Bosnia moves on up
by Henrik MANNINEN|01 MAR 2024
photo: © Jaca KALAC
Bosnia & Herzegovina rose to the occasion to win gold at the 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Group B in Sarajevo.
Needing a regular-time win in a pulsating closing game for gold versus the Democratic People´s Republic of Korea, the hosts twice came from behind to record a memorable 4-2 victory in front of jubilant home crowd of 1,700 inside Skenderija Sports Arena.
The victory marks an important milestone in the history of ice hockey in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Their men´s team now got their hands on the gold medals in World Championship play for the first time. The Bosnians now move up to skate at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Group A next year.
Earlier in the tournament Bosnia & Herzegovina had opened up with 3-0 blanking of Iran but then lost 3-4 in overtime versus Hong Kong, China. They quickly got back into their stride downing the Philippines 6-3 before a Nikko Gakovic hat-trick inspired them to beat Singapore 9-2.
In Thursday night´s showdown for promotion versus DPR Korea, the tournament´s top forward Chun Rim Hong had opened the scoring with a wrister from the top of the left dot past Dino Pasovic after just 1:56.
The two teams had only locked horns once before in World Championship play. In April 2015, DPR Korea inflicted Bosnia & Herzegovina with their biggest defeat in a 13-0 blanking.
Bosnia´s netminder Pasovic had featured in the first two periods during that game. Nine years later, he had to be at his best when denying Ji Ung Ryu who one-timed a diagonal feed by Chung Hyok Kim before the Bosnian defense threw themselves valiantly to keep the puck out of their net. In the next move, the hosts got on the scoreboard. Din Alen Filipovic chased the puck and won the battle with DPR Korea blueliner Chung Nam Choe behind the Korean net to pick out Gakovic in the slot who tied the game at 14:42.
DPR Korea returned to World Championship play for the first time since relegation from the 2019 IIHF World Championship Division IIB in Mexico City. Nine players remained on their roster five years later.
One of those is the influential team captain Hong. The top scorer of the tournament with 20 points (11+9) in five games put DPR Korea back in the lead on the powerplay with his and Korea´s second of the night with 2:17 left of the first period when firing his shot from the
point past Pasovic.
Having arrived in Sarajevo with 18 skaters and two goalies, DPR Korea used their top two lines relentlessly throughout the tournament. Against them stood the tournament´s youngest roster Bosnia also fielded the tallest and heaviest team. Those factors all proved to be important as the hosts came out in the second period to tilt the encounter in their favour.
"DPR Korea is a very disciplined and strong team, but they don´t have much individual play or skills. For us, it was a bit hard in the beginning as they put pressure on us. But we figured out how to play them in the second period and then we were in pretty good control of the game," said Gakovic.
One month prior, Canadian head coach Ross MacLean had already guided Bosnia´s U20 to gold in Division IIIB at this very venue. Having drafted eight players from that roster to the men´s team, two of those setup Bosnia´s 2-2 goal when Kwang Song Ryu sat out a roughing minor. 16-year-old blueliner Vasilije Vucinic found Belmin Sinanbegovic who to the right of DPR Korea netminder Kwang Su Jo picked out Dino Cordalija who steered home the equalizing goal at 37:16.
With the momentum now with the hosts, the home crowd was once again on their feet 40 seconds later as Bosnia went in front. Netminder Pasovic had to be alert once again to deny DPR Korea twice before Adnan Mlivic drove up with the puck on a three-on-one rush. Denny Miskic saw his initial effort saved by Jo in DPR Korea´s net before debutant Andreas Andrijasevic forced home the rebound at 37:56.
In the final frame, heroic defending from the Bosnian rearguard and inspiring netminding by Pasovic kept DPR Korea at bay. At 42:57 the lively Miskic hit the nail in the coffin when stretching Bosnia´s lead to 4-2 before the Skenderija Sports Arena erupted in joyous celebrations.
photo: © Jaca KALAC
Blocking 45 shots in a monumental performance, 38-year-old netminder bowed out on a high after his most memorable performance in the white,blue and yellow jersey.
"I am finishing my national career tonight and it´s coming full circle here in Sarajevo where it all started 21 years ago. I made my debut on 7 February 2003 with the U18 national team which was Bosnia & Herzegovina´s first appearance in IIHF competition," said Pasovic.
He was top of the goalie standings for the 2024 gold medal winners with a 2.21 GAA and 93.53 save percentage. He was voted the best goaltender of the tournament for the second consecutive year at a Division IIIB played in Sarajevo.
"It is one of the best games I played. The whole team helped me a lot blocking shots in what was a really tough game. We are the team who conceded the least goals, so we played good in defence all tournament," said Pasovic who together with teammates Nermin Alic, Haris Mrkva and Tarik Catovic were all part of the Bosnia & Herzegovina team debuting at the 2015 World Championship Division III in Izmir, Türkiye.
In the second consecutive season the Division IIIB was held at the very same venue in Sarajevo, it coincided with the city shrouded in nostalgia celebrating the 40th year since the 1984 Winter Olympics was held in the city. Out on the Skenderija ice, there were also signs of a prosperous future for Bosnian hockey. 19-year-old Gakovic is one the brightest stars for the future who already won gold U18 and U20 with the national team program.
"Having had experience winning gold medals before helped a lot. I wasn´t that nervous before this game," said Gakovic who already is looking forward to what is to come in next year´s Division IIIA.
"We already played against a couple of the teams we will face on the next level, so we know how it might be, so I think we have a chance to stay in the division," he said.
photo: © Jaca KALAC

Third spot for Hong Kong, China; Iran steps down

In the first out of eight men´s IIHF World Championship tournaments played this season, five Asian teams brandishing and attack-minded hockey had converged to the European hosts in Sarajevo.
Hong Kong, China finished with their second consecutive bronze at this level, but were left thinking of what could have been. In their opener, Nikita Smirnov´s coached team squandered a 5-1 lead versus silver medalists DPR Korea to end up losing 8-10. They then redeemed themselves somewhat in their next game by silencing the home crowd when winning in overtime versus Bosnia, despite holding a two-goal lead. Chung Pan Justin Cheng was the team´s top scorer and second overall with 17 points (6+11) in five games.
Having won Division IV last year, the Philippines arrived in Sarajevo to stay in the division. Beating Singapore 6-3 in their opener and then finding goals easy to come by in a 14-2 win versus Iran saw them finish fourth.
In the battle to stay in the division, Singapore beat Iran 8-5 on the final day to finish fifth. Winless Iran drops down to Division IV, but showed several positive signs of progress made under new head coach Sami Karppinen. The average age of the team was cut considerably with Iran skating with the second youngest team in Sarajevo with one eye towards the 2025 Asian Winter Games in Harbin, China.