THESSALONIKI, Greece – Using a sport that isn’t widespread within a country in the midst of an economic crisis, a rehabilitation centre in northern Greece is getting former addicts to stay away from drugs... by playing hockey.
This is done by KETHEA, the Therapy Centre for Dependent Individuals in Greece that runs several branches throughout the country including a therapeutic community, Ithaki, in Thessaloniki.
Phaedon Kaloterakis, originally a psychologist, is KETHEA’s Assistant Director and also represents Greece in the United Nations Economic and Social Council when it comes to drug-related matters, whether it’s classic issues like alcohol or drug problems, or also other addictions like internet or gambling.
He calls KETHEA the largest organization in Europe as a rehabilitation and social reintegration centre for addicts.
Aside from his day job however, Kaloterakis is also Vice-President of the Hellenic Ice Sports Federation where he’s in charge of ice hockey, a sport played by his two kids. In Thessaloniki he now tries to combine his care for people with his passion for hockey.
His idea: teenage players get educated about drugs and doping to stay away from it, while former addicts on the way back to society learn a new sport in a new social environment.
“Last year we went to the U16 camp of the IIHF’s Balkan project in Izmit, Turkey, but normally we don’t have much money to travel,” Kaloterakis said. That’s when the idea came up to use the city’s small ice rink while some kids could stay in the therapeutic community Ithaki as an educational experience.
“It’s a very famous and the oldest such program in Greece with about 60 people,” Kaloterakis explained. “Some people asked why do you have kids with drug addicts but it went really well. For the players it was also an educational thing because we talked about doping as well. Anti-doping education is also an expertise of mine. It was really fun but also interesting.”
That’s how an unusual relationship began.
Before the U16 team left for Turkey, the community even produced medals in the pottery workshop.
“The people there made 230 medals out of ceramic clay with a puck and stick that was handed to all participants from all countries in Izmit,” Kaloterakis said.
“They really liked it and it looked artistically well done. The message was ‘Everybody is a winner.’ If you think about it, it is a great work by people who hadn’t won in life but are overcoming their addiction.”
When the Greek team and the delegation came back home from the Balkan camp, the U16 national team went to the community to thank them for the hospitality and they got a jersey of the Greek national team with the number 83, the year the community was founded, that now hangs in the living room.
“They went to the community and taught them how to skate at the ice rink. Then the community started to build a hockey team and there were even features about that in magazines in Greece,” Kaloterakis said.
“It was quite impressive because we could use the social aspects of hockey for the rehabilitation and reintegration program. It’s not just about hockey, it’s about building character and educating about drug and doping issues,” added Kaloterakis, who had a similar community project before with judo.
For some of the patients, hockey and ice skating was something entirely new, for others not so much as they came to Thessaloniki from other countries, including more hockey-savvy Russia and nearby countries.
“It’s amazing to combine sports like hockey with the community. Hockey is a high-adrenaline game and drug addiction has to do with that as well. It’s good when they have hockey as a hobby,” he said and added with a grin: “Maybe they become addicted to it.”
A small ice rink, 30 on 15 metres, makes it now possible to practise hockey all year round in the more than 2,300-year-old city with more than 800,000 inhabitants in its region. “Even in August when it’s 40°C,” Kaloterakis added. There are also two ice rinks in the country’s capital, Athens, where the biggest rink in use measures 45 on 25 metres.
His hope is to have one full-size rink each in these two cities in the future and he hopes for funding through European Union projects, but he also knows that this dream is difficult to achieve in the current situation.
“We are trying to get an Olympic-size ice rink but with all the financial trouble in Greece it’s a miracle that we can still play hockey at all,” Kaloterakis said.
The U16 team that went to Turkey consisted of 14 players. Nine were from Thessaloniki, three from Athens and two were Greeks living abroad.
“We had one goalkeeper who’s a Greek living in Finland and was really good, and another player from Germany,” he said. “For 12 players it was the first such game at an IIHF event. Before that they just had exhibition games in Bulgaria. That’s the reality but they’re trying.”
Trying to do the best out of the situation, as miserable as it may seem, is a habit Greeks have become used to recently. Hockey is probably one of the best examples thereof. The national team participated in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program throughout the ‘90s until rinks shut down in the country and Greece seemed to disappear from the hockey map. Some players remained active by visiting camps abroad annually or playing inline hockey until the ice hockey community became more active in the past years with championship tournaments at small rinks. The Greek national team returned to IIHF competition in the 2007/2008 season.
The dream of a permanent ice arena seemed to become true when an ice rink was installed in a disused arena built for the 2004 Olympic Summer Games in Ano Liosia near Athens. For the first time the national championship could be played on a full-size ice rink in 2009. In 2010 the former wrestling arena with 9,000 seats was supposed to host the 2010 IIHF World Championship Division III Group A, when the economic trouble in the country ended the dream of having a permanent ice rink there and of hosting an IIHF tournament.
Since then the Greeks have had trouble preparing for the World Championship events. Last year they finished the six-team Division III in Erzurum, Turkey, in fifth place and had to go to a qualification tournament in Abu Dhabi.
But the Greek team, together with host United Arab Emirates, passed the test. They will play in the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III in Cape Town, South Africa, as of Monday where they will be joined by host South Africa, DPR Korea, Luxembourg and Ireland.
However, for the future of the Greek hockey community Kaloterakis and the Hellenic Ice Sports Federation know that getting full-size ice rinks and more possibilities for practising the sport will be essential for the future generation of hockey players.