SKOPJE – It was just before Christmas when FYR Macedonia's national team stepped out on the ice for its first pair of international exhibition games.
The two matches between the country’s men’s national team against neighbouring Bulgaria's U20 national team, played at the new Hockey Arena Boris Trajkovski in the capital city of Skopje on 20th and 21st December, saw the two evenly matched sides record a shootout victory each.
The international debut follows recent attempts to push forward the development of the game in the southernmost former Yugoslav state which became independent in 1993. In mid-November this year, the Skopje Ice Festival saw local team Metalurg finish top against cross-border opponents Spartak Subotica of Serbia, Bulgaria's Chervena Zvezda Sofia and Iraklis Thessaloniki in Greece during a weekend of hockey festivities played at FYR Macedonia's only full-sized functional ice rink at the Boris Trajkovski Sports Centre. Add to that mid-December's start a four-team strong domestic championship, which offers careful cause for optimism.
The Macedonian national team playing their two historical matches against Bulgaria consisted of a motley crew of rugged veterans and crop of youngsters where the bulk of the team previously laced up for FYR Macedonia at international level as inline players during European qualifications to the IIHF Inline Hockey World Championship. One player standing out from the rest was 21-year-old left-winger Stefan Deckovski, the first FYR Macedonia-trained player in a generation to ply his trade abroad.
While the love for the game in the Deckovski household has been passed on from father to son, the conditions for practising the sport have been in sharp contrast between the two generations. Hockey had first been introduced to Skopje by students who brought the game back from what was then Czechoslovakia.
Following a massive earthquake in 1963 which had a devastating effects on all levels of society, Skopje admirably rose up again and hosted the 1969 IIHF World Championship C-Pool. While Japan finished top ahead of Switzerland in the tournament played at the Kale outdoor rink in the centre of the Skopje, the sport captured the attention of the locals. A hockey section of the sports club Vardar was soon after formed, which was the team Filip Deckovski represented as a first-line defenceman between 1975 and 1980.
Following the aftermath of Yugoslavia hosting the 1984 Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo, a team from Skopje briefly competed in the top tier of the Yugoslav championship. Hockey in Skopje reached its pinnacle around that time with the city having two active clubs, where a total of 300 players ranging from veteran teams to under-10 were based at the rink in Kale.
20 years later the reality was not quite as rosy. Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, hockey in what was now FYR Macedonia had been in hibernation in the ‘90s. Since the country joined the IIHF on in 2001, a stop-and-start period for the game ensued and when Stefan Deckovski picked up the game at the age of 13 it was a lonely existence. The Kale rink, once bustling with activity, was now a dilapidated place in private ownership opened for public skating during the short and mild winters. Standing out like a sore thumb among the recreational skaters was a whirlwind kid on skates honing his puck-handling skills wearing his St. Louis Blues jersey with Hull emblazoned on its back as Stefan was put through the paces by his father Filip, who acted as coach.
"My dad told me the basics of hockey as I couldn't get anything else back then because there was no hockey club and only one ice rink open for public skating," said Stefan Deckovski. Luckily he was far from the only hockey enthusiast on the melting pot that is the Balkan peninsula. But to meet like-minded he had to travel outside his country's own borders.
"As there were no teams in Skopje at that time, I made my debut for a team on ice at the age of 16 when playing for Iraklis (from Thessaloniki in Greece) during a tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria," said Deckovski, who also can thank another cross-border cooperation for where he is today. During the summer of 2012, Deckovski attended the Balkan Ice Hockey Festival in Izmit, Turkey, where U16 players from the region came together in mixed teams. It was there that a coach of Partizan Belgrade offered him a place on his team as Deckovski was on his way to study at the Sports Academy of Belgrade. A move which saw him make big strides in his development.
"If I would combine all the practices I've had from 2006 to the point that I arrived to Partizan, it would only make up a total of half of a season of hockey, which is nothing. So while I can say that I've become a much better player, it will be very hard if not impossible to play at a higher level," said Deckovski, who apart from being busy studying and playing in the Serbian championship also skates in unofficial games for Skopje-based team Metalurg while also taking part in the Croatian inline championship.
In 2011, when a full-sized hockey rink was inaugurated at the Boris Trajkovski Sports Centre in Skopje, it was welcomed with open arms. Nikola Tasev, the President of the Hockey Federation of Macedonia now hopes to one day bring back the participating numbers from the glory days.
"Macedonian hockey was cut for about 20 years and there is a lack of complete generation of players now, and we are trying to change that so bringing kids back to hockey is important," said Tasev.
With a sizable diaspora from FYR Macedonia has spread its wings worldwide, recently retired Canadian defenceman Ed Jovanovski was for long the most well-known player with roots from the country as his parents departed Skopje for a new life in Ontario a few years prior to his birth. Two of the more recent crop of stars are Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos and Vancouver defenceman Chris Tanev, while further down the pecking order numerous recreational players of both sexes are scattered across North America, such as the Macedonian teams playing in the Canadian Multicultural Hockey Championship.
"We could easily find players from North America, attract them to come over there and then we would have a good national team, but that is not the way we want to build up our hockey," said Tasev. "The challenge for us is now to try and work with young players, step by step and our hope is to one day be able to play with a national team at the World Championship, but there is no way we will do so until we feel we are ready," said Tasev as the Ice Hockey Federation of Macedonia is currently stepping up its efforts to implement the Learn to Play program for first-time hockey players.
Eager to play his part in helping to close the generation gap in his homeland both on and off the ice is Stefan Deckovski. Currently in his third and final year studying for a master’s degree in Belgrade, a certificate in sports and hockey coaching is looming on the horizon, which could come handy on his impending return.
"The future for hockey in can be positive here as there are a lot of kids who want to play the game, but there are no hockey schools and the biggest problem is that we don't have a proper ice arena, but one that only works when the temperature is -10°C," said Deckovski while referring to the partly covered Hockey Arena Boris Trajkovski, which saw ice from frozen water replace the synthetic variety last year but still awaits to be fully covered.
Meanwhile in the centre of the city, the Ice Hockey Federation of Macedonia hopes that the Kale rink could be covered and then once again have a part to play in the hockey history of the city if the ownership issue could be resolved. History could then go full circle and maybe one day Deckovski could also have a hand in helping the next generation realize the dreams he once harboured out on that very same ice surface.
"When I was young my dreams were big, I thought maybe I could play even in the NHL, but then I didn't know what hockey was. When I started to grow up I understood that my dream was too big to reach, but I kept going even though there was no hockey in Macedonia,” Deckovski said.
“Right now things are not like I dreamed they would be, but I am still doing what I've always wanted to do, which is to play hockey. My dream right now is to finish college and go back to Macedonia, continue to play and possibly even becoming coach of a team.”