The Hungarian National U18 team is spending their Christmas in Alberta this year, for the 39th annual Mac’s AAA Midget Hockey Tournament, and they couldn’t be happier about it.
“Pretty much a dream come true, to come here and play what I love,”Akos Szigeti, a 17-year old player for Hungary, said. “Play hockey and see the difference between us and the Canadian guys because we all know that Canadians are the best.”
“It was my dream, and when we landed at the airport, I was just so happy,” Karolv Balazs Toth, a Hungarian netminder, said.
It’s the first time this Hungarian national team made up of players 17 years of age and under have made the trip Calgary.
Another milestone in what’s already been an historic year for hockey in Hungary.
In May, the men’s national team won their first game at the World Championships in 77 years, when they beat Belarus 5-2.
“It was a huge thing not just for hockey, but for the whole country,” Tamas Sille, the U18 assistant coach and a former national team player, said.
Just last week, the Under-20 team, including several players from the U18 team, defeated Slovenia on home ice to move to Division 1A in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). Meaning, next year they’ll play for spot in the World Junior tournament.
Hockey in Hungary, is on the rise.
“It’s getting more popular in Hungary, like more kids,” Sille said. “The hockey is a more dynamic sport than like soccer, so kids like it.”
“We’re good at swimming, water polo. Hockey is not a very big sport there, but we’re coming up and up,” Szigeti said.
“We want to get hockey to a higher level and that’s why the coaches take the guys out to Canada, cause it’s a good chance for us,” Toth said.
One of the men responsible for the sports growth in the Hungary, is actually from Okotoks.
Glen Williamson, a former National Hockey League scout and coach, has taken over the countries development program, which now very much resembles Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence.
“I wanted the Canadian stamp on this program because I believe we have the best development program,” Williamson said.
In a country with close to 10,000,000 people, less than five thousand currently play hockey, over 3,600 of which are juniors. But those numbers continue to grow with each passing year.
“The coaches have bought in, the players have bought in, now we’re really seeing great strides forward. And it’s really interesting to see the cultural part of it,” Williamson said. “We’re having great success and it’s making the country really excited.”
The Mac’s Tournament is another step in the development process. An opportunity to bring some much needed exposure to their program, while seeing how they measure up to hockey in Canada.
“You can read, you can watch it on the TV, but seeing it live and to be a part of that, that’s a huge experience for them,” Sille said.
“We bring them over young kids, and take them back young men,” Williamson added. “They become believers, we’re going to have kids play in the NHL, that’s part of why we’re here.”
But as the players quickly point out, it’s not just about the experience.
Hungary will begin the Mac’s Midget Tournament on Boxing Day at Max Bell Arena with a game against the Calgary Flames.