Jesenice on its Deathbed?
Acroni Jesenice ice hockey club has been the pride of sport in the Gorenjska region but dark clouds hover above its future.
With its 32 national titles (23 as Yugoslav champions and 9 as Slovene) in its 53-year history, Jesenice are a phenomenon also on a larger scale. They set ice hockey standards for the whole of former Yugoslavia. In recognition of their quality and charisma and due to no proper competition at home, they became the first non-Austrian team to join in the expanded Austrian championship in 2006. Other teams must have been jealous but were gradually also let in and the EBEL league, as it is known, now gives shelter to five foreign clubs from four different countries (Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia and Hungary).
Things started well and Jesenice were a force to reckon in the first couple of years, but that was also when problems started to mount. Looking back and according to former president Slavko Kanalec, it seems that the management was overspending on the team. While it was possible to be competitive with local boys in Yugoslavia and Slovenia, being on a par with the best in Austria required bringing in expensive foreign players. Frequent changes in the staff during the last couple of years can also provide an explanation that things hadn’t gone smoothly long before the recent problems surfaced.
Very early into this season, foreign players left Jesenice en masse. When locals followed them it was clear that something was seriously wrong. The EBEL league board gave the team an ultimatum: either pay the players or you leave the league with immediate effect. Another problem was that there was no competent partner on Jesenice’s side as Kanalec had resigned only a few weeks earlier amid accusations of corruption and even threats from the fans. The mayor of Jesenice, Tomaž Tom Mencinger stepped in and promised that players would be paid.
For now, Jesenice have evaded the worst scenario but it is feared that this is far from the end of the story. If Jesenice indeed collapse and go back to amateur basics it could well signal the end of professional ice hockey not only in Gorenjska but Slovenia as a whole. While it is difficult to believe that a rich sponsor will appear, some optimists suggest that Anže Kopitar, a native of Jesenice and now an established NHL star, could one day appear with a big bag of money and simply buy the club.
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