SOFIA - After a 2,600 km trip by bus the national ice hockey team of Georgia arrived in the capital of Bulgaria for the Olympic qualification game taking place today. This matchup with Bulgaria officially begins the qualification campaign for the three open spots in the Men’s tournament at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Bulgaria will host Georgia on Saturday (19:00 local time; 20:00 CET) at the Winter Palace and the winner will play against Estonia, Mexico and Israel in Group K of the Olympic qualification preliminary round 1.
“We had a training camp at Batumi, which is closer to Sofia (1,824 km), but had to go to the capital Tbilisi as the players had to give fingerprints to get visas,” said Zakaria Khechuashvili, vice president of the Georgian Ice Hockey National Federation, during the team’s first practice in the Winter Palace.
“We had full cooperation from Bulgarian Consulate, but this is the procedure and we had to travel back and forth from Batumi to Tbilisi (373 km 1-way). As we weren’t sure when and who’ll get visas we decided to travel by bus instead by airplane as originally planned.”
Georgia, a member of IIHF since 8 May 2009, will make its debut in Olympic competition, but has already participated in three straight World Championships. The first IIHF game for Georgia was a 6-0 loss to Mongolia (14 October 2012) at the 2013 World Championship, Division III Qualification in Abu Dhabi.
“We didn’t come here to win, but to continue our progress and to play good hockey. Nowadays it is still a long shot to defeat Bulgaria, but our opponents have to know that the game will be not as easy as the one in Luxembourg and in the very near future we will look for beating them,” says Khechuashvili.
Bulgaria won the 2014 World Championship, Division III, in Luxembourg and one of the victims was Georgia, which gave up ten goals in the first period and ultimately losing 19-1. In April this year Georgia finally ended the losing streak at the world stage, winning 4-1 against Bosnia and Herzegovina. The next and last game was another win: 5-4 in shootout against UA Emirates, a team that defeated the Georgians 6-1 and 9-1 in the previous two encounters.
“We surprised many with these two wins and plan to continue our climb in the world ranking. But our main goals are for 2016-17 – to have three new ice rinks, which will be owned by our federation. At the moment there are four indoor rinks and one outdoor rink in the mountains, but they are government or municipality properties.”
“We also plan to process the needed documentation for few players, which are based in Russia, but are fully Georgians, to be able to represent the country at the world stage. One of them played in the KHL few years ago. Although the main focus is to develop young players. We have 4 senior teams and more than 200 players, which are under 14 years of age. As Georgians we are very emotional, enthusiastic and even if we make some mistakes, we know that we’ll achieve what we have in mind”, says Khechuashvili, which is full of energy and optimism about the future of Georgian ice hockey.
The new head coach of the team is the 41-years old Russian Dmitri Afanasyev, who grew in the Spartak Moscow system and played for Avangard Omsk. He replaced the Ukrainian Yevgen Alipov, who was playing for Sokol Kyiv in the Soviet league. Last April the top scorers for the team were Vitali Dumbadze (9+6 in 6 games) and Dimitri Smetanin (8+3). The goalie Andrei Ilienko is born in St. Petersburg too.
In the same time the host Bulgaria will have many star players missing. The backbone of the team is CSKA Sofia, three times in a row national champion and a winner in the Continental Cup, Group A, last weekend in Belgrade.
“It’s always a positive thing to have players, who already had competitive matches in the beginning of the season”, says Kiril Hodulov who is the head coach for CSKA Sofia and the National team – “We have many young players on the team entry long list, but some of them are competing abroad and can’t come for this game. I’m following their progression closely and can only hope that they’ll have the opportunity to participate next time. We have four players in North America – Martin Nikolov, Ivan Hodulov, Tomislav Georgiev and Veselin Dikov, one in Germany – Borislav Blagoev, one in Austria – Hari Papazov and 17-years old Daniel Dilkov is 5th in scoring in the Slovak U18 1st league for example.”
Ivan Hodulov was the top scorer in the World Championship tournaments in 2014-15, but is missing the game against Georgia while playing with Kingsville Kings in the GMHL. Alexei Yotov (5+4) and Stanislav Muhachev (4+8) took part in the Continental Cup for CSKA Sofia, but decided not to play in the Olympic qualification. And once again on Bulgarian roster there is a well known name of the legendary goaltender Konstantin Mihailov (born 1964), who is coming back to help after an injury to one of his pupils.