KIRKENES, Norway – The love of hockey transcends borders as neighbours unite at the far northern corner of Europe.
Crossing throughout breath-taking scenery, country borders and military checkpoints, the Barents Hockey League (BHL) enters its ninth season in an example of blossoming cooperation between Finland, Norway and Russia in the Arctic region.
Russia’s sleepy Arctic mining town of Olenegorsk will be sparked into life this weekend as international hockey rolls into town. 11th November marks the start of the 2017/18 season of the BHL, a cross-border cooperation for hockey and figure skating, involving around 600 participants of various ages.
Covering three countries up at Europe’s northern periphery, its participants are spread out from Norway’s Tromso in the north-west, meandering into Finland’s Ivalo and then further east to the Murmansk region of Russia. The seven recreational men’s teams taking part in Olenogorsk this weekend will face each other in a handful of tournaments throughout the season before the winner will be crowned during a final round held in Murmansk next April. Clocking up vast amounts of kilometres on the road, the participants travel across a landscape located at the geopolitical crossroads between east and west.
“Politicians can ruin everything, but up here sports and culture bring people together and in my opinion sport will be the last thing to be abandoned,” said William Sjostrand, a driving force behind the BHL and one of its most avid participants, Norway’s Kirkenes Puckers.
Hanging over Finland and into Russia, small-town Kirkenes, located on the far north-eastern tip of Norway is strategically placed at the heart of the Barents cooperation. With the Finnish border an hour to the south and Russia 30 minutes to the east, the Kirkenes Puckers has with Sjostrand a man at the club’s helm where bridge-building is part of his family history.
Born and brought up in Murmansk with mixed-Nordic and Russian roots, Sjostrand has long since settled in Norway and was one of the instigators when the Kirkenes Puckers were founded 16 years ago. He was the lynchpin when hockey ties between Norway and Russia got established back in 2003 before the BHL saw the light at the end of 2008.
Kirkenes who last season fielded a senior team and two youth teams aged between 8-14 years has clearly benefited establishing ties with its neighbours next door. Interaction with Russia got a further boost thanks to a border agreement dating back to 2012. Residents within 30 kilometres of the Norwegian-Russian border have since been able to move more freely across the designated area, which has brought the communities closer together. One such example is set to take place on 9 December when Russia’s Zapolyarnye brings together the youngster of the BHL during the Arctic International Festival.
The calibre of the BHL also upped a notch since Finland’s Ivalo joined up to take part. Petteri Seppanen, who has been active in the BHL both as a player and referee hopes the cooperation will continue to break new ground.
“We from Ivalo are used to travel and we have 800 kilometres to Tromso in Norway, but it would also be helpful for us if another team from Finland or one from Sweden would be added,” said Seppanen.
Sweden’s Pajala showed an interest in 2015, but with Lulea in Sweden playing host to the bi-annual Barents Winter Games in March next year, expect renewed discussion of future Swedish participation once again come to the fore.
As the new season about to get underway, Sjostrand will continue his fervent work for a thriving hockey landscape in the region. He took part in a meeting summoned in Murmansk last May where the topic of a professional team and additional ice rink in the Russian port city was on the agenda. Home of 300,000 people and the birthplace of illustrious former players such as Vladimir Konstantinov and Roman Oksiuta, Murmansk’s talent pool has since dried up considerably. But despite higher level hockey being in hibernation in Murmansk and looking to stay that way for the foreseeable future, there appears to be no shortage of interest for hockey in the largest city north of the Arctic Circle.
As Murmansk last October celebrated its centenary, 3,000 cheerful locals packed the Murmansk Ice Palace to support their local heroes on as they came from behind to win against a BHL-combination of players from Norway, Sweden and Finland coached by Sjostrand. A chance for to redeem themselves will arrive on 14th April with a re-match commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Murmansk Region.
Meanwhile closer to his current home in Kirkenes, Sjostrand is fighting a continued battle for the construction of an indoor ice arena in Kirkenes. Adverse weather conditions on the outdoor natural ice limit the season to just three short months. With the mining industry on its deathbed in Kirkenes, any attempts to obtain funding from the local municipality has so far fallen on deaf ears. Despite continued knockbacks, Sjostrand is not one for giving up easily as he remains adamant that the impact of an indoor rink would benefit the entire border region.
“Kirkenes is centrally located between three countries and good roads connect us to Russia, Finland and Sweden,” said Sjostrand. “It would be the most convenient place for us to organize international tournaments and with an indoor rink in our town, the interest in hockey and figure skating would explode overnight,” Sjostrand said.