SARAJEVO – 30 years after hosting the 14th Winter Olympics, Sarajevo welcomes the return of top-level hockey with EBEL staging two matches in January. This Christmas gift for hockey fans in Bosnia & Herzegovina was announced on Monday.
Olimpija Ljubljana from Slovenia is set to make a return to the Olympic city of Sarajevo. On 10th January Olimpija will play VSV Villach and two days later they face Austrian record champion KAC Klagenfurt. Both matches against Austrian opponents will be played in the Olympic Hall Juan Antonio Samaranch, formerly known as Zetra where the most important of the games at the Olympic ice hockey tournament in 1984 was staged.
It will mark an important first in the history of the EBEL as the two scheduled games will be played outside the participating countries – currently Austria, Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary and Slovenia – that provide the twelve teams for the league.
The event in Sarajevo is named IceFest 2014 and the event carries an aura of nostalgia around it with its logo being based on the Olympic snowflake used as symbol of the 1984 Games. It is the third part of a series of EBEL showcasing the sport in former Yugoslavia.
It is preceded by the 2012 Arena Ice Fever, a world's first for hockey games held in an amphitheatre, where Medvedscak Zagreb played two EBEL games in Pula, Croatia in September 2012. It was followed by Olimpija hosting the Bezigrad IceFest 2013 in Slovenia's capital in January this year where the hosts played three games against EBEL opposition at the football stadium Bezigrad.
Next month's Sarajevo IceFest will also mark a fond return of Olimpija Ljubljana to the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina. It was players from this team, that together with Jesenice provided the a bulk of the Yugoslavia roster during the Olympic ice hockey tournament held between 7th and 19th February 1984, where the Soviet Union won the gold medals and Yugoslavia made their fifth and final Olympic appearance as an ice hockey nation.
No country from former Yugoslavia has ever played an Olympic ice hockey tournament since. Something that will change in Sochi 2014 thanks to Slovenia’s surprising qualification against Belarus, Denmark and Ukraine.
Soon after the 1984 Olympics, Olimpija played their part in one of the most memorable games in the hockey history of Sarajevo as the popularity of the sport had taken off after the Winter Games had been awarded to the city. HK Bosna, formed in 1980, played in the top division of Yugoslavia between 1985 and 1988, pulling in crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 during its heyday and where the arrival of Olimpija in the mid-1980s attracted a bumper crowd of 8,000 that carried HK Bosna to a shock win against their illustrious opponents from the north.
The Zetra Olympic Hall – now called Olympic Hall Juan Antonio Samaranch – during the 1984 Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo. Photo: HSBiH
But just over eight years after Sarajevo so successfully had hosted the Winter Olympics, Zetra and ice hockey in the city were in ruins as the ravages of war were taking its toll on Sarajevo following the break-up of Yugoslavia. But thanks to Bosnian determination and a helping hand from international aid, Zetra was rebuilt in 1999 and later named in honour of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) following his death in 2010.
Almost six years have passed since Bosnia & Herzegovina's national team last played in a qualification tournament for the 2008 IIHF World Championship Division III, losing out to Greece on home ice in Sarajevo. For years its development has been hindered either by financial hardship or adverse weather conditions as heavy snowfall made the roofs cave in on the city rinks in both 2007 and 2012. But as this season sees the sport make its return to the Olympic Hall Juan Antonio Samaranch and with one of the four participating teams taking part in the domestic championship solely made up of young prospects, the mood is carefully upbeat ahead of EBEL hockey temporarily rolling into the city.
"The Sarajevo IceFest 2014 will be a very good platform for promoting ice hockey in Bosnia & Herzegovina as we are trying to develop the game and I also hope it can help us to recruit more kids," says Haris Muhic of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Ice Hockey Federation.
Muhic was one of the instigators of the Balkan Ice Hockey Union (BIHU) founded in the summer of 2011 where nine countries joined together in an effort to develop and promote ice hockey in the Balkan region of South-Eastern Europe aimed for players under the age of 16. So far the Balkan project has helped to speed up the development of hockey in Bosnia & Herzegovina, which is set to gather further pace ahead of the city playing host to the 2017 European Youth Olympic Winter Festival as Sarajevo seek to rekindle its passion for hockey.
"With the Youth Olympic Winter Festival being held in Sarajevo, an ice rink with around 2,000 seats will be built in the city and another arena is also to be constructed in the nearby town of Pale," says Muhic. "As for national teams, our aim is to have both U18 and U20 national teams playing in the qualification tournaments for the World Championship next year."