BUCHAREST - Once a thriving hockey city that nurtured Romania's two IIHF Hall of Famers, years of steady decline has left the sport facing an uncertain future in Bucharest.
As Romania is currently in full swing hosting the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A in Brasov's top-modern Pationarul Olimpic, the conditions inside are in stark contrast to the facilities on offer three hours down the road in the country's capital.
Promises of a brighter future have been staple diet on the bustling streets of Bucharest of late, culminating with the Romanian general election taking place last week. But step inside the city's only ice arena, Pationarul Mihai Flamaropol, and one can see that unkept electoral vows from past and present have contributed to its badly neglected state, and left the immediate future of the sport in Romania's capital in serious doubt.
Inaugurated in 1952, and subsequently covered six years later, the once gleaming ice arena coincided with the rise of the Bucharest's two top clubs, Steaua and Dinamo. They were to dominate the domestic game in such an emphatic fashion that the national championship became a duopoly as the capital giants battled it out for top spot in 33 consecutive championships commencing during the 1963/64 season.
With Steaua enjoying support from the army, and Dinamo by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Bucharest derbies were feisty encounters. Although Steaua won most of the national championships, it was in the red and white jerseys of Dinamo that Romania's two future IIHF Hall of Famers, Eduard Pana and Doru Tureanu rose to prominence and became key contributors to Romania's ice hockey program making strides on the international stage, as the national team made four appearances at the Olympic Winter Games between 1964 and 1980.
But faded memories from a bygone era count for very little today, as the glory days of Bucharest as a stronghold for hockey seem to be well and truly behind it as the city struggle to catch up with their rivals, both on and off the ice.
"When you want to improve your performance, you need good coaches and infrastructure, and we've learned from that as hockey in Romania has generally improved a lot over the last few years," said Marius Gliga, Technical Director of the Romanian Ice Hockey Federation to IIHF.com.
"But when it comes to Bucharest, you cannot say that there isn't any interest. There are a lot of kids wanting to play, but they are frustrated because right now they don't have ice time, and I also feel we could do more here in terms of coaching, but the problem with Bucharest is that it's a big city and people here have many different choices with what they want to do with their time, and it's not only ice hockey here, like in Miercurea-Ciuc," he said.
Five hours north of Bucharest, Miercurea Ciuc is the unquestioned epicentre for ice hockey in Romania today. Here kids grow up wanting to be future puck wizards, and the political support for the sport is strong. The town's hockey team HSC Csikszereda has won the previous six national championships , and while Steaua was once its fierce archrival, the Miercurea Ciuc-based club now finds it main challenger coming a couple of hours down the road in Brasov, where a sports crazed mayor has been instrumental behind building not only a slick ice arena, Pationarul Olimpic, but also a competitive team that together with HSC Csikszereda are Romania's two participants in the MOL-liga, the interliga also including teams from Hungary and Slovakia.
In the capital things are different. As Steaua's derbies with seven-time champions Dinamo died out almost ten years ago when the latter scrapped its hockey program, the last time the sport really made waves in Bucharest was during a national championship title deciding game in 2005 when a partizan crowd of around 6,000 turned up to carry their heroes to the club's 39th league title.
Steaua's most recent championship win was added the following season, but since then its star has been on the wane. Mounting financial problems saw them pull out from playing in the MOL-liga ahead of this season, and Steaua now find itself languishing in the national championship in front of paltry crowds in a faded hockey temple that clearly lives on borrowed time, which a recent temporary closure of the rink due to unpaid bills emphasised even further.
Last year the Ministry of Regional Development and Tourism announced that a multifunctional hall with 16,000 seats was to built on the current location of Mihai Flamaropol, a move which surely would price out hockey from its plans of a vibrant future in the city and could also have meant the death knell for most ice sports in Bucharest. Although the proposition never materialised there is undoubtedly a dark shadow looming over what the future might bring next in terms of promises from above.
"As the ice rink belongs to the state they can decide to either administrate it themselves or in partnership with other state institution, so anything can happen," said Gliga. "But the ideal scenario for Bucharest would be for Steaua themselves to build an ice rink. That would be perfect. They have the power, and they would get kids through their junior program, but for that we would also need influential people, who believe, and who wants to spend money on sport," he said.
Three players - Roberto Gliga, Florian Bocu and Dennis Dumitru - are products of the Steaua youth system and on Romania's roster fighting for a medal against Hungary, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Spain during the IIHF U20 World Championship Division II Group A in Brasov, Romania, between December 9-15, 2013.