Ivan Hlinka Memorial: The Best Hockey That You’re Probably Not Watching
by NHL Scouting Expert Eric Weissman
The month of August is when hockey season begins these days. There used to be an off-season window, not so much anymore. Or it’s at least significantly shrinking. Year-wide action is good for the game, and thanks to the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, which began again this week, is happening at the international level. If you’re a fan who follows the season up through the draft in June, you should follow this tournament or at least know about it.
The Talent Comes to Buffalo
The Hlinka tournament hype starts immediately after the NHL draft. USA Hockey holds their select camps in Buffalo during the last week in June. The tryout camps used to be held in Rochester, and it was usually a week or two after draft. Nowadays, it’s more than common place to have a plane full of NHL scouts en route to Buffalo, either later that night or the following morning. The group of players selected that week will go on to represent the United States at this eight nation international tournament. This particular group of players is unique in that it’s the only time throughout the season where draft eligible American players, in a tournament setting, will compete along side one another from the various levels of amateur hockey. You have US born players who decided to cross the border going the Canadian junior route, mixed in with the top future NCAA players. The college bound kids are coming out of leagues like the USHL, NAHL, Prep Hockey, and Minnesota high school. Occasionally you might even get an incoming college bound freshman (See: Ryan Poehling, Montreal 1st round pick who loaded up his classes in high school so he could graduate a year early, entering college hockey at only 17 years old). This American team is unlike highly-regarded United States Development Program (or USDP), which normally otherwise represents the country in U18 International play. The Americans have the challenge of coming together quickly as a cohesive team unit. This can be quite a task, especially considering the other European teams are generally used to sticking together as already solidified national programs.
Pressure on Canada
Between both the United States and Canada, a strong portion of the draft’s top talent begins their draft year at the Hlinka Memorial Tournament. For Canada the pressure is poured on each year, given their perennially strong pool of available players. Unlike the IIHF Under U18 Tournament in the spring, Canada has the ‘pick of the litter’ so to speak, to kick off the season. That’s because the end of the year Team Canada squad may not be as strong. The other significant annual Under 18 tournament, which takes place in mid to late April, conflicts with the Canadian Hockey League playoff schedule. Players will stay with their primary team, while they compete for a Memorial Cup, the highly coveted trophy that represents the three Canadian major junior leagues. Canada also loses players because of the fact that by that time in the year, players are often banged up and not able to compete due to injuries from their long junior season. When piecing together their summer squad at the beginning of the season, losing players to schedule conflicts or injuries isn’t an issue. This makes the Canadians especially difficult to handle this time at this venue.
Happy Birthday, or Late Birthday
The other competing countries also send their best draft eligible under 18 players. Participants from all nations have to turn 18 prior to the NHL imposed draft birthday cutoff, September 15. Players born after that date fall into the following years draft, and are commonly known as ‘late birthdays’. They can compete the year before their draft year, making up the ‘underage’ pool of players. That usually establishes their pre-draft hype a whole year in advance, especially with a strong performance at this event.
The organizing committee’s ability to market the product at home in the Czech Republic and in Europe has allowed this tournament to evolve and draw major attention. That’s increased it’s significance in the hockey world.
The majority of scouts and NHL personnel fly to Vienna, Austria and from there, it’s a short drive to Bratislava, where they stay for the week. Bratislava is, in my humble opinion, a severely underrated European city. Picture a scaled down version of Prague without the inevitable hoards of tourists. It is a picturesque capitol city, resting peacefully along the Danube River, its old world prices and cozy narrow streets that weave through the city center make it a very enjoyable stay. Bratislava hosts one the rinks. But the real gem of this event is the other host, across the border in the Czech Republic. Breclav is a sleepy yet pleasant Czech town nestled in the South Moravian region, modestly known for their local wine making.
Hockey in the Woods, with Beer & Wine
As you take the exit for Breclav, a drive through their village takes you along a long stone path to the Zimni Stadion (rink). Looking at it from a fan perspective, the arena is a total throwback. Located in the woods adjacent to an old castle-turned-brewery. Inside, the atmosphere is authentic and lively, especially when the Czechs are playing. Chants, drums, cheap beer are front and center all night. Beer not your thing? Try bambus, a locally concocted mixture of equal parts pilsner and red wine, prepared conveniently in a 2 liter rinsed out soda bottle. That one is BYOB though, which seems to be pretty generally accepted. This particular venue is the kind of rink where you get to truly absorb the culture. Czechs are friendly by nature and if they spot you rocking a Sabres logo, they wont hesitate to engage you in a broken yet spirited conversation about how Dominik Hasek is the best net minder of our time. Renovations have brought minor changes, like replacing the wooden seats with plastic ones but this town holds a place in my heart. It’s the kind of place you think about and miss.
Recent agreements have allowed for a change in venue for the first time ever. Next year the tournament will be held in Edmonton, AB. The event host will change hands every other year between Edmonton and Bratislava / Breclav.
Over the years, an increased awareness due largely to a growing social media presence has allowed the Ivan Hlinka Memorial to evolve at a strong pace. Games are streamed online. Clips are readily re-tweeted, and recent success for the Czech team has vastly increased their popularity throughout the small yet passionate country.
It is a successful event on a lot of levels whether you’re a fan, scout, or player. The increased attention is well deserved, helping to bridge the gap between the summer excitement of the draft / free agency, to the start of the season.