ERZURUM, Turkey – In a time the sport of ice hockey is well developed in many countries, you can still find real hockey pioneers in unusual places. Such as the athletes currently competing at a high altitude in the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III.
The players invest money and time in a sport which is more or less unknown in their homeland.
This time the tournament takes please in eastern Anatolia in Turkey. The beautiful area lying on a tableland on a valley basin at an altitude of 1,890 metres surrounded with mountains looks a bit like a place from fairy tales.
Last year the Winter Universade was successfully held in Erzurum. And with the new buildings the city is again in the spotlight of an international tournament.
At the opening game Turkey played against Greece. Like the rocks of some islands in his native country, goalkeeper Ntalimpor Ploutsis stood strong against the waves of attacks of the Turkish team. After 28 minutes of play Serdar Semiz broke Ploutsis’s wall when he deflected a pass. This was the 2-1 goal for his team – in the end the home team won 6-1.
Hockey unites troubled neighbours
Not a long time ago the climate between the neighbours was not at its best.
Of course, neither teams handed out gifts on the ice either. But after the game in the locker room area of the arena, which was constructed in 2009, there were no special forces who had to be called on to restrain the combatants. To the contrary. The dressing rooms marked as “Greek” and “Türkiye” were close to each other.
“The problems of our nations belong to the elder generation and to people who have nothing better to do,” says Greek forward Themistoklis Lambridis.
Ice hockey unites people. This fact can be seen even in the lowest tier of the World Championship program.
“We meet once a year. On the ice we give everything. But then, we face each other with a smile, no matter from what countries we are, and what our nations have faced in the past.”
Standing next to Lambridis, Turkish defenceman Akyildiz Cengiz agrees: “We play under the same roof. We do not care about politics. Ice hockey is our culture and it is also our language.”
And there is one other thing that unites these players – both play in New Zealand: Cengiz for the Canterbury Red Devils, Lambridis for the Southern Stampede. But not as well-paid import players. There is no salary, no bread. Lambridis: “We pay to play hockey!”
Conflicts are a relic of the past, think Turkish player Akyildiz Cengiz and Themistoklis Lambridis from Greece. Photo: Daniel Gerber
The blue miracle
While some new ice rinks have been built in Turkey, the infrastructure looks less promising for its western neighbour. In Greece it is hard to get ice. That’s why captain Dimitrios Kalyvas talked about a good game, even when it ended with a 6-1 loss.
“Only our relatives and friends know that there is ice hockey in our country. We have only a few possibilities to practise,” Kalyvas said. “And if it works out we can go from 11pm till 1am. At 2am we are in our beds and at 7am at our jobs. It is a miracle that we have ice hockey in Greece!”
Ireland, another participant, faces more or less the same situation. In their game against Greece the Irish looked like the confident winner. But then, 4-0 behind, the Greeks probably remembered an Olympic phrase: “It’s not only the taking part that counts!”
In a dramatic combat the southern Europeans stepped up, and cut the deficit to 4-3. In the end the Irish won 5-3.
“We lost the focus and took too many penalties,” Eleftherios Fournogerakis commented after the game.
While most of the veteran players come from Iptameni Athens, Fournogerakis is one of the founders of another Athens-based club, Mad Cows. “We started as friends. More and more players jumped in and now we have been playing in the Greek league for five years. The name was for fun, but now we have a cow on our jerseys.”
One of the highest championships
The Turkish team is in a better situation with several international size ice rinks. “We will reach Division II and establish ourselves there,” predicts coach Tuncay Kilic. “Our hardest opponent is DPR Korea.”
The Turkish bench during a game in Erzurum. Photo: TIHF
Kilic’s sharpest weapon is Serdar Semiz, who has scored three goals in the first three games. During the first game of the tournament he turned 30 years old.
He’s a player with Turkish origins hailing from Huddige, Sweden. He played junior hockey with AIK Stockholm and made it up to the third tier in the senior leagues before moving to Turkey in 2009. Now in his third season in Turkey he has become eligible to represent the country.
Erzurum stands for a unique mark in hockey as it one of the IIHF events at the highest altitude. The ice rink is built 1,890 metres above sea level. That’s even higher than Davos, Denver or St. Moritz, but less than Mexico City.
And it’s demanding for players, especially for those who are not used to it.
“It is harder to breath. We have to change the lines faster,” says Irish captain Stephen Hamill.
Mongolian coach Ganbaatar Khurelbaatar, however, feel like at home in the thin air: “In our country we’re at an altitude of 1,700 meters!”
Get the rhythm (but not the blues)
Six nations from two continents compete for promotion to the Division II Group B. DPR Korea and Turkey earned the best prospects after the beginning of the tournament with only marginal chances for Luxemburg and Ireland, with Greece and Mongolia at bottom of the standings.
The Irish team came down from Division II. Their goal was to get back there as quick as possible, but optimism took a hit after the 6-2 defeat on the first day against Luxembourg.
The Irish national team celebrates a goal. Photo: TIHF
“We have had only a few trainings. Ice is very expensive in Ireland,” Irish coach Kenneth Redmond says.
To play or practice, the players basically have to leave the country and drive to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland.
“We can only practise at weekends when the Belfast team has a home game. They help us a lot. All the other time we have to work in gyms. I have good players, and we must work with the things, that we have.”
He hopes there will be a new ice rink in Dublin next year.
Captain Stephen Hamill: “We were now better from game to game. We have big hearts, showing character and we fight till the very end. We will win a medal: gold! And we will win this tournament.”
Canada-born Adam Jackson-Wyatt, one of the key players on the Irish team, says that the athletes of the team live in very different areas in the country. Some are from the south, others from the north.
“Only in Toronto we have plenty of ice rinks,” Jackson-Wyatt says. “Not so in Ireland. The crisis has hit our country. We had to close our only rink. As a national team we were only able to be together more or less the last two or three weeks.”
The rink in Erzurum is one of the best he has played with the national team. “And they do everything that we feel home!” he adds.
Only those with heart play hockey in Mongolia
The players from Mongolia are real pioneers. They enjoyed the championship from the very beginning. They smiled at the landing, had pictures taken at the airport and took photographs with the Turkish fans. They just love to compete here. And they have one big challenge: to win the first ever game in an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship tournament.
“We have won games at Asian tournaments, but never at a World Championship,” says coach Ganbaatar Khurelbaatar.
Winter sports are not so popular in his home country. “We have no covered ice rink,” he explains. “The rink has bar marks, but no seats. We prepare the ice with some shovel work.”
Mongolia hopes to celebrate its first victory in a World Championship tournament soon. Photo: TIHF
As soon as winter is over, the hockey season is over too. It runs from December until February. The season is played in tournaments at some weekends while players take vacation, Khurelbaatar explains and adds: “It is a thing of the heart. The ones who have no heart don’t play ice hockey!”
The first few minutes of the tournament looked promising. Exactly at 10:00 Erkhbayar Altansan scored the 1-1 goal against DPR Korea, one of the favourites to win the tournament.
In disbelieve the Mongolian players clearly enjoyed the moment. Eventually the period ended with a 2-1 lead for DPR Korea, which went on to win the game 12-2.
Good days for DPR Korea
The situation is much different in the other Far East country at this tournament, DPR Korea. Team leader Yong Chol Yu explained that there are more than 3,000 players, four covered ice rinks and eight outdoor rinks.
“Our championship has around 18 games and we also have playoffs,” he says.
He was happy with the start of the tournament, celebrating the first game with the first victory on the day his country also celebrated the 100-year anniversary of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the communist country.
“We have this celebration day and we won 12-2 – it was a perfect day!” says Yong Chol Yu.
Two staff member of DPR Korea were happy to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Kim Il-sung (pictured on the pins) with a victory. Photo: Daniel Gerber
He was even happier after the second game. Trailing 1-0 against the team from Luxembourg that showed some great effort, DPR Korea turned the game into a 4-1 victory.
All the commitment that these players show in their spare time, to drive long distances for practising late night and other sacrifices, shows one thing: the Division III is a championship of the hearts.
First election, then organisation
And it is one at a good place. Özgür Aslan, the vice-governor of Erzurum and responsible for sports in the city, is well informed about the tournament with the game schedule lying on his desk.
“These events are very important for us. And we will host more winter sports events,” Aslan says. “Our wish and goal is to have the Winter Olympics in Erzurum in 20 or 30 years. But we know it is a very long way. And Turkish winter sport has to become better and better. Also in this area we have to make many steps.”
Also Kimmo Leinonen from Finland, a former IIHF Marketing Director who was assigned by the IIHF to chair the Tournament Directorate, is happy with the event so far.
“It is unique! The infrastructure was here because of the Universade. It is my first Division III tournament. All these players may know the big leagues only from TV, but they show big hearts,” says Leinonen and adds that he is enthusiastic about how fascinated the Turkish volunteers are about ice hockey.
“All the people working for Division II and III tournaments are pioneers,” he praises.
DPR Korea’s Song Iil Jong and Turkey’s Galip Hamarat battle for the puck in one of the top games of the tournament. Photo: TIHF
However, organising the event was quite a challenge, as the Turkish Ice Hockey Federation had elections only shortly before the tournament with major changes in the organisation.
“Within a few days we organised all the hospitality. It was a hard work, a miracle!” says Orhan Duman, the new chairman of the Turkish Ice Hockey Federation, who hopes to lead the nation to Division II and establish the team there.
Before the last game it looks promising for the host nation. Turkey defeated DPR Korea 4-2 and needs just one more point from its last game against Luxembourg.