Finding the blend

Croatia's Nathan Perkovich (left) in action against the Netherlands at the 2017 IIHF World Championships Div IB. Photo: Ian Offers, GBSC.

Perkovich praises Croatian youth

With small player pool to call on, but a handful of players with KHL experience, Croatia has a distinctive roster. Nathan Perkovich talks about his role.

Croatia came to Belfast with an unusual blend on its roster. On the one hand, several players boast KHL experience, on the other the country relies heavily on a small pool of young talent.

Head coach Enio Sacilotto is trying to combine rookie players seeking to show they can build a pro career with guys who spent the previous season facing some of the top players in Europe in the colours of Medvescak Zagreb.

But for Nathan Perkovich, one of the senior players on Sacilotto’s roster, the key to success is ensuring that everyone – from youngster to old-stager – can play a full part in the team. And he sees no need to reduce expectations from his country’s emerging prospects, even if Croatian hockey is building from a small base.

“You mustn’t forget that our young guys grew up playing hockey since they were little,” he said. “That love for the game is the same with them as it would be in any other country. Now they have a great opportunity because they’ve gotten Croatia to this level.

“I’m lucky to qualify for a Croatian passport. I’ve played in Zagreb for the last five years and it’s been a good ride.

“Maybe there’s a little pressure on us older players, a couple of us have been in a higher league and that’s something where myself, (Tomislav) Zanoski, (Mike) Glumac can come in and help out. But everyone has to show up. It can’t just be two or three guys, it’s not possible to beat another team with only a couple of players, and when our younger guys have been on the ice they’ve been doing great.”

At the end of last season, Medvescak announced its intention to return to the Austrian EBEL, but a final verdict on the team’s KHL status is only due when that league confirms its list of participants for the coming season. But Perkovich, a 31-year-old native of Michigan whose Croatian ancestry makes him eligible to play for the country, believes that his experience of four KHL campaigns has helped him grow as a player.

“It’s definitely developed my game,” said the one-time New Jersey Devils draft pick. “Before playing in the KHL I had more of a scoring role; now I’m more of a penalty killer, a grinder. It’s nice to learn a different part of the game and its good to see myself doing that.”

He also believes that it has helped several of Croatia’s younger players gain an insight into what it takes to play at the highest level.

“We have young guys training with Medvescak, they are learning the systems every day,” Perkovich said. “We can see guys coming through like [Matija] Milicic, [Ivan] Jankovic, and even guys like [Marko] Ljubic who have been here for a little while. They know what they’re doing, they’ve played this game for a long time and they can play.

“The KHL has been a little bit faster-paced than they are used to, but they are learning about the importance of playing the systems as a team. Our kids are learning, and hopefully that will make Croatian hockey stronger in the future.

“It’s not easy, it’s a big wake-up call for some of these young lads, but they are learning what it takes to be a professional. They say they are good enough to play in this league, so it’s great for them to get some games and understand just how fast-paced it all is, they experience the physicality, the mental preparation and the day-to-day shenanigans that make you a top player.”

As for Belfast, Croatia made a slow start with defeats against Great Britain and Japan, but recovered to reach a final-day showdown  with Lithuania for a bronze medal. Ultimately the Baltic nation proved too strong, making the podium for the fourth year running, but despite the disappointment Perkovich was fairly happy with his week in Northern Ireland.

“All in all, it’s been a lot of fun,” he smiled.

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