IZMIT, Turkey – An action-packed five-day programme came to a close as cross-border co-operation in the Balkan region continues.
"The camp was a great success as we brought together 152 ice hockey people from the Balkans to improve and develop the game in this region without any incident. I’m sure everyone went home with a little more knowledge about ice hockey and many new friendships that will last forever and enable us to keep developing in the future," said Darryl Easson, IIHF Sport Development Manager, about the event that took place between 30th January and 3rd February 2013.
The Anatolian part of Turkey played host to the 2nd Balkan Hockey Development Camp which saw seven of its member nations – Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey – take part in what is operated collectively as the Balkan Ice Hockey Union (BIHU).
Three mixed teams, formed by 45 players and seven goaltenders, all born between 1997 to 1999, were led by eight coaches and three team managers from the region as they spurred each other on in a good-natured and competitive manner out on the ice.
Educational training of coaches, game and team officials by the fourteen IIHF Mentors and Instructors also played an integral part in Izmit, as was the initiative to encourage beginners in the region to take up the sport.
"We were experimenting with the IIHF Learn to Play Program here in Izmit," said Easson about the step-by-step program for beginners. "We hope that it will both encourage and help setting up coaching programs, both nationally and regionally, so they can depend of each other even more when running these programs in the future."
Having travelled all the way from the Midwestern United States, Kevin McLaughlin's beaming smile while instructing eager kids to the delights of hockey, covered up the slightest hint of a jet lag as the Senior Director of Hockey Development for USA Hockey was out on the Izmit K.B.B. Ice Arena ice clearly enjoying himself while teaching out the fundamentals of the Learn to Play Program.
"I think overall it is important to teach coaches to have an increased participation and activity during practices, whether it is the Learn to Play Program or at a higher level," said said McLaughlin who is in his 16th year with USA Hockey. "The most important part is to make sure it's fun for the players, and you have to provide positive feedback to the children or else they won't stay in hockey, so it has to be fun."
McLaughlin's first assignment within the project also saw him train instructors in Turkey on a national and local level, and he was encouraged by what he saw on show during his brief stay in Izmit.
"Hockey brings us together and this is an opportunity to learn from each other," he said. "There is a great level of respect within this project and I hope that the Learn to Play Program and the Recruitment Program will create a good foundation and proper structure in the youth programs. And with growing numbers, hopefully you will then also get higher quality players that will build a momentum and help the game continue to grow in this region."
The role of Turkey within this cross-border cooperation also deserves a special mention. With only two indoor rinks in the country up until two years ago, they now currently have international sized ice rinks in five different cities, and are playing a prominent role of the BIHU in their serious attempts to make progress.
"Turkey is trying to improve in the right direction, and after a few days there I can see that they are doing just that. They try to get as many people as possible involved to get educated and be instructors in their own right," Easson said. "They already have a lot of pieces in place. They have the numbers, they have the facilities, now they need to start containing that level of success to start making the step upwards. Once they do that, then I can honestly see them starting to explode in terms of development as there is a awful lot of potential there."
Easson, who recently took over from the departing Matjaz Zargi as the man in charge of the BIHU project, is also pleased with how the increased co-operation within this south-eastern European development project has led to projects organised by the member nations themselves.
One such initiative was the Goalkeeper Clinic held in Sofia, Bulgaria last November, which saw 21 young goalkeepers and nine goalkeeper coaches from eight nations take part. Led by Peter Skrabelj and Attila Nagy of Slovenia and Romania respectively, these two regional goaltending coaches were once again working with the netminders during the Balkan Development Camp in Izmit. It is a development that Easson encourages:
"Many would think that for instance a Canadian or Swedish coach is going to be much better than their domestic coaches. Sometimes that is true, sometimes it isn't, but a domestic coach has a heart for the nation and for what is happening within that nation," Easson said. "If you want to look at some of the coaches in the region, there are some very good ones here in their own right and that is what the people in the region will have to understand. We are here to try and bring that out. If we find good coaches we try to work with them."
Two years after the inaugural IIHF Balkan Development Camp in Bled, Slovenia, the co-operation between the nine member nations have started to show encouraging results. So what lies next for the BIHU? The possibilities are many according to Easson.
"I like to take it as it is now, but also look at ways to keep it progressing and see where we want to go from here," Easson said. "We have for instance been asked by some of the members about co-operation when it comes to inline. I can also see a women's program happening. We might not have a complete women's section, but we might have more women involved, maybe to a point where we will get one or two women's teams. We had three or four female coaches in the Learn to Play Program and two female referees so it is starting to happen and will continue to do."
The next program scheduled in the Balkans is the BIHU Festival that will take place in Sofia, Bulgaria, during late August/early September 2013. It will be followed by the Balkans Peace & Sport Hockey Day on 2nd November 2013, with events throughout all the participating nations to mark the first year anniversary of the IIHF being named the International Sports Federation of the Year by the Peace and Sport Awards for its Balkan project.