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Hungarian goalie Szuper still holds on to faint dream of NHL

KLOTEN, Switzerland - There might not be anyone who believed in Levente Szuper as much as Brian Kilrea.

It was the legendary Ottawa 67's coach that got the goalie believing he could become the first Hungarian to play in the NHL and it was Kilrea who phoned Szuper immediately after Calgary selected him in the 2000 draft.

"I'll never forget this," Szuper recalled Saturday. "When I got drafted in the fourth round, he called me right away after I hung up the phone with the Flames and was really pissed off: 'You should have been a first-rounder, I told everyone you should have been a first-rounder."'

All these years later, Szuper is still waiting to achieve his dream of playing in the world's top hockey league but he's still doing Kilrea proud.

The 28-year-old is the starting goalie for Hungary at the IIHF World Hockey Championship and will face Canada on Sunday. After making 48 saves during a 4-3 loss to Slovakia in the tournament opener, he expects to be just as busy against the Canadians.

It represents the chance of a lifetime for a Hungarian team that is playing in the top level of the world championship for the first time since 1939.

"It's not every day that you play Canada as a Hungarian," said Szuper.

The game stands to be among the best experiences of his career. Szuper was a backup when Kilrea's 67's won the Memorial Cup in 1999 and counts Canadian forward Matt Lombardi among his good friends dating back to their time together in Calgary's farm system.

He spent a couple years with Saint John of the American Hockey League and got about as close to the NHL as one can get without appearing in a game - the end of the bench.

It haunts him to this day.

"There's a little bit of sadness still in my mind because I was so close to get to the NHL as the first Hungarian," said Szuper. "I was backing up Jamie McLellan for nine games (in 2002-03), I was sitting on the bench with an NHL team.

"That looks a little far right now but I never gave up that dream."

When the Canadian players look across the ice at Arena Kloten on Sunday night, Szuper will likely be about the only guy they might recognize. He built a strong reputation during his time in Canada.

"He was a good goalie in junior," said forward Jason Spezza.

Since leaving North America, Szuper played for teams in Italy, Germany and Sweden. He spent this season with a Hungarian club that competes in the Austrian league.

There's really only one thing missing from a career that has taken him around the world.

"It's still hard to talk about it," said Szuper. "It's not an easy subject because everybody was expecting me to be in the NHL, especially Brian Kilrea."

The goalie had to regretfully turn down an invitation to Kilrea's final OHL game because his club team was still playing in Europe. Szuper holds out faint hope that his former coach might one day be able to watch him play in the NHL.

However, he'll have no regrets if it never happens.

"Since I got a little older, a little more mature, I realized what this whole thing's all about," said Szuper. "It's not enough to work hard. It's not enough to be talented. It's not enough to be everything combined.

"You have to be lucky, too, and I don't think I was very fortunate in those days."



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