In February 2010, five Swedish hockey players crowned an eventful, season-long odyssey at Ankara University SK by winning the Turkish championship. When the opportunity arose for a brief return to the club this season, three of them jumped at the chance to rekindle old memories at the Continental Cup.
”Playing in Turkey was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I met so many great people. Then you get the chance to meet them again,” said 23-year-old forward Andreas Gustafsson on his decision to once again wear the green-black-white jersey of Ankara University for two games in the Preliminary Round of the Continental Cup played in Jaca, Spain.
Gustafsson's adventure in Turkish hockey started a year ago. He had finished a season in the Swedish fourth tier with Hammarö HC and was looking for a new challenge. Through a Swedish agent, Gustafsson, together with his friend Joachim Wallin, were in the outskirts of Copenhagen trying out for a Danish team when the agent called them up with an offer they couldn't refuse.
”He asked us whether we were interested in playing in Turkey,” Gustafsson said. ”We accepted the offer on the spot and quickly had to get across to Sweden to sign the paperwork. When I got home to pack my bags my friends were quite surprised when I told them I was leaving for Turkey to play hockey.”
Gustafsson and Wallin packed their bags and left behind work, friends, family and the safe confines of smalltown Sweden for the bustling metropolis of Ankara. When touching down in the Turkish capital city, they were greeted by their teammates that included two Swedes, Mattias Svensson and Staffan Lundblad, who arrived in Ankara a couple of months earlier. Four Swedes soon became five after Adam Horster signed up, but in the beginning, the team's Swedish flavour was met by skepticism from both supporters and teammates.
"‚You are not good enough‘ and ‚We are not going to have a chance’ was what we were told when we first arrived," Gustafsson remembers.
Brought up in the Swedish school of hockey, where the emphasis is on teamwork and defense rather than individuality and offense, the Turks weren't impressed by the Swedes' unselfish style of play. But as the season went on and one win followed another, the Scandinavian quintet soon won over their doubters.
Turkey - a young hockey nation that became IIHF member in 1991 - had six teams playing in last year‘s Super League. It was a season that spanned from November to February with the play-offs in Istanbul. Ankara University's season was a success as it won its first Turkish championship beating local rival Baskent Yildizları 7-3, in the final. The five Swedes were later selected to play in the Super League All-Star Game, held in Ankara and broadcast on Turkish television. Not bad for a bunch of guys who were said not to be good enough on their arrival.
"It was an adventure, both and off the ice. But maybe even more so off the ice, with living in a different culture," said Gustafsson. "We got the opportunity to experience football matches in Istanbul, go on ski trips. When the season was over, we got a holiday at a five-star hotel in Antalya paid for by the club as a thank you for winning the championship."
With the title in hand and the last celebrations finished, the five Swedes returned home to an uncertain future. Most had hoped to be back in Turkey this season. But with Turkey hosting the 25th Winter World University Games in Erzurum January 27 to February 6, 2011, the domestic ice hockey season has been moved, and is now expected to start only after the Universiade.
Mattias Svensson and Staffan Lundblad have since found employment elsewhere. But when Ankara University came calling before the Continental Cup, Gustafsson, Wallin and Horster jumped at the chance to play for the club. This time they were joined by another Swede, Alexander Eriksson, a former HV71 junior.From left to right: Adam Horster, Alexander Eriksson, Joachim Wallin and Andreas Gustafsson during camp time in Izmit before the Continental Cup.
A week before the Continental Cup tournament, the four Swedes arrived in Izmit for a week-long training camp before flying to the Spanish town of Jaca where host CH Jaca and Israeli team Bat Yam HC awaited. The Turkish team easily disposed the Israeli 8-3 with Andreas Gustafsson going 1+3, before the decider against CH Jaca became a memorable game for all the wrong reasons.
"We were leading in shots in the first period and were 2-1 down when I hit the post," remembered Gustafsson. "Then came the penalty calls. At one stage we had nine men in the penalty box. The people came down from the stands to take photos."
With 102 penalty minutes for Ankara University, and a game disrupted by continuous box play, Jaca overpowered the reigning Turkish champion, 7-1, to advance to the next round and sent the Turks back to Ankara – and the Swedes back to Scandinavia. Currently the four Swedes play for clubs back home, but Gustafsson is still not ruling out a third return when the Turkish season gets underway.
”Since I have a girlfriend back home, coming down to play a full season in Turkey is not an option anymore, but right now I would be very tempted to go back and play the shorter season after the University Games,” said Gustafsson.