An improbable contender, the Slovenian national hockey team brings spunk, humour and whole lot of drama to the ice

photos by Mike Tompkins.

Act 1: A ragtag band of misfits with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

When the film The Mighty Ducks came out in 1992, it was a surprise hit. It grossed $50 million in the US and spawned two sequels. The people had spoken. They love underdog stories on ice (and, apparently, Emilio Estevez).

Now Halifax is witnessing one of the most improbable underdog stories of them all. The top 16 teams in the world will compete for the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship. Surprisingly, the last team to make the cut is Slovenia.

Consider the following: The entire country is half the size of Nova Scotia. Its population is two million and it has fewer than 1,000 registered hockey players. Hockey isn't its largest sport. It has to battle soccer and basketball for popularity, not to mention cycling and volleyball.

And yet the Slovenian team has made it to the top level of international competition and now find themselves in the same division as powerhouse teams like Canada and the US.

And they stand out: Their equipment looks older. They joke around with their opponents after the games. They give honest, candid opinions, as opposed to the media-trained NHL stars of other teams. Most of all, the players just seem happy to be here.

They've got one star player, but other than that it's a team of unknowns that somehow made it to the best of the best. (If you're interested, Slovenia is nestled between Italy, Hungary, Austria and Croatia.)

"Not really," says Canadian forward Ryan Getzlaf when asked if he knows anything about Slovenia.

"No. I personally don't, no," says his teammate Travis Green.

"We don't know too much about that team," is Danny Heatley's answer.

Like the underdogs in the movies, the odds are stacked pretty high against them and the players themselves are the first to admit it. But if the team doesn't stand a chance against elite clubs, is their underdog story doomed to end in disappointment?

Act 2: Kopitar Nation

Every underdog movie needs a misunderstood kid to join the team midway through the film and wow everyone with his startling skills. In Slovenia, that role is played by Anze Kopitar.

Kopitar isn't just the team's only NHL player, he's one of the game's best young stars. When he was born, in 1987, Slovenia didn't even exist. It was around 1991, when the country separated from Yugoslavia, that Kopitar began to skate.

"My dad played hockey before. I was always looking up to my dad. I rememberhe gave me my first stick and my first skates," he says. "I was three-and-a-half or four years old."

Kopitar became so good he went off to play in the Swedish Elite League---one of the best hockey leagues in Europe---before being drafted into the NHL by the LA Kings. He finished third in rookie scoring last year, led the Kings in points this year and is now a hockey hero back home.

"All our thoughts are on Kopitar. We know how good he is," says Team Canada coach Ken Hichcock the day before they face Slovenia. "He's one of the top four or five players in the National Hockey League. You can't play him one on one."

For his part, Kopitar is honest abouthis team's chances against Team Canada: not good.

"Everybody knows we're underdogs. And I think we know we are, too. But we've got nothing to lose," he says. "We're going to go out and have fun and play hard and you never know what's going to happen."

He's right. Hockey is a sport notoriously prone to upsets. Belarus proved the unpredictability of hockey at the 2002 Olympic games. As their team set to face Sweden in the quarter-finals, no one thought they had a prayer. Some commentators said not a single Belarusian player could have cracked the Swedish roster. Then Belarus stunned everyone by edging out Sweden 4-3. The winning goal was as improbable as the win itself---a 70-foot shot from Vladimir Kopat in the dying minutes that somehow bounced off of Swedish Goalie Tommy Salo's head and into the net.

So if Slovenia has a role-model in their David vs Goliath matchup against Canada, it's probably Belarus. Of course, after beating Sweden, the Belarusians then got crushed by Canada 7-1. So maybe not.

Act 3: The scrappy upstarts play valiantly but are defeated by the defending champions.

As the Canadian players speak to media after their 5-1 victory over Slovenia, two main questions dominated. One, how did Danny Heatley feel about scoring his hat trick. Two, what was up with those Slovenians?

Canada is supposed to demolish them and yet they only lead 1-0 after the first period. When Kopitar scored Slovenia's first goal of the tournament, midway through the second period, the game is still close at 3-1. And Kopitar isn't even their star player. Goalie Robert Kristan, despite his seemingly tattered goalie pads, stops 60 Canadian shots throughout the game. Canada will eventually pull away, but much of the game is closer than the final score reflects.

"He was incredible," says Canadian captain Shane Doan of the Slovenian goalie. "It was nice to see the crowd give him a longer standing ovation. That was special."

Throughout the game, a wing of Slovenian fans---up to 100 Slovenians flew to Nova Scotia to cheer on the team---make so much noise, journalists ask Canadian players afterwards whether they felt like they were playing in Europe.

Slovenia's Emilio Estevez is head coach Mats Waltin, a Swede who was brought in to coach the Slovenian team last November. He's as impressed as anyone with the team's success, but knew a win against Canada might be too much to ask for.

"We're realistic. We know the situation," says Waltin. "This is something special. There are not a lot of players who have the chance to play against Canada in Canada."

The Canada loss was expected. Slovenia has already set its sights on a critical matchup: Latvia.

Act 4: The final climactic battle between the team and its rival that will determine the future paths of all involved.

In the words of Kopitar, the Latvia matchup is "the most important match of the tournament." The Slovenian team has spent the last few years moving up and down between the first and second division of international hockey. Now, the winner of their match-up with Latvia will get to continue on while the loser could be sent down to the lower division to face teams such as Kazakhstan and The Netherlands. Latvia had won the last two games between them.

Even before the game starts, the rabid fans flood the Metro Centre with the sound of drums. The chants of "Latvia" and "Slovenia" blend together and become indistinguishable. Midway through the second period, the tension is yet to be broken with a goal. But while Latvia has fired 22 shots---all stopped by Kristan---Slovenia has only five shots on goal. After making a series of sensational saves, it seems Kristan is keeping Slovenia in the game by sheer will alone.

It takes not one, but two penalty shots for Latvia to finally beat him. Aleksandrs Nizivijs last-second top corner shot barely finds the net and sets off the widely pro-Latvian crowd. From there the game slips out of grasp. Kopitar, who seems to be constantly on the ice, looks too exhausted to take control. An empty net goal at the end of the game puts Latvia up for good 3-0. They've won their third straight, leaving Slovenia to play Friday just to cling to their spot in the upper tier.

Act 5: Lessons are learned, morals expounded and everyone goes home happy. End credits.

So is the Slovenian tournament a bust? Hardly. By playing on the largest stage against the best teams, they hope to spur more youngsters on towards hockey. Apparently, it's working.

"When I was out there a couple years ago I saw some kids playing street hockey. That's something you wouldn't see 15 years ago in Slovenia," says Richard Vuksinic, a resident of Toronto who holds dual citizenship with Slovenia. A hockey-lover, Vuksinic drove to Nova Scotia to cheer on the Slovenian team.

One Slovenian traveller, Igor Zajc, says the sport is taking off in his home country largely because of the international team's stunning successes in the last few years.

"In 2002, when we first made it (into the top division), it was a miracle," he says. "Now it's not a miracle."

Next year the process will be repeated with Hungary playing the major underdog. They'll be in the top division for the first time in 70 years. Even Kopitar, a fierce competitor, says the growth of hockey in countries where it's been on the fringes is more important than winning.

"If anything helps, it's a tournament in Canada playing against Canada and the US. Maybe the young kids are going to watch that and get excited about that and hopefully they'll start playing."

When fans and opponents look at goalie Robert Kristan they see someone who looks entirely beatable. His old, ugly brown pads portray a team desperate for money and high-end equipment. But what Kristan slyly reveals after the opening game, is that the pads are brand new. He ordered the brown colour specifically to look cheap and worn out. He'd rather teams see them as pushovers than what they really are---an up-and-coming threat, a nation where hockey fever is just beginning to take hold.

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