International Ice Hockey Federation

Gregorc a rock on blueline

Gregorc a rock on blueline

Slovenia looks for repeat of Sochi success

Published 13.02.2018 03:47 GMT+10 | Author Derek O'Brien
Gregorc a rock on blueline
Slovenia’s Blaz Gregorc defends against Team USA’s T.J. Oshie during the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images
Slovenia has several returning players from it’s surprising quarter-final finish in Sochi. One of them, Blaz Gregorc, 28, is one of the team’s mainstays.

“I was in Sochi and I’ve played for the national team the last eight years,” he said of his international experience, which includes the last seven World Championships – elite level in odd years and Division IA in even, and that trend will continue this year. “But still, it’s the Olympics, which is always something special. It’s big for Slovenia to even qualify.”

He’s right about that. Gregorc is one of only 136 registered male ice hockey players in the nation of just over two million people. Yet they qualified for the Olympics in dramatic fashion, beating host Belarus in a shootout in the last game of their qualification tournament in September 2016. It was every bit as big a surprise as when the qualified four years earlier, and Gregorc hopes for similar success.

“In the group stage we beat Slovakia and then in the quarter-final we beat Austria, so we were pretty successful. Hopefully, we can have some success in PyeongChang as well. The other teams don’t have NHL players and we don’t either but it’s only one: Anze Kopitar. The other teams in our group all have lots of NHL players so maybe this time it’s gonna be easier for us.”

Amazingly, Slovenia has been drawn into a group with the same three teams as in Sochi – the Russians (who will be competing under the name Olympic Athletes from Russia this time around), the United States and Slovakia. Three of Gregorc’s Hradec Kralove teammates – goaltender Patrik Rybar, defenceman Dominik Granak and forward Lukas Cingel – are on the Slovak team, so surely there was some good-natured ribbing going on in the dressing room about the game on 17 February, which will be the last group-stage game for both teams.

“Yeah, of course. We’re not fighting over it, but we know it’s coming and there’s been some talk about it.”

Gregorc is one of five players on the Slovenian roster who plays for a Czech club team, but he’s the only one in the Extraliga – the other four play in the second-tier WSM Liga.

“We’re in contact with each other on the phone or online, but I haven’t had really any time to meet them,” he said of the others. “I never play against them and they have different schedules, so it’s pretty hard to meet.”

In addition to the five players in the Czech Republic, the team also includes seven players based in Austria, four in France, three each in Russia and Germany, and one each in Sweden, Denmark and at home in Slovenia.

“There’s no money in Slovenia, so you have to go abroad,” he said of the situation. “Almost all of the national team players play in other countries. We have two teams in the Alps Hockey Liga, which is fine for young guys, but if you want to develop, you need to go abroad. Before it was a little bit better because there were two EBEL teams in Slovenia, but even then, most of the national team played abroad.”

On his Czech club, Gregorc plays on the top defensive pair, often leading all players on his team in ice time. In recent years, he’s been a top-four D-man on the Slovenian national team and, at 190 cm and 94 kg, is often called upon to play a physical role. He doesn’t know exactly what to expect yet in the Olympics.

“We will see. Now we’ve got a different coach, a Finnish guy (Kari Savolainen), so we’ll see what he’s gonna do with the team as far as lineups. But it doesn’t matter what role you have; you just need to accept it and do your best for your team.”

It’s been a long season for Gregorc, having played in 58 games so far for Hradec Kralove in the Extraliga, Champions Hockey League and Spengler Cup combined. Obviously, he gets no Olympic break like most of his teammates now get, and will return to what he hopes will be a long playoff run. If not, there’s still the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest in April where Slovenia hopes to earn promotion back to the top division.

“It’s a long season, we’ve had a lot of games and I’ve got more coming up, but that’s my job and I enjoy it. It’s better to play games than just practice every day.”

 

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