CHISINAU – At first sight it doesn't look very promising with no rink, no domestic league nor any teams to play against on home soil. Add to that a very modest history of the sport in a young country where a player has no national team to aspire representing one day and the odds for success seem to be strongly stacked against you.
Yet, only six months into their existence, an under-18 team from the capital of Moldova has been steamrolling their foreign opponents. Meet one of the biggest surprise packages in European junior ice hockey this season, Platina Chisinau.
“Until recently there was no hockey in Moldova. And as there is no infrastructure for the game in our country, we have to go to other places to play as good as we can based on our limited resources,” said Serghei Ciobanu, co-founder and director of Platina.
Ahead of this season, hockey lover Ciobanu used his own Moldovan Lei to fund and found a junior team from scratch in Chisinau, the country's capital city with a population of around 660,000. He hand-picked a Russian coach, Igor Glebov and together they've scouted the players forming Platina's 25-man strong roster of juniors ranging from the ages of 16-18, where interestingly enough, a few of the recruits had only been playing street hockey until they were spotted.
“Out of the players that we are currently using one comes from Chisinau and four are from Tiraspol. The rest are coming from Russia, and many of them have a parental link to Moldova,” said Ciobanu.
With most of the equipment donated to the team from the Russian Hockey Federation, and with rigorous pre-season training behind them, Platina headed in to their inaugural season, which so far has been a great success story spent almost entirely on the road.
"We play all our competitive games in Romania, and sometimes travel there twice a week because in Moldova there is nothing in terms of hockey,” said Ciobanu about his team that is competing since October in Romania's under-18 championship.
Moldova gained its independence following the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and was accepted as the 66th IIHF member nation in May 2008 when they were granted associate member status by the congress. Apart from Platina there are also a handful of other hockey clubs based in Chisinau, such as Bravo, Acvila and Pantera aimed mainly for kids as an attempt to try and popularize the sport in Moldova. Add to that Dinamo Chisinau, who’s running a junior team that is competing in the Romanian under-14 championship this season with great success.
Running a hockey team based in Chisinau does have its challenges. As the city only has a small indoor ice arena, Ice Bravo, with the measurements 25 x 40 meters and built mainly for figure- and recreational skating, Platina is only able to practise on international sized rinks (61 x 30 metres) while on their travels to Romania or else in Tiraspol, the capital of the Transnistria, a breakaway territory an hour's drive southeast of the Moldovan capital.
Despite the number of challenges the players and staff of Platina have had to overcome in order to play, their season has so far been a great success. Rarely tested defensively, and led brilliantly going forward by its brightest shining stars, Askar Kamalov and Roman Zubkov, Platina has already beaten strong opposition from both Belarus and Ukraine in friendly matches, and strolled through the regular Romanian under-18 championship with a 100% winning record.
Their winning streak has since continued, firstly in the two stages of the Romanian play-offs where they outplayed the Steaua Rangers Bucharest, SC Miercurea Ciuc and Dunarea Galati, before beating SC Miercurea Ciuc in the final of the Romanian under-18 championship to win the club’s first silverware.
But playing hockey and constantly being on the move between countries does take its toll. As the entire squad are still students, extensive travelling also means many missed classes as they spend more time on the bus going to and from matches than at school.
"They study a lot on their own, when we are the road," said Ciobanu. "But thankfully the head teacher of their school also shows understanding as they are playing hockey very well."
But with the advent of 2011, Platina’s pool of available players on their roster have been thinning out recently as birthdays have made players overaged and ineligible to participate at the final stages of the league.
With that in mind, Ciobanu is already carefully considering his next move for his talented youngsters. Not only is he dreaming that they one day will be forming the nucleous a Moldovan national team, but also that they in the nearer future will be able to continue playing together as seniors. And he has his eyes set on trying to shoehorn his team into the joint Hungarian/Romanian MOL Liga.
"We are considering applying to join the MOL Liga for next season," said Ciobanu. "And as it is not realistic to think that a rink will be built in Chisinau anytime soon, we then hope to be playing our home games in Romania, either in Gheorgheni or Galati. I think the biggest problem to join will be money, but we'll try."