‘Bull’ on Ice

Young Croatian Hockey Talent Jurica Bednjanec Has Made the Cut to the Salzburg League Team

Most of us have dreamed of growing up to be the next Wayne Gretsky, Micheal Jordan, or even the players no one has really heard of but still has heard about, if you know what that means.  These are the players that also play the big games and score the big goals; the players that live the dreams that we all dream.

And so we always assume that these people are above all gifted, that they live a luxurious life and that they are overpaid for their 90 minutes or so chasing a ball around a sports arena.  And sometimes this is the case. But not always.

The reality of professional sports is not as glamorous as people think, and at the end of the day it is, for the vast majority, a very hard job.

Jurica Bednjanec is a professional ice hockey player currently signed with the Salzburg Red Bulls. He plays both junior hockey, in the starting line up of the U20 team and on the second division senior team, where he is a regular player. It took thousands of hours practice, hundreds of hours traveling the continent for tournaments, and the constant discipline of never allowing your body to get the “better” of you to get there. It’s hard work always staying fit, never taking risks outside the sport and never really enjoying the simple pleasures that other teenagers take for granted.

Bednjanec is not the type who stays down when hit. Faster than the speed of light he gets up again and makes sure that whatever allowed that initial hit does not happen again.  Bednjanec is a fighter.
Originally from Zagreb, Croatia, he started what is now nearly a sixteen year hockey career at the age of four on the only ice rink in town.

He found ice hockey by chance as he tagged along to the sports centre for his father’s regular basketball games.  “I saw some other kids playing hockey while I was watching my father playing basketball and I wanted to join.  My father signed me up; and I stayed,” Bednjanec added with a chuckle. Not dad’s wish, exactly…

The timing of his entry into the sport was critical. Born in 1987, the country dissolved into civil war just as he was starting out and for a period of two years Zagreb was under constant threat from Serbian forces.  Taking to bomb shelters was not uncommon, and the ability to train was considered a luxury.  Fortunately for the city residents, after two years the frontier moved away from the city and life started going back to normal, as did practice.

Practice took place at an ice rink without a roof.  Training sessions were often held early in the morning at sunrise, red sky, mild weather, and a gentle breeze were frequent.  Situated on a smaller hill, approximately 100 meters above the rest of the city, the view you get is marvelous. And so young Bednjanec would be accompanied to practice by one of his parents, who both agree that memories of these early mornings shall not be forgotten.

With so few active in the sport, Bednjanec often played for several junior teams at the same time. He learnt to take hits much harder than he could return and he had to chase the puck against boys who were superior in size and strength. It not only made him tougher but it also taught him that he should never stay down.

For a long time, though, it didn’t seem as though Bednjanec was anything more than a kid with a dream.  As a pre-teen, he was good, but not outstanding.  “I realised only at 16 that I could play,” he commented.

He is above all the most determined. He is the first one to arrive at practice and the last to leave.  Many nights, he stays alone on the ice to work.  Even as a youngster, while most of the team went to the beach to lie in the sun, Bednjanec traveled to play hockey in other countries.

“Jurica is a hard worker. We never pushed him; he was always excited to play.  He would never give up,” says his father Robert Bednjanec.

The first time I met Bednjanec was in the autumn of 1997, when I moved to Croatia.  I joined his home club of “Mladost,” and we played together, often in the same formation, for the next three years.  The training sessions were tough; the facilities were far from perfect and we often played outside. Many Saturdays we would travel to a Slovenian city to play in their league, which was both larger and stronger than the Croatian.

By the time Bednjanec turned 12, hockey as a sport was gaining momentum in Croatia.  With more teams, more age groups, and the same number of facilities, training time became scarce. At times trainings were scheduled at ten in the evening, and for kids who had to wake up for school the next morning this was not all that easy. Playing league games at times took place during the late evening hours of weekdays, and if there was no game then there was practice. As he grew older the trainings hours per week increased.  It was no longer possible to maintain good enough fitness by just training on ice so at the age of 13 trainings in gyms was introduced.

At the time in life when the sport becomes serious and each player needs to start thinking about his future, Bednjanec felt as if he was not getting enough support from the team nor from the Croatian Federation.  At the same time that he was getting introduced to life and the many other pleasures and hardships which accompany any teenager, he choose to give hockey a shot. He moved away from home at 15, to the Austrian town of Klagenfurt.

Not knowing the language or any people, he left his friends and family behind to go and live with his current manager, Tommy Sijan, an ex hockey player from Austria. He attended the sport gymnasium in Klagenfurt, joined one of the major teams in Austria, KAC, while at the same time managing to finish the Austrian Matura. After his first year in Austria he was traded to the other major club in Kaernten, Pasut VSV, where he spent the next two years of his career.  Playing with the U18 and U20 teams regularly, made his senior Austrian first league debut.

Success in the summer of 2006 brought him to Salzburg where he now resides. Currently in the playoffs of the U20 first league of Austria, he is still unsure of what his future will bring.  At the end of the season he has the choice to either stay in Salzburg or to switch clubs and join with Bregenzerwald.

“They are offering a better contract, but I have still to decide,” he said. There are a lot of issues. “I still lack the routine to be guaranteed a place in the first league. Playing for Bregenzerwald, I would definitely get some, so it might not be a bad idea,” Bednjanec concludes.

Routine is on the way, for as he is playing hockey every day, two to three games every week and representing Croatia in the national team, it should only be a matter of time before he takes that final step, the step he is already making.  He has after all, already participated in seven youth world championships for Croatia in the B and C world groups, and has snatched several medals. This year he made his national senior level debut at a preparation tournament for the world championships which are later to be held in Zagreb this upcoming April.

What made him different?  Tens of thousands of children start to play hockey, yet only a few dozens make it this far. It is the work, Bednjanec concludes.  Talent may get you recognised, and talent is important, but it is not enough. You also need motivation, fun and friendship.

And lots of practice.

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