Milan makes his mark in Hungary 

Whistlerite signs in Europe, lights up MOL Liga

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DÉNES MOLNÁR - hungary for hockey Whistler's Garrett Milan has shone with the MOL Liga's Debreceni HK team, scoring five points in his first five games with the team.
  • Photo by Dénes Molnár
  • hungary for hockey Whistler's Garrett Milan has shone with the MOL Liga's Debreceni HK team, scoring five points in his first five games with the team.

It doesn't matter what language you speak on the ice — cheering is universal.

Whistler's Garrett Milan has been inciting plenty of cheering in recent weeks over in Hungary. In five games with Debreceni HK of the MOL Liga, which also hosts teams in Romania and Slovakia, Milan has tallied three goals and two assists.

He scored just over nine minutes into his first game in the league, then helped the squad salvage a point in what was ultimately a shootout loss with a last-minute goal in another game, and assisted on two late goals as Debreceni rolled to a 4-0 win.

Most recently, Debreceni suffered its first regulation loss of the season, 2-1 to league-leading DVTK Jegesmedvék, and has won three of five games since Milan joined the team.

Reached via FaceTime in Debrecen, a city of about 200,000 located in northeastern Hungary, Milan said his plans were initially to play in a lower league before Debreceni made room on their roster for him. MOL Liga teams are only allowed to dress six import players per game, though limits vary from league to league.

"They wanted me originally, and then their import status was actually full, so it kind of fell through," he said. "I was talking to another guy who was based out of Italy and he was talking to teams in Sweden and Germany trying to get a spot for me, but again, (with) import status I was pretty late in the summer, so they're all filled up."

Milan was originally planning to sign a contract with a Belgian club, but as he was at the airport boarding a flight to Brussels, Debreceni swooped in. Milan jumped at the opportunity, given the MOL Liga is a bit better league with better pay.

"They wanted to bring me in on a two-week trial basis because some of their imports weren't doing as well as they thought," he said. "During my layover in Philadelphia, I called the coach in Belgium and said 'Hey, I got an opportunity to play in a better league for a little bit more money.'

"He was understanding about it. He was really good about it."

Milan was connected to the Debreceni HK through Robert Izsak, a forward from Maple Ridge who holds dual citizenship in Hungary. The life of an import isn't an easy one, especially with added pressure to produce. Milan has thus far more than proven his worth to the team, though.

"Coming in here, if you're an import, they definitely want you to score goals," he said. "They're not going to waste an import spot on a guy that's going to be playing on a lower line.

"Nine minutes into my first game I got my first goal, so it was a relief to get it done and get it over with."

Though Izsak has helped him along adjusting to Hungarian life, there still are some challenges associated with moving halfway across the world. Milan noted most teams have an English-speaking coach, though Russian Dmitri Romanov helms Debreceni HK.

"He only speaks Russian — doesn't speak Hungarian or English. We have a double translation going on in practice or video sessions. He'll say in Russian what happened and our captain translates into Hungarian and then a couple guys who speak Hungarian and English translate to us," he said, noting roughly 90 per cent of the Hungarian population also does not speak English.

Milan noted the players in MOL Liga often have some experience in some of the top North American leagues including the second-tier American Hockey League as professionals, or the Western Hockey League as juniors.

Though the crowds aren't what Milan was used to as a former NCAA Division I hockey player for the St. Cloud State Huskies, the fans who come out express their appreciation for hockey.

"They get into it. They get loud. There may not be 10,000 to 15,000 like some college rinks, but they blow horns, they have bells, they have whistles," he said. "They're all standing up. They're not sitting down when they're watching the game, so it's kind of a cool atmosphere.

"They have chants. In my first two or three days here before I even got on the ice, they played two games. I was in Budapest and I was sitting watching the game with one of the players. The whole crowd was doing this chant and I had no idea what was going on through this whole thing. I asked what they were saying and (the player) said 'What a game! What a game! Holy, what a game!' It was pretty fun."


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