Georgian hockey is celebrating after the former Soviet republic produced its best-ever result in IIHF play to win the Division III title in Cape Town.
The mountainous nation, high in the Caucasus, only played its first internationals in 2010 and competed in IIHF events for the first time in 2013. For two seasons, it could not manage a single victory, but those struggles were all forgotten after four wins from five games in South Africa secured the sought-after gold medals and elevation to Division IIB.
The change in fortune came namely thanks to Russian-trained players who have joined the Georgian national team in the past two years. Of the five best scorers three have names hailing from Russia or Ukraine and all five learned their hockey abroad. The tournament’s scoring leader Alexander Zhuzhunashvili originally came from Moscow to play for the country of his ancestors and made it to the second-highest junior league MHL-B in Russia. Also Alexander Vasilchenko, Artyom Kozyulin and Artyom Kurbatov played their hockey in Moscow while Oliver Obolgogiani, second in scoring, played junior hockey in Finland, and goalie Andrei Ilienko is a native of St. Petersburg.
The free-scoring offence put Georgia in control of the group. The country started with a 6-2 win in a neighbouring clash with Turkey and followed that up by beating Bulgaria 5-3. Next came a crushing 11-1 demolition of Hong Kong before a stumble against the host nation saw South Africa win 4-2 and threatened to halt the promotion parade. Going into Sunday’s final round of games, Georgia knew that it had to defeat Chinese Taipei or be overtaken when Turkey and Bulgaria played later that day.
In the event, there was little to worry about. Zhuzhunashvili opened the scoring after just 17 seconds, potting the first of four goals for him in the game. Defenceman Artyom Kurbanov doubled the lead soon afterwards and Georgia was looking comfortable. There a momentary wobble: captain Vitali Dumbadze took a 5+20 for a high hit and Taipei got one back on the PP, but Semyon Kharizov hit back with a short-handed goal to calm the alarm. Once the teams were back to equal strength, normal service was resumed: Georgia jumped to a 5-1 lead at the end of the first period and added three more in the two remaining frames. Kharizov completed a hat-trick, Zhuzhunashvili completed his four-goal haul with a short-handed marker four seconds from the end. The final score was 11-2, with Yen-Lin Shen and Po-Yun Hsiao getting the consolation goals for Chinese Taipei.
The earlier head-to-head results meant that nobody could catch Georgia now. Bulgaria pipped Turkey to bronze with an overtime victory and South Africa safely navigated a potential relegation showdown against Hong Kong by winning 6-0. But this tournament was all about Georgia’s historic triumph. The team was led by the free-scoring Zhuzhunasvili, one of several Russian-Georgian players on the team. A generation earlier than him, head coach Roland Svanidze underwent a similar journey, starting his career as a player of Georgian descent at Metallurg Novokuznetsk before a stint playing in Dubai and a move into coaching with the Georgian national program. However, this is no mere team of imports playing under a flag of convenience. Most of the roster does indeed have Georgian names and many players come from the domestic system.
So where does Georgian hockey come from? There is a Soviet history to the game here: the first recorded appearance of a Georgian team dates from the Winter Spartakiad of 1962, where Soviet Georgia competed in a kind of Winter Olympics for the republics of the USSR. At the competition in Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg, the team defeated the Armenian and Kyrgyz SSRs but lost to the Kazakhs and all three Baltic republics.
The modern-day team is entirely drawn from the country’s four-team national championship. The bulk of the players, perhaps surprisingly, do not represent the three teams from the capital, Tbilisi, but come from Mimino in the small mountain village of Bakuriani. That community of 2,500 people high in the Borjomi region is something of a winter sport’s hub: a popular ski resort, it was also home to Nodar Kumaritashvili, the luger tragically killed in training at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Mimino supplied 11 of Svanidze’s 20-man roster for Cape Town.
Although the early days of Georgia’s new hockey era were tough – no wins in two years of IIHF competition and a chastening -75 goal difference in 2014, then a disqualification in 2016 for selecting ineligible players in Division III in Istanbul – the team has progressed quickly. Last year’s event in Sofia saw the team claim bronze, with only a group-stage loss to eventual champion Luxembourg denying the team a place in the gold-medal game against host nation Bulgaria. With something to build on, Svanidze and his team refined their plans. In 2018, the efforts paid off: a sparkling performance in South Africa secured promotion for the first time and a highest-ever World Championship ranking of 41st.
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