Modest and unassuming, Emrah Ozmen kept his Turkish hockey legacy under wraps - until now
Hiding in plain sight among rows of desks, chairs and computer monitors at Sport Ngin’s Minneapolis headquarters is a giant in the world of international hockey.
At nearly 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, Emrah Ozmen does not fit the mold of the prototypical professional hockey player. With his his boyish looks and quiet nature, Ozmen hardly stands out, even when standing up at his workstation. His head barely peeks above the top of his monitor.
But the software engineer has a huge stature within the Turkish hockey community.
Ozmen is considered one of the best players to ever don his home country’s red and white sweater, an accolade underscored by the fact that he has been captain of the men’s senior national team since 2011.
At only 31 years old, Ozmen is already Turkey’s record holder for most games played, goals, assists and points in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s yearly World Championship tournament. And yet, in Minnesota and at a company with a clear fixation on the sport of hockey, Ozmen’s accomplishments have been largely inconspicuous.
“Most people have no idea who Emrah really is,” said John Rippentrop, Sport Ngin’s software development manager and Ozmen’s supervisor. “They would have never guessed that he was at that playing level or what his (hockey) background and experience has been. They just know him as Emrah the developer.”
Emrah the hockey player
While Ozmen’s hockey legacy has been cemented, his path to the sport had its beginnings in another activity. In 1993, 9-year-old Ozmen spent his free time rollerblading around his middle-class neighborhood in his hometown of Ankara, Turkey. A year later, he followed the lead of his older brother Onur (which means “honor” in English) and entered the burgeoning Turkish hockey scene when his mother signed up Ozmen to play with the local youth club.
Hockey was introduced to the Middle Eastern nation in the mid- to late-1980s and developed a small following. Interest in the sport grew as ice rinks were built, and construction of the first Olympic-sized ice rink was completed in 1989 in Ankara, just blocks from Ozmen’s home. Despite having never played hockey - Ozmen’s main athletic interest was soccer, although he was not playing with a club - he quickly acquainted himself with the new sport.
“The skating part was easy,” said Ozmen, who joked he’s only good at skating forward. “I knew how to skate because of the rollerblades, and that’s why I learned hockey a bit easier.”
A solid skater blessed with superior quickness, Ozmen was 12 when he caught the eye of Tony Batchvarov, a Bulgarian who was playing and coaching a men’s club team in Ankara. Upon arriving in Turkey in 1995, Batchvarov was also tasked with coaching the country’s junior men’s team as well as a women’s club team. While scouting talent at the Ankara rink, Batchvarov noticed a group of young skaters - including Ozmen - on the ice.
“It was obvious that they were skillful and could become good hockey players for the Turkish standards,” he said.
I knew how to skate because of the rollerblades, and that’s why I learned hockey a bit easier.”
Ozmen was particularly impressive to Batchvarov, who discovered Ozmen’s talent far exceeded his years of playing experience. To help the boys continue their skill development, Batchvarov instituted a training program. And with Batchvarov’s guidance and coaching, Ozmen improved his stick handling and shooting. He also broadened his understanding of the game, learning the nuances of hockey that resulted in an uncanny rink vision and the unmatched ability to consistently place pinpoint passes on his teammates’ sticks.
However, it wasn’t a practice drill that had the most significant impact on Ozmen’s development. It was his passion for the game, Batchvarov said. And that passion manifested itself in a steadfast commitment to hone his skills.
Batchvarov’s training sessions were at 6 a.m. on Sundays, an early start considering Emrah and his friends spent Saturday nights watching the senior men’s team play, sometimes until 11 p.m. or midnight. But the boys were always at practice the next morning with sticks, pucks and nets in tow.
“They would sleep in the house of somebody nearest to the rink to not be late,” Batchvarov said.
While there was no issue with practicing, finding opponents was a challenge. With no junior leagues in Ankara, Ozmen and his teammates struggled to find games against boys their own age. They scheduled games with any team willing to compete, including one against a female squad with players ranging in age from 16 to 22. The boys lost 2-1.
“It was a very big tragedy (to them),” said Batchvarov, adding that the defeat only fueled their desire to improve, no matter the costs - literally.
When Ozmen was 18, he and his friends traveled to Bulgaria to participate in summer hockey camps instead of going on holiday to one of Turkey’s swanky resorts. Ozmen and several of the other Turkish players pooled most of their money to pay for the trip and the training, and some slept in Batchvarov’s home while others stayed at local hostels during the training that included two or three practices per day.
“And they did that every summer for a few years,” Batchvarov said. “This shows his passion for hockey.”
Name: Emrah Ozmen | Age: 31
Resides in: Minneapolis
Family: Wife, Sarma
Job: Software developer, Sport Ngin
Interests: Hockey, family and computer programming
Born in Ankara, Turkey in 1983, Ozmen was introduced to hockey when he was 10 years old and quickly developed a passion for the sport. At 14, he was playing in the Turkish leagues, and two years later, the slick-passing, smooth-skating forward joined the men's senior national team at the request of his mentor. Ozmen is currently the captain of the team and was integral in winning its first gold medal as champions of Division III at the International Ice Hockey Federation's World Championship. His country's all-time leader in games played (58), goals scored (32), assists (35) and points (67) in the event, Ozmen has been a member of the senior team for 15 years (and counting) and is considered as one of the best hockey players from Turkey. He met Sarma while the two were playing professional hockey in Ankara. They moved to Minneapolis and married six years ago. Ozmen, who will graduate from Metro State University in August with a bachelor's degree in computer science, joined Sport Ngin in May 2014.
1994: Introduced to the game of hockey when his mother signs the 10-year-old up to play with a youth club team in his hometown of Ankara, Turkey.
1996: Started training with the man he calls his "role model," Tony Batchvarov, a Bulgarian playing and coaching hockey in Ankara.
2000: Joined the Turkish men's senior national team, which is coached by Batchvarov.
2011: Became national team captain.
2012: Helped Turkey capture its first gold medal by finishing as champions of Division III at the International Ice Hockey Federation's World Championship.
As Ozmen’s skills improved, so did his reputation as hockey player. Eventually he became known as a tenacious worker who was adept at scoring as well as setting up teammates for goals. Batchvarov said Ozmen could make any line better by easily meshing with teammates who had a variety of different playing styles.
In 2000, Ozmen played in his first senior World Championships, joining the men’s national team at the request of Batchvarov, who was coaching the squad. Skating with men’s team wasn’t a difficult transition for Ozmen, who knew nearly all of his teammates after playing with or competing against them in the Turkish hockey leagues. However, he took plenty of punishment from opponents who routinely outmuscled the teenager. It was a valuable lesson.
“I was thinking I need to work in the gym more so when I’m that age, I will be (strong) like them,” he said.
Ozmen's career highlight came in 2012 when he helped Turkey upend North Korea 4-2 in the Division III final and secure the senior team’s first gold medal at the World Championships. North Korea was the favorite that year, but Ozmen and his teammates pulled out a victory with a combination of solid play and good luck. North Korea missed some easy shots, including one at an open net, Ozmen said.
North Korea upset Turkey in the 2015 tournament, winning 4-3 in overtime of the Division III championship. It was a bitter but eye-opening loss.
“We saw that it’s not that easy to get that gold medal, even in Division III,” he said.
Ozmen didn’t record a point in the championship game, but he finished the tournament with 11 assists, the most of any player in Division III, and four goals.
Turkey wouldn’t have reached the finals - or even overtime - if not for his Ozmen’s play, said Turkish teammates Andy and Alec Kocoglu.
“(Ozmen’s) usually on the ice when a big goal is scored.”
- Turkish men's national team player Alec Kocoglu
Trailing 3-2 with 15 seconds remaining in the third period and Ozmen leading the defense, Turkey thwarted a North Korean attack and sent a long pass out its defensive zone to set up a one-on-one that Serkan Gumus converted to tie the game and force overtime.
“(Ozmen’s) usually on the ice when a big goal is scored,” Alec said.
When it comes to leadership, Ozmen isn’t the most vocal captain. He chooses instead to lead by example, and he’s not afraid to be an enforcer, if needed. In the gold-medal game, Ozmen left no doubt he would protect his teammates from dirty play. He was knocking opposing players around in the middle of scrum in front of the North Korean net, and Andy took notice.
“Some players stay away from the front of the net, but Emrah doesn't,” Andy said.
The American-born Kocoglu brothers have played with the Turkish national team for just two years, but agreed that Ozmen’s presence elevates the team’s play.
“He plays with energy, which kind of gets passed on throughout the team,” Alec said.
For 15 years, Ozmen’s been powering the national team, and his stats are a testament to his success. He has tallied 32 goals and 35 assists (67 points) in 58 games.
“As far as I know, Emrah is still maybe one of the best to grow up in Turkey and still playing for his country,” said Batchvarov, who last coached Ozmen in 2003. “He’s had a positive impact for the Turkish hockey.”
While Ozmen’s stats and longevity make him the Turkish Gordie Howe (Ozmen admitted he didn’t know who the North American hockey legend was), Batchvarov said his pupil is more of a Turkish Sidney Crosby, a player who leads, instills confidence and can take over a game when needed.
Ozmen’s passion is one reason why he is a great example for the younger hockey players in Turkey, said Batchvarov, who is the now the executive director of the Bulgarian Ice Hockey Federation.
So are Ozmen’s humility and modesty, which permeate his character. Batchvarov said he couldn’t remember Ozmen ever complaining or causing problems on or off the ice, in part because Ozmen never let his success go to his head. Some Turkish players believe they’ve reached stardom when they score their first national team goal, but not Ozmen.
“He never became a ‘star’ no matter (what he did),” Batchvarov said. “He didn’t understand he’s a star.”
However, many Turkish hockey fans and the media treat Ozmen as if he’s a celebrity. At the 2015 Division III World Championships in Izmir, Turkey (Ozmen played one year for the city’s club team), Ozmen posed for pictures with fans and was interviewed by reporters after games. Turkish television stations also broadcast live several of the national team’s matchups for the first time, an indication that interest in hockey remains strong despite the county’s inability to consistently produce talented players, Ozmen said.
Although he denies his influence, Ozmen played a role in the team’s popularity.
“He’s modest, but when you’re still playing you don’t know how good of a career you have,” Batchvarov said. “I’m sure that after he stops playing, he’ll be very honored for being one of the first Turkish hockey players (who are recognized for doing) a lot for the national team.”
‘Captain Emrah’ the software developer
Ozmen’s modesty helps explain why many of his coworkers are unaware of his hockey pedigree. Hired as a part-time contractor by Sport Ngin in May 2014, the always unassuming Ozmen kept his role as captain of the Turkish national team under wraps.
While interviewing at Sport Ngin, Ozmen mentioned he traveled out of the U.S. to play hockey. He didn’t say he played for Turkey’s national team, Rippentrop said. And It was only a few weeks before Ozmen was set to leave for the World Championships that his co-workers eventually discovered his secret.
Rippentrop asked Ozmen where he was headed for the tournament, and when Ozmen said he was heading to Turkey for the tournament, Rippentrop was baffled.
“Then we Googled ‘Emrah Ozmen,’ and sure enough, it comes up with a hit and (we find out) he's the captain of the Turkish team,” Rippentrop said
To show their support, co-workers set up televisions to watch the World Championship Division III games and cheer for Ozmen. They also christened Ozmen “Captain Emrah” when he returned to work.
While Ozmen kept some things hidden from co-workers, he gave many a glimpse of his hockey skills while competing in the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in January. Ozmen was a late addition to the Broadway Bash Brothers, a team of Sport Ngin employees playing in the event, and teammate Nate Weingarden was caught off guard by what he saw on the ice. Ozmen’s deft passing and smooth skating skills belied his reserved demeanor at work, and it sent the team’s confidence soaring, Weingarden said.
Despite the cool temperatures, pond hockey play can sometimes get heated. But Ozmen never lost control of his emotions throughout the tournament, giving the team some stability while leading by example, Weingarden said. And there’s no doubt that Ozmen’s name with appear at the top of next year’s roster.
“He is the team,” Weingarden quipped with a smile.
It was Ozmen’s hockey background that gave him an edge over several other candidates being interviewed for an entry-level position at Sport Ngin. The company wasn’t looking for someone who had a high-level of development experience but rather someone it could mentor and train. It was also seeking a person with a passion for sports as well as technology, and Ozmen, who has a two-year computer programming degree from Bilkent University in Turkey and only a year of experience working as the sole developer at a small Minneapolis company, fit the description.
Ozmen approached the job with the same drive he had used to succeed in hockey. He took online classes and immersed himself in work projects, expediting his learning curve. With a primary focus on performing platform maintenance, Ozmen has not only improved the software but also increased his technical knowledge to the point where new developers can ask him for help.
“He can be a go-to guy for me,” said Rippentrop, who added that Ozmen recently became a company employee. Rippentrop hopes to make him full time soon.
Emrah the husband and coach
That at-work persona is one Ozmen takes home.
“He’s a really simple guy,” said his wife Sarma. Hockey and family are his two passions, and he’s committed to both, she added.
Sarma and Ozmen met in 2008, when both were playing professional hockey in Ankara. They moved to Minnesota in 2009 and were married six months after settling in Minneapolis.
“The last thing I thought I would do is bring back a husband,” said Sarma, who was offered the opportunity to play in Turkey after a standout career with the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team and with the Minnesota Thoroughbreds, an elite traveling club team, while in high school.
The two continued to live in Minneapolis and play in leagues overseas for the next few years, but eventually they turned their attention toward non-hockey careers. Sarma became a teacher and girls’ high school hockey coach in the Twin Cities, while Ozmen gave up playing professionally in 2012 to concentrate on getting a bachelor’s degree from a U.S. college. He started taking classes at Metro State University in St. Paul and will graduate in August with a bachelor’s degree in computer science.
Emrah the reluctant legend
Ozmen doesn’t regret following his brother’s lead again (Onur is a programmer in Turkey) and enjoys how different his job in technology is compared to hockey. Programming doesn’t require him to be tough.
“You just come in and work on the computer,” he said. “There’s no (need for) physical strength.”
Yet, Ozmen will likely always be recognized for his hockey career, especially in Turkey. He is OK with being a role model there, but shrugs off the notion he has a legacy.
“I’m not sure if there is a Turkish Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, but if there was, (Emrah would) definitely be inducted,” Alec Kocoglu said.
Ozmen’s next major competition is the Continental Cup in October, although he isn’t competing with the national team. Instead, his focus will be on helping his current Turkish club team, Zeytinburnu Belediyesi SK, advance in the tournament in Belgrade, Serbia. He plans to play as long as the club provides him a valid plane ticket, an experience with which Ozmen is all too familiar.
Last year, the Turkish Ice Hockey Federation sent Ozmen a reservation notice instead of a ticket, and he didn’t notice the error until he was unable to board the plane at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. Ozmen returned to his Uptown home and phoned the federation, which sent him a ticket for a flight leaving the next day.
“I lost two days of practice because one guy sitting at (a desk) forgot to buy the ticket,” a miffed Ozmen recalled.
Losing even one practice leading up to tournament is difficult for Ozmen because he needs time to acclimate his body to the rigors of playing, especially during his first few days when he struggles with his conditioning. While he would prefer to have three or four weeks to prepare for a tournament, Ozmen doesn’t have the time with his work, school and family responsibilities.
However, he finds some time to train in Minnesota, although it’s not nearly as much as he would like. He plays hockey once a week and spends time working on his strength and conditioning in the gym, which gives him a significant advantage over his teammates who don’t practice off the ice.
“They forget after the season that we have a game in one year,” he said. “And one month before the tournament is when they start to focus (on training).”
Ozmen would love to change his teammates’ and coaches’ attitude toward training because he knows it’s the first step in increasing the profile of the national team, a goal he and several other longtime national team members continue to believe is attainable. They want to see Turkey promoted from Division III, the lowest of the four World Championship groupings, to the second tier of Division II, where the competition is better and they believe the team could earn a medal.
“If they really believe and they work for that goal, we could (medal),” he said.
Until that happens, or until age starts to diminish his skills, Ozmen plans to continue playing with the national team. And when he does retire from competition, he knows he’ll never walk away from the game.
Ozmen and Sarma have discussed starting a club team in Turkey, and he would love to someday coach any one of the country’s national teams. Either way, he hopes to ignite a passion for hockey in the younger generations, much the same way Batchvarov did with Ozmen.
“I just have to have (hockey) in my life,” he said. “I have to do it. If I don’t do it, I’ll feel empty.
“I think hockey is the only activity I love."
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