Ivan Puzic, Croatia's defensive cornerstone for years to come. Photo: Sarunas Mazeika
From Zagreb to Czech top division
Steely resolve has seen Croatia's 22-year-old blueliner Ivan Puzic play at the top level in Czech Republic and the Champions Hockey League.
While the poster-boy of Croatian hockey, Borna Rendulic grabs most of the headlines, performances at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Kaunas has proved that there is more to their game as a new generation is making its mark.
Seven on the current Croatia roster competing in Division 1B in Kaunas are part of a generation born 1995/96. One of the leading players from that crop now stamping his authority on the team is 22-year-old blueliner Ivan Puzic.
His no-nonsense play with grit and determination are qualities which have stood him in good stead since leaving his native Zagreb eight years ago to fulfil his dream to make a living out of hockey.
"It's been in my head ever since I was a kid, so I went to Czech Republic on my own when I was 14 to be a professional hockey player," said Puzic.
Josef Halouzka, a Czech coach then working for KHL Mladost Zagreb utilized his contacts as Vitkovice from the steel city of Ostrava became Puzic's next port of call.
"We had been travelling from Zagreb to tournaments in Czech Republic in the past. The languages were similar so moving there was not very different compared to let's say when Borna Rendulic went from Croatia to Finland," he said.
Instead, a world of difference opened itself up in terms of representing a big club in a hockey country with excellent facilities.
"We were training twice a day and the club had two rinks inside the same arena in Vitkovice. In Croatia we had two indoor rinks in the whole country," said Puzic.
Soon tasting success and becoming Czech U18-champion with his new club, Puzic had already played for the senior team in the Champions Hockey league when he made a temporary return home to make his debut at the 2016 World Championship Division 1B.
"It was great to play in my home city after being away for six years, my family was there to watch me and it was a proud moment in my career," he said as Croatia had the chance to win bronze ahead of their final game against Lithuania before, in the end, having to settle for fourth spot.
Upon his return to Czech Republic, Puzic has played a handful of games during each of the last two seasons for Vitkovice. Being an import player does not help his prospects and Puzic has spent time out on loan in the Czech second tier before in January temporarily returning back to Croatia to suit up for Medvescak in EBEL. Currently out of contract he will weigh up his options come close season.
"I have some offers that I will consider after the World Championship, but having been in Czech Republic for eight years I would like to stay there," said Puzic.
A wish to stay put where they are also applying for Croatia. Enio Sacilotto's men arrived in Kaunas with the ambition to hang on to their place in Division 1B
A disciplined display in their opening day loss against Lithuania was then followed up by coming close to upset Japan. They then got their reward in game three when toppling Ukraine 4-2.
With three points gained they are up against high-flying Estonia next, before a potential nail-biter against Romania awaits during the final day to stay in the division.
"It will be tough, but we must continue to play with our heart and for Croatia," said Puzic.