International Ice Hockey Federation

Tokaji leaves stage

Tokaji leaves stage

Hungarian talks about 20 years of Worlds experience

Published 06.02.2016 22:06 GMT+2 | Author Szabolcs Zavodszky
Tokaji leaves stage
Hungary’s Viktor Tokaji against Korea’s Sangwoo Sin at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A on home ice in Budapest. Photo: Laszlo Mudra
Hungarian defenceman Viktor Tokaji played in 19 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship events in 20 years. Now he retires and talks with us about his experiences.

After 19 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships ranging from the old C-Pool all the way up to the elite level, defenceman and national team captain Viktor Tokaji has decided to hang up the Hungarian national team jersey for good.

“This was just announced to the public, but I had been thinking since November whether I should retire from the national team or not,” said Tokaji. “It is a great feeling to see the positive feedback that I have received from the fans, friends and former teammates about my decision. It appears that my generation had a great influence on today’s Hungarian hockey.”

In today's international hockey world it is very rare that a player represents top countries like Sweden, Canada or Russia at six or seven World Championships in a row. In smaller hockey nations such as Hungary it has become rarer too as more players are able to fight for roster spots and an injury or just a subpar training camp could mean that a streak ends.

“The issue with Hungarian hockey in the past 10-15 years is that we have been trying to bridge a generation gap. There was almost no one coming up through the ranks born between 1980 and about 1988. Us born in the late 1970s had to hold down the fort until the players born from 1988 and after grew up,” Tokaji said.

With Viktor Tokaji deciding to step back from the national team a number of “lasts” have happened. He was the last player remaining who had played for Hungary and won promotion from the C-Pool. He was also one of the few players to have played in the C-Pool, B-Pool/Division I as well as the top division (in 2009). He had been part of just about every historical Hungarian hockey moment in the past 20 year.

“My first World Championship was the World Championship C-Pool in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1995 and that was when the former Soviet states were being split up,” Tokaji recalled. “They had to start from the bottom as only Russia was in the A-Pool. Czechoslovakia had also just split up and the year before Slovakia had won promotion from the C to the B-Pool. Yugoslavia had just split up so we had hockey countries like Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Slovenia and Belarus competing against the usual C-Pool teams. This wasn’t the easiest C-Pool as most of these teams were more suited to be the bottom half of the A-Pool. We knew what the goal was. When we moved up to the B-Pool and later the Division I, we wanted to become a stable team in the group and try to keep pace with whoever was relegated, like Denmark or Norway at that time, and we hoped that eventually Hungary would develop into a team that could maybe get into serious contention for the A-Pool.”

Interestingly enough he was also one of the top-six defencemen that patrolled the blue line for the national team. This group that was made up of Balazs Kangyal, Viktor Szelig, Andras Horvath, Viktor Tokaji, Tamas Sille and Bence Svasznek, who made the life of the Hungarian national team coach very easy. Especially for the most part of the past fifteen years, whether it was Pat Cortina, Ted Sator or Rich Chernomaz, they knew that they had their top-six defencemen set and they only had to find one to round out the D-men core.

Viktor Tokaji played the game like a solid defenceman should. He read the game well and was a great point man on the power play. Not the most imposing player on the ice, he played smart and knew when to be aggressive and when not to take a penalty. In the locker room he was the great leader he was on the ice. If you talk to him even for a minute it is clear why he was the captain of the national team as well as his club teams in Fehervar and this season for MAC Budapest.

At one point he was a young player just like anyone else. “We almost didn't notice that we became senior national team members. The U20 and the U18 national teams were just about the same and when we were 19, 20, 21, the next step was to be called into the senior team. There was a jump in Hungarian hockey in the early 1990s when from one year to the next the entire senior roster was turned over. There were a couple of old faces that stuck around like Tamas Dobos, Laszlo Ancsin, Janos Ancsin and Karoly Ban. There was an easy transition going from the U18 national team up to the U20 and the senior national team.”

When asked about what might have been his most memorable moment throughout the 20-year stretch, during which he only missed one World Championships because of an unfortunate hit from Rob Niedermayer in Hungarian league play during the 2004/2005 NHL lockout, he suddenly stops and with a smile says there were so many to pick from.

“I have had a number of great memories with the national team. Clearly winning the gold medal in 2008 in Sapporo [in the Division I] is the fondest memory. It is strange when you are actually living that event, it is all great that you won or you achieved the gold but it is always years later when you reflect on it that it hits you what you actually accomplished. When I see a highlight clip about an event that is when it really hits me. I would put 1998 up there as well when we won promotion from the C-Pool to the B-Pool on home ice in Budapest when [Viktor] Szelig rifled the puck past the Romanian goalie to win 3-2, or doing it again in Beijing in 2000. In 2002 we were battling for promotion for the A-Pool and we came up short to Denmark in Szekesfehervar. We came up short against Italy in 2011 and 2013 in promotion to the A-Pool both times in Budapest. Even though we lost, the dramatic finishes are always exciting even as a player.”

He missed last year’s promotion to the top division with an injury and head coach Rich Chernomaz called him to join the coaching staff. This time with the official retirement, Chernomaz will be relying on Tokaji’s experience on the bench instead of on the ice. Tokaji also talked about what advice if any he would need to give to the players in St. Petersburg next May at the Worlds about it’s like to experience the top division.

“For some of the lucky ones this will be their second World Championship in the top division, but for the guys who grew up in a different or modern world of Hungarian hockey this World Championships might not be as unusual as it was for us in Switzerland in 2009. When I started playing, the top division was such a dream, for us it was the C-Pool with teams like Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, the top division was almost like playing for the gold medal at the Olympics, completely out of reach. For this generation the A-Pool isn't so out of reach anymore and they are better prepared than maybe we were.”

With Tokaji hanging up the skates this means there is one less player left from the Sapporo heroes that are fighting for a national team spot. Winning the 2008 World Championship Division I compares for Hungarian hockey to the 1980 Miracle on Ice for the Americans. Winning promotion to the 2009 Worlds brought a larger amount of state funding to the sport and a completely revamped youth system under the hands of Glen Williamson.

The national team is seeing the fruits as more and more players born in 1996 or later are knocking on the door. Csanad Erdely was on the roster in Krakow last season wearing Tokaji’s number 6 and three more players are getting a shot this February. One of the players who Rich Chernomaz invited into the national team camp for the upcoming Olympic Qualification tournament is Bence Stipsicz, born in 1997, who happens to be teammates with Tokaji on the club team to bring the story full circle. Without veteran idols like Tokaji, Stipsicz would probably not be fighting to get a shot at the senior roster.

 

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