BARCELONA, Spain – Ice hockey in Spain has a history that dates back over three quarters of a century. While the sport has always lived deep in the shadow of Spanish football, basketball, roller hockey and ski, Spain has been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1923. Domestically, there has been a national champion crowned continuously since 1972.
But in recent decades, Spanish hockey lost ground. Currently the 36th-ranked country in the world, Spanish hockey chronically suffered from lack of finance and governance vested within in the Royal Winter Sports Federation (RFEDI), which directed everything from ice hockey and curling to slalom skiing and winter biathlon, in total, eleven Olympic Sports were under control of this Federation.
In a country where only the northeast pockets of the country has a well-established tradition, the Spanish hockey community worked for years to ensure the game’s survival.
Within the last year, however, there has been significant progress made in strengthening the infrastructure of the sport in Spain. It may take awhile to produce lasting results on the ice, but there is hope for Spanish hockey.
The governance of Spanish ice hockey was moved from the RFEDI to the Spanish Ice Sports Federation (FEDH) which moved its headquarters from Madrid to Barcelona, under the direction of Maria Teresa Samaranch. The vice president of the federation is Frank Gonzalez, an IIHF Council member, Chairman of the Junior and Rules Committee and a former player for several Spanish and Canadian clubs, National Team Captain at nine IIHF World Championships, IIHF Linesman and Referee at several World Championships and Congress Delegate for Spain since 1992. Hockey development is a major priority of the FEDH.
“Most of the world still thinks that ice hockey in warm countries such as ours will never happen. We are here to give it our best shot to change all that with more or less economic means, but with a heart full of pride and ready to work as hard as the next guy to develop the game in Spain,” Gonzalez says.
The FEDH has launched an ambitious building plan designed to slowly but steadily fortify and expand the game. Already, the number of registered players in Spain has grown in less than two years from 263 to 1,000, with the number of adult male players jumping from 139 to 400. Youth participation has grown to 520 players.
The growth has been the result of Spain hosting several development camps and placing an emphasis on rink-building.
“We have a new project of building ten new IIHF-regulation arenas in the next five years with a company called SunIce Park, where they build commercial centres and ice arenas to go with them,” Gonzalez says. “There’s also the possibility to build many more if the manpower and materials are available to go through with it.”Mixed news on domestic hockey front
Of course, the problems that have long existed with Spanish National League and the Spanish national program could not disappear overnight. Two teams in the league – C.H. Vielha Vall D’Aran and one of Spain’s most historic hockey clubs, C.H. Jaca – were forced to drop out earlier this season. In the case of Jaca, the situation has been tentatively resolved, but finally they could not continue.
The Jaca team had no local rink in which to practice or play (although there are two arenas in town), and was forced to travel to Pamplona for its games; a situation that quickly proved cost-prohibitive and lack of proper preparation for their league games that even though they won most of their games they received many injuries.
One of the rinks in Jaca is a new state-of-the art arena that was built at a cost of 26 million Euros for the European Youth Olympics Festival last February, but it was budgeted for 12 million Euros. The facility holds 3,000 spectators. Unfortunately, the city could not sustain cost of building, managing and keeping the ice rink available to the community. The other rink was broken down and unsuitable for practice or play. As a result, the Jaca club became a team without a suitable home and announced its withdrawal from the league. The vice-president, secretary and several members of the executive resigned, but the president of the club still resists since he is also the president of the Royal Winter Sports Federation and by not stepping down he is truly hurting ice hockey in this local town where his legacy is pending of a single vote from recent club elections which must be determined by a judicial court this February.Game of the Spanish League between Puigcerda and Jaca.
Since then, things have shaped up somewhat for C.H. Jaca. The team has received support from the FEDH, their city hall and local government authorities by means of economic injection and by calling to the national team of future players in order to keep them involved in all programs which includes sending players to Finland and other parts of Europe. Officials are presently discussing longer-range solutions.
Unfortunately, the situation with C.H. Vielha Vall D'Aran was beyond repair. The team was caught up in a political dispute with the Vielha Vall D’Aran municipality, and it was not feasible to maintain participation in the Liga Nacional Hockey Hielo.
The news on the domestic league front hasn’t been entirely negative. Spanish hockey took a significant step this season when it added a team from France, Anglet Hormadi.
“For the first time in our hockey history, in conjunction with the French Federation, Spanish and French teams are playing not only in the top league but also in all our Under-15, Under-13, Under-11 and Under-9 age categories, with matches played on both sides of the border,” says Gonzalez.
In National League play, Anglet is currently in second place, two points behind C.G. Puigcerda. The Puigcerda club, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, has won the last two Spanish championships. Earlier this season, the team also participated in the Continental Cup, playing in the Group A preliminary round in Miercurea Ciuc, Romania.
Puigcerda is also the defending champion of Spain’s yearly Copa del Rey tournament. The Spanish hockey championship features the top four teams in the league which are selected by a draw to play each other in a one sudden victory game in two semi-finals and one final game for the “Copa del Rey Winner” and with this event the Spanish National League finalizes its season on March 31st, 2008 and prepares for the following season to start at the beginning of September.
Currently, the calibre of Spanish hockey is roughly equivalent to the second or third divisions in high-ranked European hockey countries. More funding will be needed to boost the quality of talent signed from abroad and raise the performance of Spanish players.
“In the upcoming months and years, one of our main goals is to reach agreements with possible future sponsors for our domestic League and our national teams,” Gonzalez notes.Grand plans for national development
At present, Spanish hockey still has a good deal of work to do before its senior or junior teams are capable of being serious candidates for promotion to Division I. Women’s hockey (which has just 80 registered players) is still on the ground floor. But there are encouraging signs of a foundation being built for long-term improvement.
Since the reorganisation of Spain’s national hockey program, the association has moved forward with a series of competitions, hockey instruction seminars and talent exchanges with interested hockey associations around Europe and in close supervision by the IIHF Sport Department.
The goal: To provide more young Spanish athletes access to hockey, help the members of the Spanish national teams gain valuable experience, and assist the development of the junior and women’s programs. “The Ministry for Spanish Sport, the Consejo Superior de Deportes, is also closely watching our steps in our goal to development as we try to work hand in hand not only with the funds that this ministry provides to our sport, but also in the translation of manuals, rule books and other teaching materials that this sport can provide to others not only in Spain, but in all Spanish-speaking countries where this sport is also played.
“We’re trying to reach agreements with the different associations for our players to go to study and play. In Finland and France, we already have four players doing so,” says Gonzalez. “We’re also currently working toward the start up of our women’s hockey program, with four teams playing several tournaments.”
Additionally, as part of C.H. Puigcerda’s 50th anniversary, the FEDH is planning a four-team tournament from February 8th to 10th involving the local senior team, the Spanish senior national team, and the U20 national teams from France and Slovenia.
“The reason that we have invited the U20 Teams is for clubs and hockey followers in Spain to see the level of junior hockey abroad. The area where our new federation is headed is to make the development of youth programs our mission,” says Gonzalez.
Within Spain’s various junior national team levels, the FEDH has arranged participation in a series of international events. For example, on February 1 to 3, Spain’s first-ever Under-16 national team plays in Barcelona against a team representing England.
In February 2007, Spain participated for the first time ever in the European Youth Olympics Festival, playing against the best U17 European Teams such as Russia, Finland, Slovakia, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. The Spaniards played at a capacity of 3,000 spectators each game. In December 2007, Spain sent its U20 team to Vierumaki, Finland, for five days to prepare for the 2008 World U20 Championships Division II Group B in Tallinn, Estonia. Team Spain finished fourth in a bracket that included the host Estonians, the Netherlands, Croatia, Mexico and China. Come late March, Tallinn will also host the U18 World Championship Division II Group B. Prior to going to Estonia, Spain will send its U18 squad to Vierumaki to practice for five days and play two preparation games against Kiekko-Reipas of Lahti.
The Spanish senior national team will undergo similar pre-tournament preparations before the 2008 World Championships Division II Group B in Newcastle, Australia. Team Spain will arrive four days early to practice and adjust to the time difference and jet-lag. The team will also play a game against the Penrith Bears before the start of the tournament.
Finally, in November of this year, Spain has entered its team for the IIHF Pre-Olympic Tournament for the Vancouver 2010 games. The Spaniards’ goal in the tournament is to gain experience it can learn from for the future.
“For me, it’s heartening to see Spain take the next steps in establishing itself on the international hockey stage,” IIHF President René Fasel said in a message published on the FEDH official site. “It is obvious just in the growth of registration numbers that the efforts in Spain are paying off. In just one season, the number of registered players has almost quadrupled and the number of rinks has grown tremendously – now that’s what I call evidence of success.”