For the past few years, I have taken an approach to Polish hockey that is a bit dark at times, wondering if there is any end in sight for the downfall that Polish hockey had begun. While also stressing at the same time that there was young talent there to help build the national team. That young talent has to lead us to the light at the end of the tunnel. Poland pulled off a massive upset over Belarus. This win was mainly due to the heroics of John Murray, yes the most Polish name to ever to Polish. The team in front of Murray executed the game plan to a key. Poland was outshot by plenty. Most of the shots were forced to the outside and not key scoring areas.
Poland would drop the final two games, losing 5-1 to Slovakia and then 4-1 to Austria. While the last two losses hurt, they can’t destroy the high from the first win at the final stage of Olympic qualification for Poland.
Am I an Idiot?
In my post dissecting the Polish roster beforehand, I criticized the overly defensive forward group that Kalaber brought to the tournament. Poland only scored three goals in this tournament, less than the six goals when Poland was in the final qualification round for the previous Olympics. Could Poland have used those goal scorers? Yes, but also Kalaber brought the players for his plan. Those players executed the plan strongly, and Poland stayed competitive and won a game. So I am going to say I was wrong there.
Alan the Iron Man
We already have gone on about Lyszczarczyk’s outstanding play last year, especially with his 90 plus games played this past season. Now just a couple of months later, he was suiting up for team Poland against the best competition he has faced potentially in his career. He did not appear out of place, recording three assists to lead Poland in points and tied for the tournament lead in points.
There was no doubt that John Murray was the MVP of this tournament for Poland. The American turned Pole was an absolute stud in this tournament. While the team in front of him tried to take as much pressure off as possible. He had to stop a total of 124 shots total, including his 46 save shutout versus Belarus. Polish goaltending is going to be in good hands for the remainder of his national team career.
A Changed Zygmunt
Polish players need to go abroad to reach their full potential. Getting the level of coaching and training that others possess will take years and money that the PZHL doesn’t have right now. When Zygmunt left Poland, he had a lot of potential, but his game had many flaws. Ever since he started playing in Czechia, he is a changed player. Zygmunt especially knows how to use his size now, along with significant strides in his skating. He is one of the most critical players in Poland’s future.
This year, Dominik Pas is set to play his first season aboard in the top league of Slovakia men’s hockey. HK Dukla Michalovce is getting a good one. When Pas was on the ice, he made a solid impact and was a pain in the ass to play against. Pas’ forechecking and two-way ability gives him a complete skillset that a lot of other players lack. I’m excited to see how he will grow against stronger competition with improved training.
Pasiut is such a welcome return to the national team. Lead the team in shots on goal with 11.
Penalties were low this tournament, and it was good to see, especially when the competition plays so much faster. Still some at bad times, but Poland was last in penalty minutes.
On the flip side, Poland had the best penalty kill in the tournament, allowing a single goal while shorthanded.
I’m proud of this team. They did the unthinkable and got us all to believe the Olympics were possible, even if for a second.
The young core of the national team is here. Alan Lyszczarczyk (23), Kamil Walega, Pawel Zygmunt, and Dominik Pas (21) were key players in this tournament. That is not even counting Damian Tyczyński, Jakub Lewandowski, and Jan Soltys. They’re the light at the end of the tunnel.
1 year, 1 month, and 27 days ago, Robert Kalaber was named the head coach of the Polish national team. On August 26th, 2021, the Slovakian coach will coach his first IIHF game for team Poland. During that time, we have seen quite a few national team games. These games have all come against pretty weak competition or depleted rosters. The biggest challenges being Hungary and Latvia U23. It was thought his first test would be getting Poland back to the World Championship Group A. Instead, he will have to finish what Tomek Valtonen started with Poland’s path to the Olympics.
This is the second time in a row that Poland has pulled off an upset in the third round of qualification and earned a shot at the final qualification round. In 2016, Poland lost three straight games as they were expected to. The final scores of those games were 6-1 Slovenia, 5-3 Belarus, and 5-2 Denmark. While not the greatest results. These games were all somewhat close, with Poland even holding the lead over Belarus.
Poland once again is likely to lose all three games. Their opponents are going to be hard to break. You have team Austria that will be led by top NHL prospect Marco Rossi and a squad of players mostly playing back in Austria’s bet-at-home ICE Hockey League. Next up, you have a Belarus team that continues to improve, who will feature New Jersey Devils breakout star Yegor Sharangovich and an army of KHL talent. The final team and toughest opponent will be Slovakia, a roster featuring talent from all around the top leagues of Europe.
These games’ goal will be to stay competitive, and who knows maybe they pull off a miracle upset in one of the games. So what is the strategy to do that? Do you go all out on the offensive end and try to outmatch them with firepower or at least fight fire with fire? Do you load up on the country’s best defenders and two-way forwards in the hope of establishing a strong defensive presence and capitalize on a few rare mistakes?
There are plenty of ways to go, and it seems that Kalaber is taking the second route. When the Polish roster was announced there were three huge forwards missing. Damian Kapica (1st among Polish players in PPG), Radoslaw Sawicki (3rd in PPG), and Christian Mroczkowski (6th in PPG). The Polish squad later announced that Kapica would be missing due to a back injury, but what about two of Poland’s best goal scorers?
Kalaber talked to Hokej.net, saying, “Sawicki and Mroczkowski are offensive players who do better with the puck than without it. At this tournament, we must first and foremost defend ourselves effectively, because there will be players from the NHL and KHL in front of us.” He continued saying that “We are not building an offensive dream team, but the strongest team that will have to play under pressure with extremely demanding opponents. That is why I gave up Radek and Christian and selected forwards who are better in defense than in attack.”
While I can understand the idea that the team will need to be strong defensively, I also have a problem with the final result of the roster. At the end of the day, Poland’s best defensive forwards will not create any match-up nightmares. At the same time, a physical power forward like Christian Mroczkowski could definitely raise some hell. It is hard to argue whom spots you would take away to add the Canadian with a Polish passport or Sawicki to the roster. I do feel you can create strong arguments for Filip Starzyński, Kamil Walega, Mateusz Michalski, and Martin Przygodzki.
The strongest for Filip Starzyński. Starzyński is a player I believe would be highly debated if analytics were more established in the PHL. He is commonly praised for being strong in the faceoff dot and best in his own zone, but the offense is almost non-existent. Over the past two years, his .30 PPG in 102 games ranks 52nd among all Polish forwards, 163rd among all skaters.
There is so much talent that is being left on the board. I can’t justify some choices in the idea they make Poland that much better defensively or harder to play against. In the first true test for Kalaber, when his goal is to stay competitive, it is a choice to go in without two forwards considered among the best in Poland. These are the choices that will help define his era and staff. We will have to see how it plays out.
As we were drawing close to the end of this hockey year, it was looking like it was going to be a year to forget for Alan Łyszczarczyk. It was not the follow-up year that many had expected out of the Polish Prince.
In 2020, the Podhale native lit up the ECHL as a rookie. He racked up 46 points in 57 games before the rest of the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only was he offensively on fire, but during the year he gained the trust of his coaching staff to earn opportunities late and in more defensive situations. The only thing that was missing was an American Hockey League call-up that never came.
The pandemic created a rocky offseason with no one knowing who was going to be playing or what opportunities would actually be there. The Komets had made Łyszczarczyk a restricted free agent, but later traded his rights to the Idaho Steelheads. As those transactions were happening in the ECHL, Łyszczarczyk was making moves back in Europe. He had signed a tryout deal with HC Litvinov in the Tipsport Extraliga.
This was Alan’s second tryout in the top level of Czech hockey. It ended like the first with no deal in place. Podhale Nowy Targ then brought him home, signing him to a deal with the knowledge that he would be opting out eventually to play in North America.
Despite the fact that his time in Poland may be short, as there was a lot of uncertainty in the United States. It seemed like a star signing for Podhale, especially given how players with even less ECHL success had performed in the PHL. While he was definitely one of the team’s better forwards, he often was stuck on the lower lines of the team. Not getting many chances to truly break out. Can you blame the team though? They knew he wouldn’t be there late in the year. Still, during his 23 games, the Polish prince managed 10 goals and 8 assists.
I don’t want to call his time in Poland a disappointment, but it felt like it should have been a bigger deal. The best Polish player of this generation was in the PHL. Especially in a year where players like Dziubinski, Kolusz, and Zygmunt played outside of Poland. The PHL lacked some Polish star power.
2020 had come to an end and on January 2nd, it was a new chapter for Łyszczarczyk. It was announced by Podhale Nowy Targ, that he would be leaving the club and returning to North America. Łyszczarczyk was declared a free agent by the ECHL, after the Idaho Steelheads opted out of playing in the 2021 season. The soon-to-be 23-year-old signed with the Orlando Solar Bears, the ECHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning are one of the best at developing through all levels of the minors. It seemed like a great fit. Łyszczarczyk was also off to a hot start scoring two goals and an assist in his first five games. He would then go scoreless in his remaining eight games with the club. He often found himself a healthy scratch during this time as well.
On March 14th, the young Pole found himself on his technically fourth club of the year as he was traded to the Tulsa Oilers for future considerations. It was probably a welcomed change, as Łyszczarczyk struggled to get into the lineup in Orlando.
Things would get even worse though in Tulsa. Łyszczarczyk was snake bitten, as he rocked a 0.0% shooting percentage on 38 shots. He would record a whole 4 assists in 18 games with the Tulsa Oilers, three of the assists coming in his final three games. Those final three assists were the first sign of life in his ECHL campaign in a while.
Earlier in the year, Podhale brought Łyszczarczyk back home to where he was born. On April 19th, Fort Wayne brought him back to his ECHL home. Trading defenseman Curtis Leonard for Łyszczarczyk in a one-for-one deal.
Ben Boudreau, the Fort Wayne Komets head coach, was once again in charge of Łyszczarczyk. The pairing worked out really well the previous year, as Łyszczarczyk’s all-around game took a huge step forward. In 2021, it was like the Polish Prince never left. In 19 regular-season games for the Komets, Łyszczarczyk recorded 7 goals and 9 assists, over double his point total with the Oilers and Solar Bears combined.
His production continued into the playoffs, where he has recorded another three goals and four assists in the opening rounds. One of those three goals being the magic goal to send the Fort Wayne Komets to the ECHL finals. After such a long and daunting season, Łyszczarczyk secured the Western Championship for Fort Wayne.
His dominance continued into the finals, where he posted five assists in a three-to-one series win over the South Carolina Stingrays. The Fort Wayne Komets are the 2021 Kelly cup Champions! And one of the most crucial moves in achieving that feat was potentially an all-time franchise trade in reacquiring their Polish fan favorite. In his 30 games with the Komets, Łyszczarczyk recorded 10 goals and 17 assists. Between Poland and his first two ECHL clubs, he had 12 goals and 13 assists in 54 games.
No one has played more than Łyszczarczyk this year, which is insane to think about. A five-team 84 game season, not including the preseason. It is 88 games, if you include his four games at the Ceska Cup with HC Litvinov. It rightfully ends with him as a champion. The first-ever Polish player to win the Kelly Cup. Also, the first to win a championship in North American hockey since Oliwa won the Stanley Cup.
Łyszczarczyk is nicknamed the Polish Prince in Fort Wayne. Poland is his home, where he leads the next generation of the national team. It is clear though that there is just something about Fort Wayne that clicks with the prince. Almost like a second home for Łyszczarczyk.
The return of five thoughts! I never thought that this year I was going to be able to write five thoughts. After a successful PHL season though, the PZHL hosted the three seas tournament. We got to see the Polish national team in action. Poland took on Estonia, Latvia U23 (or Latvia B, they had a few veterans), and Lithuania. Croatia was also supposed to play in this tournament but dropped out before the tournament began.
The three seas tournament was an interesting challenge for Poland. It is the second national team event of the year after a couple of exhibition games against Hungary. The last time Poland played Estonia at the Worlds, they beat them 3-2 in OT. While Lithuania is a foe that had given Poland quite a bit of trouble recently. Then Latvia was the wild card. Latvia is a great hockey country that if not for their small size, I believe would be among the best in Europe. Their U23 or B team was a wildcard roster. The team was a mix of borderline Dinamo Riga players, Latvian league and MHL standouts, along with a few vets who played outside of Latvia. Could these wildcards pull off a crazy upset though against Poland? Let us find out!
Developing top defensemen has and is still a big problem for Poland. For international tournaments, it is always fun to see which young players have made big strides. Olaf Bizacki took advantage of every opportunity at the three seas tournament. The 5’7 defenseman finished with one goal and three assists in two games. He has also earned himself a spot on Poland’s roster for the national team grouping during May in Slovenia.
A Top Forward Import
As I was writing this piece it was announced that Kazkasthan added former Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Viktor Svedberg to the national team. Poland has added a few forwards to the national team, but none had any major success. In his second appearance for the Polish national team, Christian Mroczkowski once again made an impact. This time recording one goal and two assists in three games. Poland appears to have a long-term impactful import with the Canadian winger.
Zygmunt the New Prince?
When a player plays overseas it can be hard sometimes to look at their stats and see them as a step ahead of a lot of Polish players. Zygmunt kinda fits that billing as his stats in the Tipsport Extraliga are not eye-popping. The physical big forward made a huge impact at the three seas tournament. He led team Poland in goals with four and added an assist on top. While his ceiling might have never thought to be as high as other Polish players he deserves to be in the discussion for the best U23 player.
The Three-Headed Monster in Net.
In recent years, we have seen the national team have quite a few changes in goal. The latest change is Odrobny seemingly being no longer an option for the national team. The three-headed monster was set to be a two-headed one between Murray and Raszka. Murray is soon to be 34-years-old, and Raszka recently turned 31. The national team is going to need to find out who is next behind them. It seems they seem the answer to that is 25-year-old Michał Kieler. He played well at the three seas tournament and got a game earlier in Hungary.
A Clean Sweep, But No True Test For Kalaber.
Poland won each of these games, they beat Lithuania 8-1, Estonia 6-1, and then Latvia 4-1 to end it. All convincing victories against teams that really are not the greatest. This was an improvement on how they finished against Estonia at the last world championship Poland played in, but this was a downgraded roster. This was the correct result. This is what Poland needed to do. It really proves nothing though for the national team or Kalaber. They have a huge tournament with a chance to move on to the Olympics coming soon, I’m not saying Poland has to win that, but it needs to be competitive. We don’t really have a bar to see if Poland is better or worse so far under the current coaching staff. Hopefully, the Beat Covid-19 Cup in May will show us that.
Wronka is still the most fun player to watch in hockey and I will see no arguments otherwise.
Pasuit is back in a Polish uniform and it’s good to see. Easily one of the best centers in the country.
Unlucky injuries were a big story for Poland in this tournament, Oskar Jaskiewicz is going to be out for a bit, while Filip Starzynski missed the final games.
In what is a crazy year that continues to be spontaneous for Poland’s best player. Alan Łyszczarczyk has found himself traded to the Tulsa Oilers. The Orlando Solar Bears have been pretty quick to make moves this year, so this trade comes as no surprise. It seems it was be traded or be cut for the prince of Poland, as the Solar Bears traded him for only future considerations, likely nothing in the ECHL.
Łyszczarczyk started the year with Podhale Nowy Targ in the PHL. He did well in the blue and yellow, recording ten goals and eight assists in 23 games. His return to the ECHL has not been as strong as the forward only has two goals and one assist in 13 games. He has not recorded a point in his past eight games. The 23-year-old recorded 46 points (19-27-46) in 57 games the previous year with the Fort Wayne Komets of the ECHL.
The Tulsa Oilers will be Alan’s third ECHL team. The Oilers are the ECHL affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks of the NHL, and with the San Diego Gulls of the AHL. They currently sit fifth in the Western Conference of the ECHL with 15 wins, 14 losses, and three overtime losses. They currently are second to last in goals for in the ECHL this year with 72. (Fort Wayne has less, but they have only played 14 games.) They have to be hoping Łyszczarczyk can recapture his scoring touch.
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.
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.
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.
When Robert Kalaber named his first Polish national team group, it became clear that the longtime JKH GKS Jastrzebie head coach would be trying out a lot of new names. Kalaber has been at the head of a Polska Hokej Liga team since 2014. His experience in the PHL allowed seeing most of the talent Poland has to offer pretty frequently. One of those players he has seen plenty of is Damian Szurowski.
Damian Szurowski was born to Polish parents in Ö Husby, Sweden. A lot of his family remained in Poland, where he would often visit a couple of times a year. In Sweden, though, both he and his brother worked their way up the junior ranks. His younger brother Mateusz Szurowski is a top junior player for Linköping HC and just missed being drafted in the 2020 NHL draft. For Damian, he first developed in the Arlanda HC hockey program. At the same time that Vegas Golden Knights forward, William Karlsson played for the team. In 2011, Damian Zurowksi was named the Arlanda HC 18U team captain while also playing for their 20U squad.
He moved the following season to Nynäshamns IF. With Nynäshamns IF, he played up and down their junior ranks and made his professional hockey debut in Sweden’s division one at the age of 17. The 6’0 defender earned more and more trust until spending most of his time with the Men’s team during the 2014 season, where he posted four goals and twelve assists in thirty-two games.
The next year he moved to Bålsta HC in Sweden’s second division, the fourth tier of hockey. Bålsta HC gave him a chance to play a lot of minutes and full time against men. After a second year with Bålsta HC, he made another move, but this time was jumping back to division one. In thirty-four games for Vännäs HC., the defensemen recorded one goal and four assists. Szurowksi would remain on the move once again in his career. This time though, a club was giving him a much more unique opportunity.
In 2017, Cracovia Krakow approached Damian Szurowksi about coming to Poland and joining their defense. The club was coming off a second straight PHL championship and played in the Champions Hockey League once again. The defensemen would spend the next two years in Krakow, playing in 64 games and recording seven assists while winning a PHL silver medal in 2019. He would depart Cracovia but stay in Poland for 2020 after signing with Lotos PKH Gdansk. In Gdansk, he was afforded a much larger role and able to contribute more. Szurowski would post five goals and six assists in forty-seven games. His production beat his point total from the previous two seasons while finishing top 20 in goals among defensemen.
Coming off his PHL career-best season, he was able to return to Krakow. Krakow gave him his big initial chance in Poland, and while playing for Krakow, he received one of the best opportunities of his career. Head coach Robert Kalaber named him to the national team camp for games against Hungary in early November. Szurowski is the only player on the national team from Cracovia Krakow after Damian Kapica pulled out with an injury. While by IIHF rules, Damian Szurowski is an import, there is no doubt that he bleeds red and white, and after four years in the PHL, he gets a chance to show that on the international level.
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.
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.
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.