SOFIA – The U14 Balkan Festival of Ice Hockey was held recently in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia with 194 participants from nine countries in the growing hockey region.
Young players came from nine countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, FYR Macedonia, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey.
The camp was part of the Balkan initiative that won the Peace and Sport Award last season as it brings together players from countries in a previously troubled region and because the program promotes friendship between the nations in the area.
“The primary purpose of the Balkan Festival of Ice Hockey is to operate a true festival of hockey with all the Balkan nations coming together in a pre-season celebration, while encouraging all members of the family to be involved and participate in this unique once-a-year event,” said IIHF Project Manager Darryl Easson.
“The program is very important especially in this region where people with different mentalities and passion have suffered through conflicts for hundreds of years, but sport has always brought them together even in hardest times during last twenty years.”
Unlike the parents in some of the countries, the players luckily grew up in a peace-minded era for the region and they visibly enjoyed coming together in an international festival.
“We were talking but not arguing. I felt great here,” said Vedran Mikic from the green team. “For me it was the best camp ever. It was well organized and it was nice to meet other people from different countries.”
His team eventually won the camp tournament and his teammate Ivelin Angelov echoed the sentiments not just because of the wins. “The camp was great and I met a lot of new friends. I’m very happy for the opportunity,” Angelov said.
Anze Prostor couldn’t hide his enthusiasm after scoring the final game-winning shot. “This is my first step to the NHL!” he said. The Slovene’s idol is not difficult to guess – his namesake Anze Kopitar.
The new initiative has included several camps and now for the second time a festival. The core part was a tournament in which the 152 players born in 1999, 2000 and 2001 from nine countries were mixed in eight teams, named by their jersey colour. Games were played and the youngsters also participated in a skills challenge and cross-ice games during four days.
For many players it was a new experience, far from home in an international environment.
“I didn’t know what it’s going to be like. I was in room with a player from Croatia and we made excellent friendship. It is different because usually when I go to a summer hockey camp, I go with my friends from Serbia,” said Andrija Spanjevic.
“The team in which I played in the festival was mixed with players from different countries and we all got along and ended up winning whole tournament. It was a good experience playing with boys from other countries. I gained a lot of new friends and I hope that we are going to meet somewhere again.”
The teams were nationally mixed to promote friendship between the participants from different countries but also size and skill were factors taken into consideration.
For many Macedonian players for instance it was the first time they played on a real ice rather than on a plastic surface or inline hockey court. But they hope to have real ice next winter.
The camp ice rink also presented a perfect opportunity for the participants to cool down with temperatures of over 30°C outside.
The festival offered a varied choice of programs for the participants which they can also adapt at home and which encourages fair play and respect and the use of development program resources from the IIHF.
The young players were joined by 16 coaches, eight team managers, a camp doctor, nine game officials from six nations and eight off-ice officials who also had the chance to learn from this cross-border experience.
MARTIN MERK (Zurich)
DARRYL EASSON (Sofia)
TZVETI KRASTEVA (Sofia)