They’ve come a long way to be here.
They’ve flown in from Budapest - most connecting through Prague or Warsaw - flights that cost many hundreds of dollars in both directions. They hail from places like Debrecen, Szekesfehervar and other places you’ve never heard of, and likely can’t pronounce.
One particularly hearty trio decided to travel by train and bus, a journey that lead them through Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia – before finally crossing the Russian border and into St. Petersburg some 39 hours after they left.
When asked why one would choose such an arduous route to Russia? “More fun. Drink beer.”
Hard to argue with that logic.
They are the 1,000 or so amazing supporters from Hungary and they arrived here to passionately support their boys – a team that most predicted would finish dead last here in Russia.
They’re seated in two sections of the left end stands – although ‘seated’ is a bit of a misnomer. They don’t sit. Ever. Not during the warm up. Not during the game. Not even during the television timeouts.
Instead, they stand and they bang on drums. They jump and they jump and they jump some more. They chant and they sing, all while their chief choreographer - a man in his mid-thirties - stands with his back to the ice and conducts the orchestra. That gentleman never stops his organizing duties and because of it, he’s barely seen a minute of the action on the ice.
When the period ends, most of them hurriedly make their way outside to the fan zone for a cold beer or three (in fact, their only complaint might be that you can’t drink alcohol in the stands here in Russia, but that might be a good thing). That same routine happens at the end of the game - win or lose.
If you get the feeling the Hungarian supporters are just happy to be here – you’d be right.
After all, the opportunity doesn’t come around very often.
February 3rd, 1939 was the last time Hungary won a game in the top division of the World Championship. On that day in Zurich, they walloped Team Belgium 8-1 in their tournament opener. But six straight losses would follow that year and the Hungarians finished in seventh place. How long ago was that last win for Hungary? Seven months after that victory, Nazi Germany invaded Poland – starting the Second World War.
The World Championship went on hiatus for eight years. And for the 61 years that followed, Hungary failed to qualify for the top flight at the Worlds. Finally in 2008, their fortunes changed. At the Division 1 Championship that year in Japan, the Hungarians finished in first place - earning a promotion to the top division for 2009.
That team was led by captain Gabor Ocskay – widely regarded as the best Hungarian player there’s ever been. But one month before the 2009 World Championship in Switzerland, Ocskay died tragically of a heart attack - just 33 years of age. Hungary went on to lose all six games at that tournament, outscored 29-6. His name now adorns the arena in Szekesfehervar, the home rink of a number of the current Hungarian players. And his No. 19 has been retired – no member of the national team will ever wear it again.
Hungary was quite familiar to tragedy long before Ocskay’s passing. Over the course of its 1,000-year history, the country has seen more than its fair share of heartbreak.
From internal strife, to border conflicts, to outright occupation by other countries – Hungary has had a checkered past.
Their national anthem speaks to that.
Entitled ‘Himnusz’ – literally meaning ‘anthem’ in English – it was never intended to become the national song of Hungary. When written in 1823 by Ferenc Kolcsey, it was simply a poem that told of the country’s various glories and struggles. It became quite popular in Hungary and was soon adopted as the national anthem, but initially didn’t have a musical score to accompany it. That would follow years later – when the Hungarian Ferenc Erkel composed the music that still exists today.
Which brings us back to those wonderful hockey fans that call Hungary home. Before they arrived in Russia, they knew there was a good chance that ‘Himnusz’ would never be played here. After all, when the games are over, only the national anthem of the winning team is played. And there was a very good chance their team wouldn’t have that honour. They knew their anthem might not be played, but they were darn sure it would be heard.
The protocol at the end of a World Championship hockey game is a standard one. Both teams line up on their respective blue lines. Each team has a ‘player of the game’ selected and the players of both teams tap their sticks on the ice as a show of respect for that person’s efforts.
Then, at one end of the rink, connected to some chains and a hoist, the flag of the winning country is raised – while the anthem (not voiced, just the music) is played over the loudspeaker. Then after every single game, the two teams shake hands – one of the best traditions of the event. Once that is through, the losing team is supposed to exit the ice first.
That’s the way it works. It allows the victors the stage to themselves - a chance to salute their supporters and acknowledge them for helping them on to victory.
That protocol changed on Day 1 in St. Petersburg.
You see, the fans of Hungary don’t really care much about the ‘rules.’ This is not to say they are a bunch of thugs with total disregard for authority - quite the opposite actually. They greatly respect the victorious team – often cheering just as loud for the opposition at games’ end as a gesture of respect.
But they demand to honour their team as well. And despite the fact they’re invariably on the wrong end of a lopsided victory – they’re still proud.
Proud of their team. Proud of their country.
So what happens next is technically against the rules – but those rules have been correctly ignored. When Team Hungary plays and loses – the winning team actually exits first. The victors wave to their supporters as they skate off. In a way it’s a very strange thing to see in person – the oddity of the winning team leaving first. But even they understand the importance of what comes next.
The Hungarian players slowly assemble at the blue line closest to their fans. That choreographer that stands in the front row readies the supporters – all dressed in red and green Hungarian colors. The rest of the building falls silent.
And then they sing. Loudly. Proudly. A thousand fans of the losing side, serenading the second-place team.
But the result on the scoreboard never matters to them. They do it to honour the effort. They do it to feel proud of their country. Every time they sing like they’ve just won the World Championship.
They players are treated to a glorious rendition of the first stanza of ‘Himnusz.’ And this is what is heard:
“O Lord, bless the nation of Hungary
With your grace and bounty
Extend over it your guarding arm
During strife with its enemies
Long torn with ill fate
Bring with it a time of relief
This nation has suffered for all sins
Of the past and of the future”
It’s a powerful thing to witness. So powerful in fact, that after their loss to Canada, Taylor Hall (who was waiting to do an interview with TSN’s Ryan Rishaug) asked if it could wait until ‘Himnusz’ was over. He wanted to see it for himself. The wish was granted, as Hall and everyone else in the Yubyleiny Arena came to a halt – most of who were not Hungarians - and were brought to tears by the raw emotion that they witnessed.
Hungary lost their first five games in St. Petersburg – outscored 25-5 in the process. It wasn’t a surprise. Their players are outclassed by the giants of the hockey world. In fact, the results from those first five games were better than most expected – a result of their determination and never-ending effort. They hung in there admirably against the world’s best, but ultimately the sheer talent of the other nations always prevailed.
And that’s what makes what happened here on Saturday afternoon even more special.
To everyone’s surprise, Hungary jumped out to a 2-0 first period lead over Belarus – a team that sat just above them in the Group B standings. But by six minutes into the second period, the Belarusians had tied the game at two and were poised for more. The proverbial wheels were coming off the Hungarian wagon. It appeared that a 17th straight World Championship loss was in the works.
But before the Hungarian fans had a chance to ponder that, Balazs Sebok gave them the lead back. The Hungarian fans went wild. And three minutes later, Vilmos Gallo made it 4-2 for Hungary, sending those fans in the left end zone into an absolute frenzy – and chasing Belarus goaltender Kevin Lalande from the game. It remained a two-goal lead for Hungary at end of two periods and the second intermission parade to the beer garden was even more spirited than usual.
Belarus would come out firing to start the third period, but most of those shots never found the net. Many were blocked by diving Hungarian players willing to do whatever it took to keep the lead. The final 20 minutes were anxious times for their supporters. Could this finally be the day?
To quell the nerves, they did what they did best. They chanted.
“HUN-GA-RIA… HUN-GA-RIA… HUN-GA-RIA…”
As time ticked on with the two-goal lead still intact, those nerves slowly faded. The roar of the fans grew louder as the chances of victory became greater. As the final seconds ticked down, a shorthanded Team Hungary scored on an empty net, sealing the victory.
The players mobbed goaltender Miklos Rajna. Tears of joy flowed in the left end zone. Grown men wept and hugged each other, the red and green face paint they wore now a smeared mess. Many wondered if it was real life or just some wonderful dream that they didn’t want to wake up from.
There was no need to alter the end-of-game protocol on this day. After the player of the game ceremonies were through, a voice came over the public address system – and in broken English, for the first time in 77 years at the top division of the World Hockey Championship, said:
“Ladies and Gentlemen… Please rise for the national anthem of the winning team – Hungary.”
Erkel’s music began to play from the speakers. At the far end of the arena, attached to chains and a hoist, the Hungarian flag began its slow ascent to the rafters. After the opening few notes were over, the Hungarian choir started. Kolcsey’s words were sung with more raw emotion than ever before – by fans and players alike.
A short time later – perhaps about 10 minutes after the anthem had ended and everyone else had left the arena – ushers tried to get the fans in those two end sections to leave. Long after their team had left the ice, they were still there.
Singing. Jumping. Banging on drums.
They never thought they’d see this day come. And they clearly didn’t want it to end.
There was still another game to be played that evening – a tilt between Canada and Slovakia that had playoff implications – but one that in the whole scheme of things meant far less. They were finally convinced to leave so the cleaning staff could prepare for the evening game. Luckily, the lure of the beer garden was an easy sell to get them to head for the exit.
By the hundreds they filed out of the building and made the short walk to the fan zone – singing and dancing the whole way. Fans from the other nations, as well as many local Russian fans joined them in their celebrations. Somewhere I’m sure that the person in charge of ordering beer for the fan zone was on a phone, frantically calling for more supplies.
Before the victorious players from Team Hungary boarded their bus back to the hotel, they made a special appearance in that fan zone. One by one, they filed up the steps and on to the stage. The roar for each player was deafening – the real Rock Stars of Saturday had taken to the stage. The celebration continued well into the St. Petersburg night.
In perhaps the best case of ‘accidentally fortunate’ schedule-making in the history of sport, Team Hungary had Sunday off. In fact, they don’t play until the evening time slot on Monday night. That’s welcome news for the Hungarian players - whose efforts to preserve that third period lead were legendary. The team cancelled their full practice Sunday, as only the goaltenders took to the ice for a shortened session. Many of their supporters are taking the day off too - diagnosed with hangovers 77 years in the making.
On Monday night, Hungary will meet Germany in their last game at this year’s World Championship. They didn’t earn enough points to make it to the playoff round. But if a couple of remaining games go in their favour, they won’t be relegated and will make their way to Germany or France to once again compete in hockey’s top division in 12 months’ time.
Their fans will surely be there as well.
Just like it had two centuries ago, ‘Himnusz’ began right here in St. Petersburg as only words.
On Saturday afternoon, they added the music.
Kevin Pratt is a long-time producer at TSN who works on the network’s International Hockey coverage, Season of Champions Curling and MLS Soccer.