Canadians helping other hockey-playing nations is nothing new, especially when it comes to the developmental side. The goal is to strengthen the game – not
just in Canada, but around the world.
Coaches from outside the country have long attended Hockey Canada coaching seminars, and this year – with the High Performance II seminar underway in
Calgary, Alta. – is no different.
A pair of former professional Hungarian players have joined the crop of coaches looking to gain an instructional edge during the week-long program held in
the Stampede City. But with a men’s program sitting 19th in the IIHF World Ranking, Viktor Tokaji and Zoltan Szilassy are looking to contribute a little
more to the subtle, yet fast-growing hockey movement in Hungary.
So, how does someone get into hockey in Hungary, a country that had just one indoor rink in the 1990s?
“I turned six or seven and a coach came in the classroom and said ‘Hey guys, do you want to play hockey?’ I didn’t even know what it was all about,” Tokaji
says. “And at that time, I think we had just one roofed rink in Hungary. So I was like, ‘Okay, let’s see how it goes.’
“And that’s how I started. I was a hyperactive kid and I wanted to get involved in something that’s not so common in Hungary. It’s different. It gives you
Szilassy’s father and godfather were hockey players, so getting into the game was simpler for him.
“I had just one way, one track … hockey,” he says.
Tokaji played professionally for 22 years and has represented Hungary a number of times at the national level, including 19 IIHF World Championships and
three Olympic qualifying tournaments.
For him, coaching was a natural next step. And it was Glen Williamson, the Manitoba-born head coach of Hungary’s national team, who helped him take it.
”We had a good connection from Canada. Glen Williamson, and I just jumped into the coaching career because I finished my professional career this year,” he
says. “Glen was a good friend of mine and I was involved in the development program for the last two years and that’s how it came up. I was like ‘Whoa,
that’s a good opportunity for us’, and not just for us … for Hungarian hockey.”
Being a team sport, Tokaji says the Hungarian government whole-heartedly supports hockey, among other athletic programs in the country. In his mind, going
from one indoor rink to 24 in the last two decades and having over 3,500 kids registered in minor hockey puts Hungarian hockey in a good spot.
“We’re in a good position now. We have tons of kids who want to be hockey players and it’s a really good sign for us,” Tokaji says. “Right now, we’re
establishing the basement of Hungarian hockey. And that’s exactly why we’re here (in Calgary).”
The 39-year-old says he and Szilassy have learned an enormous amount from Hockey Canada’s program in just a short time.
“We’d like to get some experience and information … just get some feedback that says ‘Yes, we’re on the right track’, but some detail things as well –
like, how you’re coaching, how you have to plan your seasons. It’s really complex. It’s not easy to grab just one thing,” he says.
Mike Bara, Hockey Canada’s manager of coaching development says the connections created are invaluable when networking with those in other national
“It’s unique in the sense that it helps us build relationships. It’s not the first time that Hockey Canada’s reached out to other countries or they’ve come
to us. But what it does in the coaching program is that these two individuals are two former pro players trying to get into coaching, and not necessarily
at a pro level, but trying to actually get into the development side of hockey,” he says.
“For us, it’s about growing the game. If they don’t have enough players, they’re not going to be there consistently. So, how do you grow the game? You
develop at a grassroots level.”
Though Hungarian hockey gets support from its public overseer, competing with the country’s 19th FIFA-ranked soccer program and the fandom it draws would
seem a Herculean task. But Szilassy points out that the programs share motivation.
Prior to this year’s European championship in France, Hungary’s national soccer team head coach Bernd Storck told a Hungarian newspaper that his team
needed to play like their country’s national hockey team in order to be successful.
Storck was referring to the might required to take the ice against larger powers on the international stage.
“We compete,” Szilassy says, simply.
“There’s a difference between how you lose games,” Tokaji says. “Even if you lost, you put everything you’ve got on the table.”
At the 2009 IIHF World Championship in Switzerland, Hungary did just that. Team Canada had just defeated Hungary 9-0 in preliminary-round action. After the
Canadian anthem played, a large contingent of Hungarian fans sang their own in appreciation of the effort displayed by their team.
The Canadian squad was confused at first, but once they understood what was happening, they respectfully remained on the ice to honour the fervour
emanating from the stands.
Tokaji, a defencemen for the Hungarians at the time, still gets goosebumps.
“We lost against the best of the best. But still, because we were a competitive team, we put everything on the table. That was such a big thing for us,” he
Hungary hovers between Division I and Top Division level at the world championship, and Bara says it would be great to see them competing on a consistent
basis at the highest level.
“If we could see them there five years in a row as a country participating in the world championship against us, it would be fantastic,” he says.