VIERUMÄKI – The coaches, goalie coaches, team managers and equipment managers get lots of theoretical lessons in the various class rooms but with the team program they also got practical education.
141 players from more than half of all IIHF member nations, including many developing hockey nations, joined their delegation to Vierumäki. With each year alternating between boys and girls, this time it was the turn for 1998-born male players to go to the camp in Finland.
Although most of the programs are for adults in areas like coaching players, managing teams and hockey organizations, the players can’t be overlooked and form the liveliest part at the campus located between the Finnish cities of Lahti and Heinola.
Once the players landed in Helsinki and driven to Vierumäki, they were split from their delegation and assigned to the eight teams that are named after the different jersey colours and play in a tournament. For one week they lived, practised and played with players from the same age group from many different countries around the world in teams that are way more international than most if not all club teams.
IIHF.com spoke with eight players from eight different teams and eight different countries all around the world.
Team Red: Justin Cheng, Hong Kong
Justin Cheng comes from one of the smallest IIHF member nations by area, but that hasn’t prevented him from doing well at the tournament. In five games he had two goals and eight assists to lead Team Red in scoring.
“It’s great fun to be here. The games and practices are very fun,” Cheng said.
“I learn a lot here and I spend a good time with the teammates.”
More than seven million people live in Hong Kong, a former British colony that has become a special administrative region of China in 1997.
“Ice hockey is still developing in Hong Kong,” the forward said. “There are not many ice rinks and only one international size rink. Ice time in Hong Kong is very expensive.”
Being in Vierumäki with two big ice sheets in front of his dorm must feel unusual compared to the ice situation in the metropolis.
Cheng’s goal is to play better and better. And he hopes that the experience he gains in Finland will help him. And who knows, maybe one day he will play in the World Championship program.
After fulfilling the minimum participation standards, Hong Kong will stage a comeback and send a team to the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III where the team will play Bulgaria, DPR Korea, host Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates.
Team White: Liu Tiange, China
Also the Chinese mainland has players as well as adults for the various programs in Vierumäki. One of them is defenceman Liu Tiange, who has scored two goals in five games for his team.
“I like it here. It’s really helping me improve my skills by playing with other players from all around the world,” Tiange said. “Many of them are very good, better than me. They bring a good skill level to the tournament. It’s also getting me new friends and I learn more about hockey.”
“The most memorable day was the first day when we got all together and became a team.”
Ice hockey in China is most popular in the northern province of Heilongjiang. Most national team players are developed in the cities of Harbin and Qiqihar.
Tiange, however, is not from there but about from 1,200 kilometres southwest, living in the Chinese capital of Beijing.
“Ice hockey is more popular in Qiqihar and Harbin but it’s now developing in Beijing and also in Shanghai, and coaches are coming over from Harbin and Qiqihar,” Tiange said. “But in China there are still not so many athletes playing hockey compared to basketball, football, badminton or ping-pong. Playing hockey in China is like a family and you know the people who play hockey but you really want more people to join.”
China has 610 registered players, which looks small in comparison to the population of over 1.3 billion people. But there is potential and there are many rinks across the Middle Kingdom to make the ice hockey program bigger.
“I play hockey for fun and many of my friends are in my hockey team including Nie Haolin from the black team here,” Cheng said about his hockey life. “It takes away the stress from the daily routine and it makes fun. Hockey gives you a healthy way of life.”
Team Black: Hüseyin Seçer, Turkey
One country that has slightly more players than China but hasn’t climbed up the ladder that far yet is Turkey, where ice hockey is a newer and still growing sport.
Ice rinks have been built in several cities in the last few years including in Erzurum where the 2011 Winter Universiade took place. Only in the years leading up to the event did an ice hockey program start in the city in the mountainous east of the country. Hüseyin Seçer is among the first players. The defenceman and other players were taken from the street to a frozen pond and he immediately fell in love with the sport.
“I started when I was ten. We started to play hockey on a pond. Erzurum is Turkey’s ‘capital of the cold’ and hockey has become popular,” Seçer said.
Being picked for the camp in Vierumäki is kind of a Cinderella story for the young man, and considering that Turkey is in 40th place in the IIHF World Ranking, he adjusted pretty well and is one of the hopeful players for the future of Turkish hockey.
Seçer comes from a family with five sisters. He studies, plays hockey and also helps his father with work.
Being good at hockey gives him a different perspective since his family is not rich. Because of hockey he met many new people, saw many new cities in Turkey and now got to play in Finland’s top hockey centre.
“I will never forget this week. It’s wonderful. Whatever we need is here. The coaches and managers are very professional,” Seçer said. “I couldn’t imagine something like this and practising under such conditions. I meet many people from around the world. They are very friendly and help me a lot.”
The tournament also helps him understand where his level is internationally and in which areas he can improve.
“I want to be the best in hockey and go to the top. My dream is to go further and to play in Canada,” Seçer said. “I will reach my goals with hard work.”
Team Blue: Kwanyong Park, Korea
14-year-old forward Kwanyong Park from Korea is one of the noticeable players at the camp. In an age group with varying levels of physical development, Park is one of the shortest players. But that doesn’t prevent him from playing ice hockey and showing off some great skills.
With his friendly smile – especially when he showed a small Stanley Cup replica the team awarded to the hardest working player of each day – he’s the team darling.
The Seoul native hopes to make the U18 national team and wants to learn here. In Korea, hockey is pass, pass, shoot and goal, as he describes it, while he finds players and coaches with different styles here.
“I like the camp because it’s a lot of fun,” Park said. “The people are very kind and I make new friends. I learn a lot here.”
Park shows his skill with passion but in the back of his mind he has set his goals already one step further.
“My dream is to one day coach the Korean national team,” he said.
Team Green: Timothé Cachard, goalkeeper, France
While the focus is on the developing nations here, higher-level hockey nations also had the chance to send players. One of them is French goalkeeper Timothé Cachard.
While the overall skill level may be lower than playing in the French junior league with Grenoble where he comes from, he enjoys every moment.
“I like it a lot in Vierumäki. I profit a lot because playing here is different than what I’m used to in France and the guys here are friendly,” Cachard said.
He likes the challenge of being in an international environment although it can be tricky at times.
“You see here other players and other staff from different countries who I haven’t know before,” he said. “I and some others don’t speak English so well but we get along well.”
Coming from one of the French hockey towns, Cachard already started to play the sport at the age of six at a club near Grenoble.
“I want to play at the highest level I can reach,” he said while getting his first experiences playing and competing with players from other countries.
Team Yellow: Daniel Duffy, Ireland
Ireland may not seem the most exotic country having two traditional hockey nations – France and Great Britain – as its nearest neighbours. But the Irish Ice Hockey Association was only founded in 1996, two years before Daniel Duffy was born. And despite having roughly 300 players, the opportunities to practise the sport are limited due to the lack of available ice rinks.
“We haven’t got ice at the moment. We’re on rollerblades in the moment training in the halls,” Duffy said. “There’s meant to be two ice rinks being built in Dublin I think in November, then we can have ice time.”
But the Irish are fighters and they battle hard for hockey, whether it’s the two players, the two coaches or the two administrators who came here to learn and work for a better future of the sport in Ireland.
“It’s a great experience to come here, it’s going great with the team,” Duffy said.
“The camp is a real eye-opener because the standard of hockey in Ireland is very low. It’s just great to learn from a lot of people from different countries.”
The forward of the Dublin Ducks needed some time to adjust. The lack of playing and ice skating opportunities certainly didn’t help his development. But Duffy gives it all and tries to make up for it with his fighting spirit after coming back from a small injury at the first off-ice practice.
“I learned how to check,” he said about the biggest improvement he did. And as a true fighter he loves to check. He’s said to get at least one hit in each shift. And despite the regular ice rink issues in the countries he doesn’t give up his dream of a career in the sport he loves.
“I want to become better and better and finally become a professional ice hockey player,” he said.
Team Teal: Dominyk Bogdziul, Lithuania
Many of the most skilful forwards come from bigger hockey countries here while Dominyk Bogdziul hails from a rather unusual place for hockey.
Bogdziul, who notched seven goals and ten assists in five games, was born in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. While the most famous players from the country come from the small hockey town of Elektrenai – including Dainius Zubrus and Darius Kasparaitis – he and his four years older brother and national team player Daniel belong to a generation of players from hockey programs in other cities.
“I was four years old when I started to play ice hockey. My grandmother brought me to the ice rink,” he remembered.
Same as his brother he left his hometown to continue his development a few kilometres across the border in the Latvian city of Liepaja.
“The first practice on the ice and off the ice here in Vierumäki was most memorable for me,” he said.
“It’s very beautiful here and there are very good guys from other countries on my team. It helps me for my level of play and skills.”
While he doesn’t know yet where the path will lead him, his goal is for now to improve and come to a good level in a good country.
Team Maroon: Harrison Macharg, forward, New Zealand
Coming basically from the other end of the world compared to Vierumäki, Harrison Macharg is among the camp participants who travelled the longest to Finland. But for the forward it’s been a rewarding experience.
“I like it much here. When we came together on the first day there was a language barrier but now even if there’s still a language barrier we get along and are good friends,” the Queenstown native said.
“The hockey is great to see. There are some of the best players of your age in the world here, and learning new stuff from the coaches is a great experience.”
Macharg started to play hockey because of his brother when he was five or six years old. He feels he improved his game here and more improvement is to come by the end of this camp before he heads back to New Zealand where it’s high-season right now for ice hockey.
“I hope to get better and go back to my country and teach others who play hockey there,” he said.
In New Zealand, ranked 35th in the world, becoming a professional ice hockey player is not yet an option and also for Macharg it’s more about having fun.
“I’m not going to go to any pro league but I want to use it to have fun and make friends all around the world,” he said. “I want to keep ice hockey taking me around the world. It has already got me to a few countries and I want to keep it doing like that.”