Written by Kimberly Nicolaus
Talented European students with a passion for ice hockey often have to choose between competitive sport and tertiary education. Combining this used to be easier in the United States, but with the support of the European Union, there’s now an alternative for studying and playing top hockey in the heart of Europe.
Crowded streets in Slovakia’s small capital Bratislava. While sightseeing, many visitors are wearing ice hockey outfits shirts and holding flags; most common are the colors representing Finland, the country that battles Canada for the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Bratislava this Sunday evening, May 26th.
Ice Hockey is the number one sport in Slovakia. Bruno Mizerak, a 20-year-old student in Bratislava, was already ice-skating at the age of four. “I liked ice hockey from the beginning and as I started watching games on TV, I became more ambitious”, tells Bruno.
Since the 2017-2018 season, Bruno is a 6-foot-2, 187-pound defense for the Diplomats Pressburg team backed up by University of International and Public Relations, Prague and the Educational and Consulting Institute, Bratislava. Diplomats Pressburg is playing in the European University Hockey League (EUHL), established in 2013 and the first-ever regular university ice hockey league in Europe. The league is organized and managed by the European University Hockey Association (EUHA), a non-political association.
For the current season, the core part of the EUHL is the eastern division with 12 universities from three countries: the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. The north division currently exists as a partner league of EUHL, with five university teams from Sweden, Estonia and Latvia.
However, Bruno has actually used to play ice hockey not in Europe but in the United States.
When he was 16, he moved from Slovakia to the United States and was a defenseman in Casper, Wyoming, in the Western States Hockey League (WSHL). During his first ice hockey season, two more Slovakian defensemen played in his team, called the Casper Coyotes; 23 of the 38 team members were Europeans. Thus, Bruno is one out of many Europeans pursuing the same aim: going to college in the United States and playing in the college hockey league established by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which is one of the best leagues in the world.
In fact, the number of Europeans playing in the college league NCAA Division I increased. In the 2008-2009 season, there were only 34 European players. Nearly ten years later, there are 106 Europeans. Moving to the United States offers outstanding hockey players more chances. According to the 2016 study on the minimum quality requirements for dual career services of the European Commission, ice hockey players who study in another European country are expected to arrange their own support, whereas those going to the US are enrolled in organized programs combining sport and study. So, the college league can be a breeding ground. Especially, because today college hockey players make a bigger impact in the National Hockey League (NHL) than ever before, with more than 30 percent of the league coming from the US college ranks, as stated by College Hockey Incorporated.
Viewed realistically, Bruno explains: “It’s hard to get into the college hockey league. I’ve spent two years on the waiting list to get a paid scholarship.” However, this was not the only reason why he returned to Slovakia. During an ice hockey game, he had been badly injured and needed to have surgery back home.
Today, Bruno is in the second year of his bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of International and Public Relations in Bratislava. But ice hockey still plays an important role in his life: “I grew up in the hockey community and I just cannot stop something that I have done for so long.” That’s why he’s a defenseman for Diplomats Pressburg in Bratislava. He has four training sessions of 60 minutes during the week plus a game in the weekend. At the same time, he points out: “What would happen if I quit hockey? What if I don’t get a good contract and cannot make much money? That’s why studying must be my first priority.”
In Bruno’s opinion, his college team has the same opportunities as professional ice hockey players: “We can seriously compare the managing, the locker rooms, the equipment and the ice arena, actually everything with some of the teams in high Slovakian leagues.” Which is not self-evident, because the type of sport is quite expensive.
That’s why a financial injection was needed to establish the initial infrastructure of EUHL. “It would not have been possible without the private financial investment of Lubomir Sekeras, a former NHL player”, says president Jaroslav Straka. Besides sponsors and Bruno’s university, the European Union also supports the ice hockey team Diplomats Pressburg within the EUHA. The hockey association is one of many projects that are supported with the Erasmus+ program and receives an EU Grant of 314.660 euro between January 2018 till Juli 2019. President Straka explains that the money has been used for organizing regular transnational meetings and hockey games.
“With its support, the European Union encourages students to study, but also to play ice hockey”, says Bruno. But the support for dual careers among national governments differs. As stated in the 2017 national report about the actual status of dual careers in DC4AC countries, the situation in Slovakia is unfavorable: “Nothing has been done so far in the area of preparing legislative and regulative changes related to dual careers of top athletes in sport.” So far, the EUHA is still in negotiations with the Slovak government, as EHUA-president Straka points out.
Since the European University Hockey League just started six years ago, Bruno made clear that the level of US college hockey is way better. “But the European league is making big steps and we’re getting better from year to year.” EUHA-President Straka affirms: “Our goal is to benchmark college leagues in the United States.” Therefore, it could only be a matter of a few years until ice hockey players in the EUHL can compete with those of the US college league; and with that moving to the United States is less necessary.