MIERCUREA CIUC, Romania – Cross-border co-operation increases as the Balkan Ice Hockey Union (BIHU) looks closer to home to encourage each other to future success.
“If your neighbours will become better, we are all going to benefit from it,” says Ernest Aljancic, IIHF Council Member and Chairman of the Balkan Ice Hockey Union.
Seeing its light in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, the Balkan Ice Hockey Union was founded in June this year as nine countries joined together in an effort to develop and promote ice hockey in the Balkan region of South-Eastern Europe.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, FYR Macedonia, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey all signed up to the BIHU, a project initially instigated by Haris Muhic, President of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Ice Hockey Federation and the Secretary General of the Serbian Ice Hockey Association, Djordje Ljoljic, both well accustomed to the specific historical circumstances in the Balkans and the mentality of the region. Aljancic was appointed as Chairman of the BIHU, with Matjaz Zargi being selected as the Development Manager of the project.
Encompassing countries with a total population of 150 million, the ambitious project aims to extend the regional co-operation between the nine member nations during a four-year period with the help of a string of short- and long term key activities.
The International Ice Hockey Federation welcomed the initiative to improve relations and hockey development in this region and is ready to support the nations through its development programs according to the countries' specific needs.
Educational training of coaches, game- and team officials play an integral part, as will the increased focus put on a young generation of ice hockey players that in due course hopefully will boost the competitiveness of the member nations on U18, U20 and senior level.
“The project is aimed for players under the age of 16,” says Aljancic about the BIHU. “We might also go deeper down the age groups in the future, as we wish to make bigger progress with our younger age groups.”
Romania, the second-most populous country of the BIHU member nations after Turkey, welcomes the initiative and hopes that increased and regular competition against its neighbours can help to motivate young players to stay in the game.
“A lot of players are leaving ice hockey at around this age in Romania as they decide to focus on school or university, which is a problem for us,” says Barna Tanczos, President of the Romanian Ice Hockey Federation.
“As we don’t have any international competitions at this level, the only solution for the Romanian generation around the age of 16 has been to pay a lot of money to participate in half-private tournaments in countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Germany. But it's been quite difficult to find a competition that will be on our level. You can be beaten 20-0 in one tournament and then win 15-0 in another. Neither of that is going to challenge or develop you.
“We are hoping the BIHU can be helpful for us, as there isn't that big of a difference between the players from each country that participates in the project,” adds Tanczos.
A testament of the young Balkan-based players' potential and hunger to develop as hockey players was visible at first-hand at the inaugural 2011 IIHF Balkan Hockey Development Camp held in Bled, Slovenia in August.
45 players, nine coaches and 19 game officials participated under the guidance of IIHF Coach Instructor Tony Hall, IIHF Goalie Coach Instructor Danny Jurgens and IIHF Referee Instructor Viki Trilar assisted by Slovenian referee instructor Matjaz Hribar during a five-day camp with an end result that bodes well for the future.
“Towards the end of the camp in Bled it was hard to see any difference between the players judging on the respective country that they were from,” says Aljancic and uses his own country as an example that great things can be achieved out on the ice even with limited resources.
“In Slovenia we have a population of two million. And with only 150 senior players we still played in the top division of the IIHF World Championship this year," says Aljancic.
The success of the 2011 IIHF Balkan Hockey Development Camp will be followed up by a U16 Challenge Tournament that is planned next spring.