playing in Poland for Podhale Nowy Targ. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the ECHL to delay their season til late 2020. Before the season, Łyszczarczyk’s rights were traded to the Idaho Steelheads by the Fort Wayne Komets. The Steelheads though forfeited his rights, once it was announced they won’t be apart of the of the first ECHL start date. In his lone PHL season, he recorded 10 goals and 10 assists in 23 games. He would often play in the bottom forward lines for Podhale, as the team prepared for a future without him. That future has come as the team announced that Łyszczarczyk was returning to the USA.
Hokej.net is now reporting that his return is to be with the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL. It is an interesting move as the Solar Bears is the ECHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that has taken their development in the minor leagues very seriously. The previous year, Alan played with the Fort Wayne Komets putting up 19 goals and 27 assists in 57 games. One of the best seasons among ECHL rookies. Recently some his teammates from that Fort Wayne team signed in Poland. Former Canucks draft pick Brett McKenzie, who played on a line with Łyszczarczyk, signed in Unia Oswiecim, while defensemen Taylor Doherty signed in Krakow.
The Orlando Solar Bears are off to a good start with four wins in their first five games. The team finished fifth in the ECHL last year, but the playoffs were cancelled due to COVID. The team’s head coach and GM is Drake Berehowsky. Berehowsky is a former long time NHL player with over 500 NHL games to his resume. He also has a connection with Łyszczarczyk, as Berehowsky was an associate coach with the Sudbury Wolves from 2015 to 2017, the same years that Alan played for the OHL club.
Former NHL forward Wojtek Wolski has announced he is retiring from professional hockey. The 34-year-old was born in Zabrze, Poland, but his family moved abroad when he was two. He was a standout in junior hockey, leading to a successful OHL career. In the 2004 NHL draft, the Colorado Avalanche drafted him with the 24th overall pick.
At the end of his OHL season in 2006, he immediately jumped to the NHL with the Avalanche. The 6’3 winger started his career off blazing, posting above 40 points in his first four seasons. The Avalanche would trade him to the Coyotes 2010, for Kevin Porter and Peter Mueller. Despite a point-per-game start with the Yotes, concussions would start to derail his NHL career. After disappointing production, Wolski found himself traded to the Rangers, for Michal Rozsival. The Rangers chose not to re-sign him, and then later signed for the minimum with the Capitals in free agency. During the 2012 lockout, Wolski signed with KH Sanok scoring three goals and seven assists in nine games. He returned to the Capitals after the lockout ended. In total, he put up 107 goals and 177 assists in 480 NHL games, making him one of the most accomplished NHL players to appear in Poland.
He would spend the next six and a half years in the KHL. His KHL career almost matching his NHL career in length. This includes being out eight months after suffering a broken neck during a KHL game. Wolski would battle back and represent Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Halfway through the 2020 season, he would sign with HC Ocelari Trinec in Czechia, where he teamed up with Polish national team star Aron Chmielewski. The 34-year-old winger did not sign anywhere for the 2021 season. For most of the season, Wolski was on the Canadian figure skating competition show Battle of the Blades, which he would win! Following the show, Wolski continued to talk to clubs, but decided to announce his retirement on December 15th via the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast.
Unia Oswiecim had championships goals that they wanted to reach this year, after not getting a chance to win a championship last year, due to COVID. The team that was awarded the silver medal went out and made some big offseason moves like acquiring forward Eliezer Sherbatov. The team did not get off to the hottest start and after an incident with a official, Nik Zupancic was let go. Despite that setback, Oswiecim made it clear the goal was still to win a championship, as they hired former long-time NHL head coach Kevin Constantine. Now we have the first addition of the Constatine era as the team signed ECHL forward Brett McKenzie.
The Canadian forward was standout in the Ontario Hockey League, eventually being drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in seventh round of the 2016 NHL draft. The Ontario native played for the North Bay Battalion most of his junior career till a trade to the Owen Sound Attack mid-way through his final OHL year. With the Attack he played on a line with Polish forward Alan Lyszczarczyk. The two ended up being the top line throughout the end of the regular season and playoffs. In total he recorded 224 points (101G-123A-224PTS) in 328 OHL games.
McKenzie would start his professional career the following season in 2019, when he signed with the Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League. He would only play 5 games in the AHL spending a majority of his time with the team’s ECHL affiliate the Atlanta Gladiators. With the Gladiators, he would post 16 goals and 29 assists in 62 games for his ECHL rookie year. The 6’2 forward would sign with the Fort Wayne Komets for the 2020 season, there he reunited with Alan Lyszczarczyk, the two often playing on a line once again. In 56 games, he recorded 23 goals and 37 assists for 60 points. He also earned one call up to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, where he played one game. Brett McKenzie originally had re-signed in the ECHL with Fort Wayne for the 2021 season.
Unia Oswiecim currently sits fourth in the PHL with 41 points. The team is out of first place by 16 points, where JKH GKS Jastrzębie’s 57 points are at the top. The team is coming off a big 1-0 win over fifth place GKS Katowice. The team recently released Finnish players Jere Helenius and Lassi Raitanen, while giving Canadian defender Ryan Glenn another chance.
Sports are an escape from reality at times, but things like the COVID-19 pandemic can be impossible to ignore. COVID-19 has caused a lot of leagues to be continually delayed or even outright canceled. For women’s hockey, that risk is even greater. Women’s clubs don’t receive the same funding as their male counterparts. Things were looking bleak with funding already being at risk as well as the increased cost of things like COVID testing. The IIHF was quick to cancel pretty much all women’s tournaments while still fighting to hold their select few high revenue events. If there was anything that was going to slow down the revolution of women’s hockey in Poland, it was going to be COVID. That has not happened at all.
The Polish women’s league retained all of their teams, with only PTH Kozice Poznań dropping down to PLHK B. Not only that, but Metropolis Katowice, formerly the Silesia Brackens, are still playing in the EWHL. The EWHL gives national team members chances to play against some top European clubs. The biggest thing is the young core of Poland continuing to play abroad in top leagues around Europe. Wiktoria Sikorska made the jump to the top women’s league in Europe in the Svenska damhockeyligan. While Julia Zielińska returned to Finland, Iga Schramm made her first attempt at a league outside Poland. Multiple young Polish players have also popped up in Slovakia, but the league has yet to play many games.
Wiktoria Sikorska has long been the #1 prospect in Poland. She is easily the best young forward Poland has seen since Kamila Wieczorek. Even then, Sikorska reached a height that Wieczorek has yet to, as Sikorska is the first-ever Polish player to appear in Sweden’s Svenska damhockeyligan. The Svenska damhockeyligan is considered to be the top women’s league in Europe.
Through 18 games this year, the 17-year-old forward has a goal and assist with Göteborg HC. While the numbers are not as eye-popping as we are used to with her, they are very impressive in context. Göteborg HC is the worst team in the SDHL. They are currently 0-18-2, with only 20 goals on the year. The team’s leading scorer has seven points, so not a lot of support for Sikorksa. Her two points also rank 9th among U18 skaters. Only 25 other U18 players have played five games in the SDHL this year, so getting there is not an easy accomplishment. She currently is tied for the lead in shots on goals for the team with 44.
Julia Zielińska had already made a statement in Finland last year with an impressive season at just 15 years old. I usually have a rule of avoiding talking about players who are under 16, but Zielińska is one of the few exceptions to the rule, as she is impossible to ignore. The soon to be 16-years-old returned to Kiekko-Espoo for 2020-21.
Since her return to Finland, she has been one of the best two-way defensemen in the country. This included a recent four-goal game! She has splint her season between Kiekko-Espoo’s team in the Naisten Liiga and Mestis. In the Metsis, she has 17 points (8G-9A-17PTS) in 12 games. Her point total ranks 28th in the league and sixth among all U18 players in the league. It is also sixth among all defensemen and second among all U18 defensemen. This is excellent production for her. In the Naisten Liiga, she has managed two games, her first two regular-season games with Kiekko-Espoo. While Sikorksa has a few other forwards, who rival her success, no other polish defensemen rivals the heights that Zielińska has reached.
Iga Schramm is the last of the young polish core making a trip far from Poland this year. Schramm signed pretty close to the start of the season with Neuchâtel Hockey Academy Dames. The team plays in the top Swiss women’s league, the SWHL A. The 18-year-old forward has played 12 games so far with zero points yet. The team currently sits second-last in the league with 25 goals in 14 games, not the strongest team around her. Playing in a league of this caliber is extremely valuable for Schramm, though, who has shown extensive growth almost every year.
These three players are not the only ones who are taking on the challenge outside of Poland. Martyna Sass and Zuzanna Baran are both in the top Slovak league. At the same time, I have also recently talked to a young player’s parent, whose child will be looking to make the jump. Players inside Poland are also both making huge strides, whether in the EWHL or PLHK. The pandemic might have slowed their ascent up the IIHF rankings, but it has not slowed down the progress of women’s hockey in Poland.
We are now coming into the most recent seasons of Polska Hokej Liga action. Many players who were part of those late 90s or early 2000s draft classes were in their final years playing in smaller leagues. Poland saw a substantial influx of those players, who became valuable veterans for their squads. These players helped the growth that Polish hockey has seen in recent years. The import rule was abolished during this time, which also really helped the development of Polish hockey. Having these talented players come to Poland and raise the quality of play will only result in a better product for the fans, whom the younger ones make take up hockey one day. While this year, due to COVID-19, there are no fans in the stands, the previous years saw attendance increases.
Bryan Pitton was another successful North American goalie in Poland, which has been a recent trend. The Brampton Ontario native played for the Brampton Battalion in the OHL, where the Edmonton Oilers drafted him in the fifth round of the 2006 NHL draft. In 2008, he would start his professional career after signing an entry league deal with the Oilers. He would mostly start for their ECHL team, the Stockton Thunder, while also appearing for the Oklahoma City Barons and Springfield Thunder in the American Hockey League. He earned a few NHL callups where he served as a backup. Back up duties and pre-season games were his only NHL appearances.
Pitton would then head over to Europe after his entry league deal. He signed with the Fire Flyers in England. He would return to the North American pro scene in the Central Hockey League the following year with a standout performance for the Allen Americans. He helped the team claim a championship as the starting goalie. Following the CHL’s demise in 2014, he signed in Poland with KH Sanok posting one of the best saves percentages of the decade. After one year in Poland, he would return to Brampton, playing a few games for the Brampton Beast in the ECHL when needed until he retired in 2018.
Finnish players have continued to become more common in the PHL, especially after the influx of Finnish coaches bringing in Mestis players. Toni Dahlman is one of the few former Liiga players to play in the PHL. Dahlman was apart of the Finnish team that won their second world juniors gold in 1998. The Helinski native developed in the Jokerit system before moving to Ilves to play in the Liiga full time. In his lone season, he led rookies in points with 28 and was named the Liiga rookie of the year. The Ottawa Senators drafted him in the 9th round of the 2001 NHL draft. The 5’11 right winger signed a two-year deal with the Senators. He mainly played with the Grand Rapid Griffins, their AHL affiliate. He would play 22 games with the Senators recording a goal and an assist.
He returned to Ilves after his deal with the Senators was up. He would play in the Liiga until 2010, except for a season with Mora IK in the SHL. Dahlman would then make a few stops around Europe in the DEL, EBEL, Kazakhstan, and the VHL. Shortly after the PHL season started in 2016, he signed with KH Sanok. He recorded four goals and thirteen assists in twenty-two games. He would leave Sanok in February and sign in the EIHL with the Braehead Clan. He retired after the 2016 season.
Another player to join Sanok after the 2016 season got underway was Jason Missiaen. Missiaen stands at 6’8, making his size his strongest attribute. The Ontario native was in between the posts for the Peterborough Petes. His OHL success would see him drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL draft. He would not sign with the Canadiens, and eventually move away from the Petes as well, switching to the QMJHL with Baie-Comeau Drakkar. After his final junior season, he would sign an entry league deal with the New York Rangers. Missiaen would prove to be a great ECHL goalie but struggled when called up to the AHL. He still was able to earn a few call ups to the NHL, backing up Henrik Lundqvist in a couple of games for the Rangers.
The Rangers signed him to a one-year extension, but with no progress in the AHL and a down year in the ECHL. He was not re-signed in the offseason. The towering goalie would join Sanok in October of 2015. He would play in 29 games for Sanok, recording a .913 SV%. He would leave Sanok after one year and join the French team Chamonix-Morzine. He retired after one year in France and currently works as a goaltending coach.
Jaroslav Kristek was a standout in the Czech Republic during the late 90s. After a strong rookie year in the Tipsport Extraliga and U18 appearance, he was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the second round of the 1998 NHL draft. He would move over to North America the next year to play for the Tri-City Americans in the WHL. In 2000, he would help the Czech Republic win gold at the World Juniors. The same year, he signed his entry deal with the Sabres and reported to the Rochester Americans in the AHL. In 2003, Kristek would make his NHL debut playing six NHL games. He would return to the Tipsport Extraliga the following year, playing in Czechia until 2010. Picking up a Tipsort Extraliga championship in 2009.
Following a departure from Czechia, he would appear in the KHL, among other leagues. He would win two championships and a Continental Cup in Belarus while also picking up a Tipsport Liga Championship. The Zlin native would sign with GKS Tychy for the 2017 season. While helping Tychy to a Polish Cup and Silver medal season, he recorded 34 points in 43 games. Kristek would spend the next three seasons in the lower French leagues before retiring.
Kalus is one of the rare players on this list to make NHL appearances for multiple NHL squads. The Czech power forward was drafted by the Boston Bruins in the second round of the 2005 NHL draft. At 18, he would move over to the WHL with the Regina Pats. That lone season was enough for the Bruins, who signed him to his entry deal and sent him to the AHL. In his rookie AHL year, he earned a call up to the Boston Bruins. In his first NHL appearances, he recorded four goals and an assist in nine games. During the 2007 offseason, he was traded to the Minnesota Wild, with a 2009 fourth-round pick (Alexander Fallstrom), for goaltender Manny Fernandez. After one year with the Wild’s AHL affiliate, he would sign in the KHL with HK MVD for the 2009 season. He returned to the Wild in 2010, mainly playing for their AHL team, but appeared in two games with the Wild. Still playing in the AHL, Kalus would be traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for future considerations in 2011. He never appeared for the Jacktes, but did play eight games for the Springfield Falcons in the AHL.
The Ostrava native returned to Europe the following year. In his first season, he appeared in both the SHL and Tipsport Extraliga. He would become a journeyman soon after switching teams frequently. From 2012 to 2017, he appeared in Czechia, Denmark, England, France, Italy, Slovakia, and Sweden. To end the 2017 season, Kalus joined Krakow in Poland. Kalus would help Cracovia Krakow capture the PHL championship. After a successful end to the regular season and playoffs, Kalus would return to Krakow for another year. The first time he had played for the same team two seasons in a row with no stops in between since he was in the AHL. He would retire after his second year with Krakow. In total, he recorded 26 goals and 32 assists in 75 PHL games. He currently works as a hockey agent.
In the 2000s, Polish hockey started to go on a downswing. Many national team players that proved their worth with strong performances outside of Poland were beginning to retire. Poland still had NHL talents like Mariusz Czerkawski and Krzysztof Oliwa, but club duties saw their national team appearances few and far between. More and more talent now stayed in Poland. This trend would continue into the mid-2000s, and the talent well was starting to get dry. The lone bright spot in the prospect group was Marcin Kolusz.
The small town of Limanowa was devastated by World War two, with a large part of the population killed by Nazi forces. Since then the population of the town has stayed small with 15,000 residents. The city would be excused for not having a strong athletic background. The local soccer team plays in Poland’s third-tier league. While they have had a strong presence in the skiing world, thanks to their mountainside location. 2018 Olympic bronze medalist Maciej Kot is one of the national team skiers to come out of the town. An ice rink just ten kilometers away in the small village of Tymbark always left the ice hockey option open.
Only two players show up in the EliteProspects database as coming from Limanowa; Bartłomiej Gaj and Marcin Kolusz. Gaj just being one year younger than Kolusz. Both would make the move to Nowy Targ to play for Podhale Nowy Targ, over an hour away from Limanowa, at the same time.
Kolusz immediately made an impact making his senior debut for Podhale in the second division at just 15-years-old. His debut made him the youngest rookie at the time in club history. The following year, he would make his Polska Hokej Liga debut while also playing for the Polish U18 squad. He would continue to earn a larger role with Podhale. 2003 was his real breakout year, where he played for both the U18 and U20 squads, while playing in the PHL full time. This put scouts on notice, including ones who don’t usually give Polish prospects the time of day.
The 2003 NHL entry draft is underway. The first overall pick belongs to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who take franchise goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Other selections include Dustin Brown, Eric Staal, Patrice Bergeron, and Marcin Kolusz. The Minnesota Wild took a chance on Kolusz 137th overall in the fifth round of the draft. John Mitchell, who went on to play over 500 NHL games, was selected by Toronto the pick after him. It was heavily rumored the Edmonton Oilers were interested in Kolusz at the time, but they took American forward David Rohlfs just a few picks earlier. From Hockey Futures, they wrote about the selection at the time.
“Raised in a country that gets little hockey exposure, Kolusz hired the agent that brought Dominik Hasek to the NHL. He prides himself on hard work and good hockey sense. Wild scouts agreed, and have said he possesses good size very good skating ability. They liked him so much that they tried to move up in the draft to get him. Although unable to move up, the Wild were still able to select him at the 157th spot.”
Kolusz was already on his way over to North America after being selected by the Vancouver Giants in the Canadian Hockey League import draft. He was the first-ever Polish player selected in the CHL import draft. Playing in the Western Hockey League (WHL) was the chance that Kolusz needed. He had his foot in the door, and a strong performance in the WHL would net him an entry league deal. A deal that would likely see him play in the North American minor system or even the NHL.
His run in the WHL was not a success. In 68 games with the Giants, the young Polish forward recorded six-goal and twelve assists. He would add one more goal in six playoff games. The Giants’ year was disappointing considering some of their talents, with five players being future NHL players. The team would swap out both of their imports for the following year bringing in Czech goalie Marek Schwarz and future NHL defenseman Andrej Meszároš. The Giants released Marcin Kolusz to help make room for the new imports.
There were no takers for Kolusz in North America, so he returned to Poland and Podhale Nowy Targ at 19-years-old. After one season back in Nowy Tag, he left once again, signing in the Czech Republic with HC Ocelari Trinec. The first year he spent more time in the Chance Liga, only playing a handful of games in the Tipsport Extraliga. He would spend the next two years with HC Ocelari Trinec full time in the top league but never impacted the score sheet. His total production was six goals and two assists in 86 regular-season games. The 2008 season was the end of his run in the Czech Republic. After Kolusz’s three-year tenure in Czechia, it put his hockey potential in question.
Five years after being drafted, Kolusz was getting another chance in the much weaker Slovakian Tipsport Liga. The 6’1 center joined HK SKP Poprad in 2009 with the hope of jump-starting his professional career. While he produced better results, he only scored one goal and recorded thirteen assists in fifty-three games. Tenth in points among all forwards on the squad. Poprad had a poor season and would just be saved from relegation.
In 2009, Kolusz would return to Poland after just one year in Slovakia. Now back in Nowy Targ, Kolusz was back to producing around a point per game season. Both his career and the league were on a downfall. He established himself as one of the top forwards in Poland. From 2009 to 2015, only three players had more points than Kolusz. He also picked up three PHL championships and two Polish Cups with GKS Tychy, KH Sanok, and Podhale Nowy Targ.
He was not only a top player in the PHL but for the Polish national team as well. Kolusz has been a national team star since his time with the Vancouver Giants in the WHL. During the span, only Leszek Laszkiewicz had more games and points than Kolusz. He represented Poland at ten total world champions, four of which he served as team captain, two of them he served as an alternate. While he may not have lived up to the potential that was once thought of, he was no doubt one of the Polish players of the decade. Top players in Poland no longer played in the top leagues around Europe. They were mostly contained in Poland, with a few in lower clubs around Europe.
Starting in 2016, Kolusz would begin to decline. His PHL season with Tychy was great, but his World Championship run was only two assists. His lowest output at the tournament since 2009, and the only time he didn’t put up a point per game numbers since then. The following season, he would record his worst PHL production since U20 years in the PHL and go pointless at both the World Championships and Olympic qualifiers. He would only record two goals in 15 other international games as well. This lead to plenty of people questioning his position on the national team. One person I talked to at the time referred to it as just paying for him to take a vacation. Kolusz would return to Podhale Nowy Targ after four years with GKS Tychy. Being back in Podhale didn’t change everything, but his production was better than the year before.
The national team itself was going through a more considerable turmoil at the time. Ted Nolan did not work at all, and the team was relegated to division 1 group B. Enter Tomek Valtonen. Valtonen has his own controversial legacy in regards to the national team and the PHL. While coaching Podhale Nowy Targ, Valtonen saw the potential that Kolusz has, especially his skating ability. The Finnish head coach made one significant change for Kolusz, as he switched the long time forward to defensemen. This switch wasn’t the first time he had played the position, but he had to do it full time for the first time. It was the spark that Kolusz badly needed. Despite battling injuries at the time, it was one of his best seasons to date, and he recorded six assists at the World Championship and ten assists in seven national team games.
In 2020 GKS Katowice load up on big name talent in offseason. This included Kolusz and well-regarded Finnish head coach Risto Dufva. The Finnish coach would leave halfway through the year, and the PHL season was eventually canceled due to COVID-19. It was another successful year for the new offensive defenseman though, as he helped Poland advance in the Olympic qualification.
While Dufva may have left Poland mid-season, it did not stop Marcin Kolusz from making a strong impression. Such a strong impression that Dufva brought Kolusz to Finland with him. Now at 35-years-old, Kolusz was receiving the most considerable chance of his hockey career as he signed a one-year deal with an option for another year with Vaasan Sport, who play in Finland’s top league the Liiga. It does include a two-month tryout to start. The most prominent level that a Polish player has played in recently, maybe only comparable to Alan Lyscarcyk playing in the ECHL and Ontario Hockey League. Kolusz is just one of the numerous Polish players that came into the season playing outside of Poland. Something odd for Polish hockey.
Kolusz is the oldest player on Sport’s roster. He turns 36 in January. He is one of only 21 players who are 35 or older in the Liiga. It is not a stretch to say his career is nearing the end. Polish hockey has somewhat followed his career trajectory. Polish hockey was still at a high and had players in top leagues when Kolusz was drafted and played in the WHL and Tipsport Extraliga. At the same time, Polish hockey was on the decline and struggled when Kolusz was in the PHL. Polish hockey has a wealth of young talents, and players like Kolusz are now getting chances in stronger leagues outside of Poland.
The signing was both shocking to Polish fans and celebrated by them. This is the second-ever appearance by a Polish player in the Liiga; Mariusz Czerkawski made a seven-game appearance during the 1995 NHL lockout. The signing, while popular among Polish fans, was not as celebrated in Finland. For many, a team at the bottom of the Liiga signing a Polish player was not worth writing about. Juha Oionen of Jatkoaika, scoffed at the signing and claimed it underestimated the entire Liiga.
“A couple of weeks ago, I already had the joy of the League’s attraction in the player market, but in addition to the rug, Sport’s activities also pulled the floorboards under their feet. It is pointless to dream of top players as long as the B-series national team legends are valid. A veteran player from the Polish main series sounds more like a Kummeli sketch than a thoughtful solution from a professional team. Interesting to see of whether Kolusz is in Finland for longer than Mr.Beginning.”
Juha Oionen – Jatkoaika
To some extent, I understand the points that he and some others in Finnish hockey had. It is odd for a 35-year-old, whom many had felt their career is on the decline. His switch to defense full-time made a huge difference, and he still hasn’t lost a touch of his skating. Things you don’t normally associate with a 35-year-old. It also didn’t help that Kolusz suffered an injury that would leave him out for the first nine games of the year.
Kolusz would make his debut on November 13th on the top defensive pairing for Sport. He would record three shots in 23:22 TOI. This led his team in ice time. He would follow up that performance with six shots in just over 17 minutes of action. His team lost both games that weekend, 3-2 the first game, and 6-0 the second game. Crazy stat, Kolusz was not on the ice for a single goal against and finished with a 58.5 CF%. While it is only two games, that is the best corsi among all Sport players and 14th among all Liiga defensemen. He would then record his first assist on the powerplay in his third Liiga game.
Experts did not believe Kolusz would succeed in the League at all, but he has played flawlessly against at least two top teams, Kärppi and Ilves.
Seppo Hautala – Keski Uusimaa
It is hard to describe Kolusz’s career as a disappointment. He is one of the best Polish players of all time. A five-time division 1 bronze medalist, four time-time division 1 silver medalist, four-time Polish Cup winner, three-time PHL champion, and one of only three Polish players to get drafted in the NHL. He has done a lot for Polish hockey. It has always felt like he could have done more. Him making it to Liiga at 35 shows that. His career is not let down, but more of a what could have been in some regards. He can write a lot of that off with his last chance in the Liiga.
The PHL started to take a lot of strides in terms of skill growth. Import rules started to become laxer. Polish clubs began to regain a lot of credibility lost during a poor run in the 2000s. While this brought in players with more experience in top European leagues, it also saw the rise of players from the North American minor league system. This resulted in more players who reached the NHL for a handful of games signing in Poland.
The first player did not take that path at all. Mike Danton was a standout in the OHL for his fast and aggressive play. This led to him being drafted in the fifth round of the 2000 NHL draft by the New Jersey Devils. His first NHL taste would come after his final junior season when he jumped up to the NHL for a couple of games after a 34 point 195 penalty minute AHL rookie season. Despite that on-ice success, Danton reportedly faced many demons relating to alcohol abuse and behavior issues. He would sit out the entire 2002 season and only played 17 games in 2003 due to injuries and team suspensions, including refusing to go down to the minors. He would also change his last name to Danton from Jefferson during the 2002 year due to an undisclosed issue with his family that left them estranged.
He would find himself traded to the St Louis Blues during the 2003 NHL draft, with a third-round pick (Konstantin Zakharov), in exchange for a third-round pick (Ivan Khomutov) 8 slots higher in the draft. His career seemingly got back on track with the Blues. Two days after the Blue’s season had come to an end though, Mike Danton was arrested. Danton was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder. The Blues’ player was in contact with whom he thought was a hitman but was a police dispatcher. The target reportedly was his agent David Frost, though it has been disrupted that target was Danton’s father. The full story of his arrest is very long and something I’m not fully qualified to cover. He pleaded guilty and received a seven and a half year sentence.
The former professional hockey player would transfer to a Canadian prison toward the end of his sentence and begin to take college classes. At the end of his prison release, he would apply to get into Saint Mary’s University. Once getting accepted, he joined their varsity hockey team. Later being named an Academic All-Canadian. Danton would resume his professional hockey career in Europe after two years with Saint Mary. This included stops in Czechia, Kazakhstan, Romania, Slovakia, and Sweden before signing in Poland to end the 2014 season.
Danton had signed with STS Sanok, one of the top Polish clubs. In that 2014 season with Sanok, he posted five goals and eighteen assists in twenty-five games, helping them to a PHL championship. The Ontario native would return to Poland for two more seasons. He would even attempt to gain Polish citizenship to represent the Polish national team. He would represent Poland at two Euro Ice Hockey Challenges. Danton became well known among Polish fans for his physical and aggressive style of play. He recorded 133 PHL games, 38 goals, 93 assists, and 266 penalty minutes. He also led the PHL in penalty minutes with 166 during the 2015 season. His 133 PHL games are the most by any former NHL player in Poland.
After the 2016 season, Danton would leave Poland. He signed in Canada in the semi-pro Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey. After one season back in Canada, he would retire. Danton currently coaches junior hockey and is working on a master’s degree.
Roman Tvrdon would also join Poland halfway through the 2014 season. Tvrdon was a rare case being drafted out of the Slovak U20 league, with zero professional games under his belt. After representing Slovakia at the 1999 U18s, the 6’2 winger was drafted in the fifth round of the 1999 NHL draft by the Washington Capitals. He would jump to the Western Hockey League for the next few years before signing his three-year entry league deal with the Capitals. The Trencin native would spend most of the next three years with the Portland Pirates in the AHL. Although he did play nine games with the Capitals during the 2004 season, posting one assist. He would return to Europe the following year, playing mostly in Belarus and Slovakia. He joined Unia Oswiecim halfway through the 2014 season and posted a point per game regular season and ten points in fourteen playoff games. Tvrdon would leave Poland after one season and would play a few more years in lower European leagues. He retired in 2017.
The defensive-minded Anton Klementyev was the next player to arrive in Poland. The stay-at-home defenseman was never the most significant prospect, but after a few strong years in the Russian third league, he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2009 NHL draft. After being drafted, he signed his entry league deal and made the jump to North American professional hockey. He would represent Russia at the World Juniors, winning bronze, and play his only NHL game during the 2010 season. Halfway through the 2012 season, the Islanders placed him on waivers for the purpose of a buyout. He would return to Russia and play in the Russian lower leagues. In 2015 he moved to Poland to play for Naprzod Janow. He was one of Janow’s top players and posted his professional career-high of 20 points. He left Janow late in the year to join Sanok for their playoff push. In Sanok, he recorded four more assists in fourteen games. After one year, he left Poland to play six games back in the VHL before spending his final two years in Belarus. He retired in 2017 at 27-years-old.
Zenon Konopka has a journey that not many on the list can match. Konopka was born to a Polish father and an American mother in Ontario, Canada. During his junior career, he played the enforcer role but showed some decent offensive skills. He would go undrafted after four years with the Ottawa 67s. In 2002, Konopka went to the minors and lit up the ECHL posting 70 points and 231 penalty minutes in his rookie year. He would make the jump to the AHL for the following two years. His minors’ success led to him signing an entry deal with the Anaheim Ducks. He would make his NHL debut in 2005. He would bounce around NHL teams serving as their enforcer. In 2014, after the Wild placed him on waivers, he was claimed by the Buffalo Sabres and spent the rest of the year in blue and yellow. In the offseason, now a free agent, the NHL suspended Konopka for 20 games after testing positive for performance-enhancing drug dehydroepiandrosterone. He played 354 NHL games, recording 12 goals, 20 assists, and 1,084 penalty minutes.
With his 20-game suspension, the decline of enforcers, and Konopka almost out of his mid-thirties, there were not many offers waiting for him. Towards the end of the 2015 season, Konokpa would join the Polska hockej Liga playing in his father’s old home country. The signing was one of the first few times Polish hockey got coverage from mainstream North American outlets. Konopka would play eleven games in Sanok, posting two goals and one assist, along with 39 penalty minutes. He took the chance in Poland to see if he could still play, not wanting his suspension to be the final note of his hockey career. While he never made it back to a higher league and retired following the short stint in Poland. Playing playoff games in the country of your heritage is a nice way to end your hockey career.
Poland saw a couple of former NHL tough guys try their hands in the PHL, both making quite the impact in attention for the league. Danton is no doubt one of the most impactful imports to play in Poland this century. He was the most long term player of any former NHL player in Poland. Klementyev and Tvrdon were among the best players on their team for their lone season. That is a different change from the past imports, which would leave shortly after arriving, or where way too past their prime to make a sizable impact. The next part will see a continued trend of former NHL players providing teams a proper top-line veteran.
We saw our first national team action of the year and, more importantly, the beginning of the Kaláber era. The last national team head coach’s circumstances were a lot different, but there are some similarities. Valtonen faced a national team with a lot of players striking. They were also facing the reserve teams of a lot of the better European national teams. Teams, I would consider the guard of staying in the Elite division. Beat them, and you remain in the top, lose, and you’re back down to division one. The team had to try out a lot of different and new players. The ice conditions were poor, and I’m sure I could dig up more excuses to lose, but instead, Valtonen and team Poland went out and stayed competitive.
Kaláber saw plenty of top players not join the team as they had club commitments like Chmielewski and Zygmunt, while also being without all three of Poland’s best defensemen. Poland had a different beast to fight in Hungary. Poland’s biggest enemy and a country that is ready to take on the teams that guard the Elite division. This was a team Poland, much like the last, trying out many different and new players. They could have folded and broken and let Hungary just control the matches. They did not though. They fought until the end until Hungary finished them in a close fight. The parallels are there in the beginning, but will the ending be different?
For Valtonen, it all went downhill right away, with his next set of games being devastating losses to Hungary. Hungary controlled the Polish squad and destroyed them. It showed how much of a difference there was between the two countries. The first of game 1 showed that same trend as Hungary went up 2-0 and had a comfortable lead. In the second, though, Poland came out as strong as possible and gave up one goal but got two back. The third period was a mix between the two initial periods, but it never felt like Poland was drowning. The final was 5-2, and there was only a five-shot difference in favor of Hungary. Much different from the games under Valtonen were the shot margins were in the forties and fifties.
The next game was so much better. It was the first time in years we saw the team Poland that won medals in division 1 group A. The team that was on the cusp of making it to the elite. Poland didn’t even have starting goalie Murray in net, but Michal Kieler, who is maybe fourth or fifth on the depth chart. A whole two players in the lineup older than 30. The team got out to an early lead after Canadian import Mroczkowski looked natural sniping one past the Hungarian goaltender. Hungary responded early in the second, but Poland would react on the powerplay with GKS Tychy forward Jeziroski scoring. Hungary would take the game in the end 3-2, after two goals from István Sofron. The shot margin for this 26-25 for Hungary.
The defense is the most underdeveloped area of the Polish national team. The forward and goalie groups feel more than fine to stay competitive with the top teams of division 1. The defense though, is the Achilles heel of team Poland. Holding the Hungary team to 26 shots is a remarkable feat of shot suppression and kept Poland in the game. Allowing 48 shots in game one was their downfall, so game two was a much-welcomed surprise. It wasn’t a significant line-up change either, as only Szurowski swapped in for Horzelski on the bottom pairing.
The young players all delivered on their end. For once, all the imports in the line up seemed like they were making the team better by being there, not just plugging a whole. The goaltending was steady, and made some great saves. The defense was shaky but had one of their best performances in years during game two. I think when you add some of the star power back into this lineup, they definitely will be promoted back to group A. Can they fight and win in group A is a different story. Many players in the line up are already well familiar with the Kaláber style and system, and we will learn down the road how effective that style will be on the international level.