Levente Szuper put it best.
“It is not every day you play Canada as a Hungarian,” said the former member of the Ottawa 67s, who was the first Hungarian-born goalie to be drafted by an NHL team when Calgary selected him 116th overall in 2000.
The last time Hungary played in the "A" pool of international hockey was 70 years ago when the tournament was, coincidentally, held in Switzerland. Hungary lost the two games it played in 1939 and began a long spiral to the depths of the world rankings.
They’ve climbed back to the top 16 in the world, and Szuper's underdog Hungarians play Canada in Switzerland on Sunday in what promises to be a career highlight game for the Europeans.
After Canada beat Belarus 6-1 in the tournament-opening game on Friday, Hungary played Slovakia and Szuper and friends were 13 seconds away from registering their country’s first-ever point in the elite "A" group.
Almost another miracle
Szuper stopped 62 shots in a 4-3 loss in what is one of those moral victories.
“It was a little bitter at the end,” said Szuper. “It could have been another miracle for Hungarian hockey.”
The miracle reference is linked to when Hungary qualified for the 2009 world championship a year ago by winning a qualifying tournament in Japan. Szuper said winning the right to play in the same competition as Canada, Russia and Sweden was Hungarian hockey’s Miracle On Ice.
“It feels like it was a blessing from God. Every day is a gift,” he said of being in the world elite "A" pool. “What you see at this level, every day, is different and you have to really cherish it and you have to live for the moment. We are fortunate to be part of this.
“When we arrived back home [from Japan after winning the qualifying tournament], there were 1,500 fans at the airport to greet us. You see these kinds of things [receptions for returning national sports heroes] on television but you never dream to be part of it.”
The Hungarians are also competing with a heavy heart. The team’s heart and soul player, Gabor Ocskay, died of heart attack in March. He appeared in 187 national team games for Hungary and was one of the most successful players in Hungary.
Ocskay was part of a national hockey program that has 2,076 players in Hungary using 44 arenas, including 14 outdoor rinks.
Montreal-born Pat Cortina signed on as national team coach a handful of years ago and brought structure and guidance to the program, culminating in advancing to the top pool. Some of the national team members have worked 10, 12 years to play in an "A" pool hockey game.
Szuper can be described as perhaps the best Hungarian player, ever. He was the backup goalie on the 67s when they won the Memorial Cup in 1999. He was drafted the next year and spent time with Calgary’s farm team in Saint John, N.B., winning a Calder Cup in 2001.
Szuper started his share of pre-season game and dressed for nine NHL games as a backup but never got a sniff at playing in a regular-season game. Since leaving North America, Szuper has played in Sweden, Finland, Austria, Italy and Hungary.
So close to NHL
But the fact he can say he never played one minute of NHL hockey still irks him.
“There is a little bit of sadness, too, in my mind because I was so close to get to the NHL. That looks a little far right now and I never gave up that dream,” said Szuper. “It is not enough to work hard. It is not enough to be talented and not enough to be everything combined. You have to be lucky too and I do not think I was very fortunate. There is still a piece of me missing. There is a piece of my heart missing.”
The world championships are definitely not the NHL, but slipping his Hungarian national team jersey on to face Canada in a world "A" pool game is as good as it gets.
“We are living a dream and we are happy to be here,” said Szuper. “We want to play our brains out and show people it is not a coincidence.”