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Plenty at stake for new-look Bosnia & Herzegovina

28.02.2018
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Bosnia & Herzegovina started with two clear wins against Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates and will play for first place in the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Qualification against Turkmenistan. Photo: Esad Mulabegovic

Bolstered by its fans and the addition of homecomers, Bosnia & Herzegovina aims for an instant return to IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III.

The dust has barely settled at PyeongChang 2018, as Bosnia & Herzegovina hopes to utilize their very own Olympic spirit to progress from the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Qualification.

34 years after hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics, and ten years since a previous Division III Qualification was contested inside the Olympic Hall Juan Antonio Samaranch (aka Zetra Olympic Hall), Bosnia & Herzegovina takes on the desert countries of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Turkmenistan in a round-robin tournament played between 25-28 February.

Having breezed through their opening day encounter, an 8-1 win against newcomers Kuwait, the “ice dragons” took their time to get into their stride in game two before comfortably downing United Arab Emirates 6-1.

With one place at stake at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III, Bosnia & Herzegovina now got it all in their own hands as they get ready for a final day showdown against undefeated newcomers Turkmenistan. The game today at 20:30 local time can be watched live here.

“We've won our previous games in big numbers, but I don't think we have been playing well. We can play much better, and we hope it can come against Turkmenistan," said Bosnia & Herzegovina's Mirza Omer ahead of their meeting with the free-scoring Central Asians, who so far hit the back of the net 26 times in their wins against the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

“Against our first two opponents, it worked to go on a one-man show and dribble your way through, but against Turkmenistan, this is not going to work. We need to play more physical, drop the pucks deep and work from there,” said 23-year-old Omer, who scored a brace during his first two matches of the tournament.

Omer is one of nine new faces on the Bosnia & Herzegovina roster since their last appearance at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III in Istanbul, Turkey. A level they aspire to get back to, which has seen the Balkan nation turn to a North American coaching duo, Brian Jokat and Don Jamieson, both playing their part in the local hockey folklore of Sarajevo.

“I got the call in October last year and I knew that I someday would come back here. Sometimes you got to change your plans and do what is exciting, fresh and different. I had something to give back and I had a bit of a history here,” said head coach Jokat, who appointed Jamieson as his assistant.

During the 1985/86 season and much thanks to the addition of a Canadian troika, HK Bosna Sarajevo finished a fine seventh in their inaugural season of the then Yugoslav championship. Jokat, a centreman, scored 54 out of his team’s 65 goals that season, often thanks to the hard graft of his line-mate Jamieson. At the other end, Lance Hayward added steel to the defence as they became the first ever Canadian players to grace the Yugoslav league.

“Following Sarajevo's successful hosting of the 1984 Olympic Winter Games and with the facilities in place, the local ice hockey team, HK Bosna, was granted a place in the Yugoslav top division. Three letters had been sent to different parts of Canada looking for players. Back then I had just graduated from university when my coach told me that it could be a good fit for me,” said Jokat as he took a step into the unknown and headed east.

“I remember games against Jesenice and Olimpija Ljubljana, and also that I played against Anze Kopitar's dad (Matjaz). There were some really good players in the league, especially up in Slovenia,” he said of a time where the home crowd in Sarajevo turned up in droves.

“It was 100% mayhem. The signing and chanting were festive, to say the least. It was not one game, it was every game. In the big games, they carried us that extra mile. The people of Sarajevo accepted us with open arms and every day was a new experience and it was a very interesting part of my life,” Jokat continued.

32 years after those heady post-Olympic days, the only full-sized rink in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the Olympic Hall Juan Antonio Samaranch. Only offering ice for two months each year, the surface will be removed right after the lights are switched off at the Division III Qualification tournament. What is left for the remainder of the season is a small rink right next door.

With ice hockey getting its fair share of attention in wintry Sarajevo this week, and with the city hosting the 2019 European Youth Olympic Festival next February, the Ice Hockey Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is doing its best in getting people in power to take note of their desperate situation.

“Everywhere in the city, you'll see the Division III Qualification being marketed. We also invited a lot of decision-makers to the games as want to show them that interest for hockey is big. We will try to make some additional pressure to show that another ice hall can be built, which would also solve the problem for figure skating and short track and help us to start a bigger youth program and later U18 and U20 selections,” said Damir Dervisefendic, an IIHF committee member whose involvement with Ice Hockey Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina dates back to 2002.

Despite facing such adversaries, Bosnia & Herzegovina gallantly made their debut at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III in Izmir, Turkey. They reached another milestone the following season, recording their first win, thanks to 5-4 against Hong Kong at the opening day of the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III in Istanbul, Turkey.

Their third consecutive attempt at Division III level derailed last season due to a last-minute call-off. A decision Dervisefendic calls "an internal problem between a few decision makers" which saw Bosnia & Herzegovina back to square one again.

With the onus now back on hockey, and 1,100 having turned up for their opening game of the Division III Qualification in Sarajevo, head coach Jokat hopes another bumper crowd can fire up his home favourites en route to glory right from the outset against Turkmenistan.

“We are a slow-starting team, so we need to ramp it up right away. Once we get two or three, we are going to get five or six,” Jokat said as he challenges his players to take centre stage.

“You don't have to say too much when you come to this stage, there is no need for yelling or screaming. It is up to them. It is their choice if they get to the third division or not, I am just a small piece of the puzzle,” said Jokat.

HENRIK MANNINEN

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