NEWS
04/03/2012 07:00 EDT | Updated 06/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Winger among few players from homeland toiling in North American leagues

He wasn't sure what he was getting himself into, but Daniel Koger was still willing to take the chance.

Now, the 22-year-old Hungarian finds himself getting his first taste of playoff hockey in North America as a member of the ECHL's South Carolina Stingrays.

Koger, a six-foot-four, 200-pound winger, is believed to be just one of two Hungarians toiling in the North American pro ranks. South Carolina is the sixth team — in two leagues — he has suited up for this season.

He began the campaign with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL and had tryouts with the St. John's IceCaps, Providence Bruins and Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League. Each time, he returned to Cincinnati. But he was traded to South Carolina in February, then was called up to the AHL's Hershey Bears before rejoining South Carolina.

"It's been an interesting season," he said in an interview from North Charlston, S.C., where the Stingrays were preparing to host the Georgia-based Gwinnet Gladiators on Tuesday night.

But Koger is not complaining about all the jersey changes or travel that has taken from the U.S. South to Newfoundland and Labrador and points in between.

"I knew it was going to be different, because it's a pretty physical game, with more hitting, and rougher and faster because the ice is so much smaller here," he said. "I knew had to get better at those things. That's why I wanted to play overseas."

"The hockey is different and, obviously, the lifestyle is different than back home," he added. "Every day, you have to be ready to move, because you never know when you'll get your chance. It's difficult, but I like it."

Two years ago, he had a chance to sign a contract extension with his hometown team Szekeshfehervar Alba Volan HC, a perennial powerhouse that actually plays in the Austrian League. But he opted to sign with the Laredo Bucks of the Central Hockey League, arguably the lowest pro circuit, for US$450 per week.

He was willing to sacrifice the higher salary back home, telling himself he could make more money later. Still, the decision to leave a good contract and his family required some soul-searching.

His father, a former Hungarian pro player who still coaches their hometown club's junior-aged farm team, owns a couple of optical shops while his mother is a hairdresser. He also has a 19-year-old sister.

The adjustment to life in North America proved more difficult than the differences in the game for Koger, who in addition to Hungarian, speaks English and German.

"I had to ask some questions about myself, because I wasn't sure about my decision to come overseas to play in the Central Hockey League, which is not really the best league," said Koger. "I was questioning whether I would have a good season, if I was going to get a call-up or get a chance in the East Coast. I had so many questions last year. That's why I wasn't that comfortable. But this year is different. ... I know I'm going to go home for summers, and this is my job now."

The initial chance to play in North America came after Koger produced a highlight video and posted it on YouTube. He instructed his agents, a German who has a partner in the U.S., to mention it to prospective coaches. Laredo coach Terry Ruskowski liked what he saw and gave Koger a contract for 2010-11.

Some people told Koger the video was a "stupid idea," but he felt he had to do something to get noticed.

The ploy worked and a Koger had a highly successful season, producing 29 goals and 23 assists in 64 regular-season games while the Texas club missed the playoffs. Koger believes he would still be playing in Europe if former NHLer Ruskowski, who has since moved to the Texas-based Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees of the CHL, had not happened on the video.

"That's why he signed me, because he saw the video," said Koger.

As a teen, Koger hoped to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but he wasn't selected in the import draft. As a result, he wound up playing for Salzburg EC Red Bull, an Austrian League powerhouse coached by former NHL bench boss Pierre Page, whom he credits for playing a key part in his development.

In addition to toiling for his hometown club, Koger represented Hungary on the international stage. As a junior, he helped Hungary win a silver medal at the B pool under-18 world championships and gold at the under-20 level. He was a also member of the Hungarian senior men's team that qualified for the A pool world championships for the first time in 70 years in 2009, when it lost 9-0 to Canada while going 0-3.

Koger said the sport has grown considerably in Hungary since his father's playing days, when there were few ice rinks in the country.

"Now it is getting better," he said. "A lot of kids are starting to play hockey, and we have a lot of good players. We have some players in Sweden, Finland and (my hometown team) is playing in the Austrian League. So it's getting better year-by-year.”

More access to the NHL on TV is also fuelling more youngsters' dreams. Initially, Koger had no intention of coming to North America.

"In my hometown, there is a pretty good team," he said. "Since I was growing up, almost the whole national team has been playing there."

He says he had plenty of local players to look up to.

"So my first dream was not even to be in the NHL or come overseas, my first dream was to play in that team, because that was actually a professional hockey team — still the best team in Hungary," he said.

Once Koger's dream changed, he had few Hungarian role models to follow to North America.

Goaltender Levente Szuper was the trailblazer, earning OHL and Memorial Cup titles with the Ottawa 67's in 1998-99. The strong post-season performance led to him being drafted by the Calgary Flames in the fourth round (116th overall) in 2000. The next season, he backstopped Calgary's then top farm club in Saint John, N.B., to a Calder Cup title.

In 2002-03, Szuper became the first Hungarian to crack an NHL roster. Szuper suited up for nine games with the Flames but did not see any game action. Since then, he has toiled in Europe and the minors.

Other Hungarian trailblazers in North America include Janos Vas, who was drafted by Dallas in 2002, and Tomas Groschl, an Edmonton Oilers' selection in 1999.

"They got here earlier, when they were a little bit younger than me, so it was easier for them," said Koger. "For me, the hardest part was not to be a professional hockey player, but to have a chance somehow to come overseas."

Despite all of his teams and travels, Koger has still produced consistent offence, averaging almost a point per game at the ECHL level in the regular season.

He produced five goals and 15 assists with Cincinnati before the trade. With Carolina, he garnered six goals and six assists in 13 games while helping them qualify for the playoffs on the final weekend of their campaign. He produced two points in 13 AHL games.

Had Koger not been traded, he would have missed the playoffs. He doesn't know where his hockey road will lead after this season.

With his contract due to expire, he could move on to another ECHL club, head to the AHL — if he can land a permanent spot — or go elsewhere.

He is willing to go wherever his hockey travels take him.

"It's like a gift or something," he said. "You're playing hockey. ... It's a good thing that you can travel around and see those places."

— With files from Andy Veilleux in St. John's.