Just over a year and a half ago, one of the most interesting experiments in Polish hockey began. The city of Opole welcomed Opole HK. Opole had previously had a PHL club, Orlik Opole, that ceased operations in 2019. A replacement came in Opole HK, a club run by North Americans that would feature mainly imports. With the Covid-19 pandemic running rampant and leagues worldwide closing their doors, the project gave players a chance to keep their season alive in Poland’s second league, the MHL. In their first season, the team would finish second in the league.
Despite the pandemic calming down in 2021, allowing many teams to play again, the Opole HK project continued. They were now playing in the European University Hockey League, as well as the MHL. While the team was functioning with a smaller roster, the imported talent was still good enough to make Opole one of the best teams in the MHL. The season took an even stranger turn at one point when the club attempted to sign a dog. Shortly after this incident, the team would announce they were withdrawing from both leagues.
Days after the team dispanding, there were only a few Poles, and the league’s leading scorer Devin Panzeca left.
Polish Puck: How did you get involved in Opole HK?
Devin Panzeca: I was playing NCAA d3 hockey, and my season got canceled because of the pandemic so I was looking for a way to keep playing hockey, I had known the owner of Opole HK for a long time from playing junior hockey in the states and he asked me if I would come play for him.
PP: What did you think of the Opole facilities and rink?
DP: The rink was beautiful it used to be a rink in the polish extra league and we had a team gym in the rink that we could use anytime we wanted.
PP: Opole’s old team saw quite a few players fall in love with Polish culture and the city. Did you have a similar experience?
DP: Yes Opole is a beautiful city with amazing people. In my time here I have started a family of my own as I have a newborn daughter Sarah and my girlfriend Marta.
PP: That is amazing. Congrats! Do you plan to stay in Poland going forward?
DP: I would like to stay In Poland yes, however it has been difficult to find a polish extra league team to take me as an import, so I may have to move countries for a while to build up my playing resume so I can come back here and get a contract.
PP: That is a shame. As you lead the MHL in scoring. Have there been any talks with a Polish club or one in another country?
DP: I have had some polish clubs get in contact but nothing solid to go on in the middle of the year like this, more preparing for next season. As of now I think I am going to make the move to Sweden to finish the year, as I was offered a contract yesterday.
(After this interview Panzeca officially signed with Söderhamn HC on 12/21/2021)
PP: We wish you the best of luck in Sweden! With your MHL journey finishing for now, how would you rate the league’s quality?
DP: I would say there are several really strong organizations, but there is a very big drop off to the low end many teams simply can not compete, games would often end in double digit victories which is not fun for anyone.
PP: You have played across quite a few levels of junior hockey in the states. Would you say the MHL Is close to any of them?
DP: It is hard to say as I have not played junior in almost 4 years but I would say it is probably around the level of the NA3HL with better teams being in the EHL level of play
PP: Definitely hard to make a direct comparison, especially given the MHL is a mixture of old and young. Do you think the mix benefited you or your young teammates?
DP: I would say that the league needs a change they should make it too separate divisions for young and old with the older players in the league it makes it hard for younger players to get the ice time they need to develop along with not being able to physically compete with the old, and for the older guys it doesn’t impose enough of a challenge.
We thank Devin Panzeca for his time, along with wishing him and his new family the best of luck in Sweden!
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