ABU DHABI – Georgia will play its first ever game in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program on Sunday, while the United Arab Emirates attempts to stage a comeback to Division III after competing in Asia for the past three years.
Both nations will take to the ice beginning on Sunday at Zayed Sports City’s ice rink in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates and host city for the 2013 World Championship Division III Qualification tournament.
Georgia will open the event against Mongolia while the UAE will face Greece in the evening.
The Emirati team has collected plenty of international playing and hosting experience in the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia, winning the tournament twice including the 2012 Challenge Cup held in India back in March.
It also played once in the World Championship program, three years ago in Division III. The Emirates lost their games to Greece, Luxembourg and Ireland on that occasion. But since then a new national league was established, and with the players having more national and international experience under their belts the Emirati hope to ice a stronger contender this time around.
Greece and Mongolia also come to the Emirates with past experience from the World Championship Division III, but need to go through this qualification event after finishing on bottom last year.
However, the fourth team, Georgia, is entirely new to the program. The Caucasus republic became an IIHF member in 2009 and had international exhibition games against Armenia and South Africa in 2010.
For most Georgians ice hockey is an entirely new sport. There were recreational teams in the capital of Tbilisi during Soviet times, but high-level hockey never came to this region during the USSR era.
“Countries like Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan are rather warm for Soviet standards. Maybe that’s why ice hockey wasn’t developed that well in this area during the Soviet times,” Zakaria Khechuashvili, Vice President of the Georgian Ice Hockey Federation, told IIHF.com during the recent Congress.
The young member association started to promote ice hockey five years ago and has now 266 registered players.
“We have now players from all generations starting from 6 to 40 years of age,” Khechuashvili said. “We have some ice rinks, but rather small ones. But we have plans to start constructing international size ice rinks soon and start promoting hockey at schools with the help of the Ministry of Education. Currently we’re in a situation in which people want to play, but we don’t have enough ice.”
Georgia has rinks in Batumi at the Black Sea close to Turkey, in Tbilisi and one in Kutaisi in the middle of the country. There’s also an open-air rink in the winter resort town of Bakuriani and one that that is out of service in Zugdidi.
Khechuashvili hopes that the construction of the first international size ice rink in Tbilisi will begin soon and take the sport to another level. The plan is to have two full-size ice rinks in Tbilisi and one in Kutaisi.
“We have a national championship with four teams,” Khechuashvili explained the situation in the country, “two from Tbilisi, one from Batumi and one from Bakuriani. We also just started hockey in Kutaisi and hope to have a team there in the future.”
“We plan to be stronger in the future. Everything we see in the big countries now has a history of 40, 50 years or more behind it and we just got started. But step by step we will improve. Right now we don’t have much, but if we have the infrastructure, we can develop very fast.”
Despite the young program, the Georgians are eager to prove themselves in the upcoming days. The national team recently had a training camp with games against Turkish teams in Erzurum, a few hours’ car journey through the mountainous region between Georgia and Turkey.
In a region troubled by conflicts, the hockey relationships between these two countries has flourished since several ice rinks were built in Erzurum for the last Winter Universiade.
Border-crossing to Russia hasn’t been a topic yet due to the difficult political climate between these two countries following an armed conflict in 2008. And the hockey relations to Armenia are rather cool since an exhibition game in 2010 that turned nasty against an Armenian team that was later disqualified due to the use of ineligible players.
“But we are open to everybody and we hope that also in Azerbaijan hockey will be developed and we can work closer together with our neighbours,” Khechuashvili said.
The 54-year-old is optimistic that hockey can be developed to become a bigger sport in his country.
“I believe that Georgians genetically like team sports and sports where you need power. Sports like wrestling and rugby are well developed in Georgia,” Khechuashvili said.
And he hopes that hockey can make the same strides rugby did. He refers that rugby also started to be developed in Georgia only ten years ago. Now the country is 15th in the World Ranking.
Can Khechuashvili think of similar success in hockey?
“When we started discussing about ice hockey eight years ago, people started laughing,” he said. “But now we’re developing and maybe in four, five years we can play in Division II.”
But for now the Georgians will be put to the test when they face Mongolia, Greece and the United Arab Emirates in the upcoming days.
The goal is the same for all four teams: to make the top-two of the round-robin tournament in order to advance to the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III. That tournament will be played next April in Cape Town, South Africa. Apart from host South Africa, DPR Korea, Luxembourg and Ireland are already qualified.
The two teams that will join them will be known by Wednesday when the qualification tournament in Abu Dhabi will come to an end.