IZMIT, Turkey - Have you heard the one about the two Serbs, one Croat and a Greek? United in their love of the game, they became teammates during this week's 2013 IIHF Balkan Hockey Development Camp in Turkey, a unique project that transcends nationality and borders in a once troubled region.
Hosted in the city of Izmit, the camp, which is a part of the cross-border co-operation Balkan Ice Hockey Union (BIHU), is aiming to extend the regional co-operation between the nine member nations and spur each other to future success. Following up BIHU's inaugural Development Camp held in Slovenia in 2011 a new crop of players are now once again finding out that a team effort can also travel across the whole region, home to some 150 million people.
Relaxing in the lounge of their hotel, a troika of youngsters, Vojin Dragovic, Nikola Jekic and Jan Smolec recover after an eventful day out on ice at the Izmit K.B.B. Ice Arena, taking in initial impressions from their first ever BIHU-event which will encompass five hectic days of ice practice, off-ice training, games against mixed teams, while also finding time for a cultural excursion ending with a barbecue in the nearby Kartepe mountains.
Smolec, a lanky Croatian forward who started to play hockey at the tender age of three has already clocked up an impressive 12 years in Mladost colours. He is economic with his words, but full of praise about playing his part in the camp, where each country contributes with five outfield players plus one goalie: "I think it's an excellent project, and I've met a lot of new people so far," he said.
"When you are at home with your club you get used to your coach and your team-mates, so it feels a different to be here," adds Dragovic, a forward from Belgrade, Serbia. "And I like it. They coaches make it interesting for us, and we are divided into teams with people from different countries."
His fellow countryman, defenceman Jekic nods in agreement. The Beostar defenceman also hails from the Serbian Capital and not only bumped into new faces out on the ice, but also once at the hotel: "I share a room with a player from Romania and one from Turkey," he says which corresponds to the philosophy of the BIHU that encourages the youngsters to mix with their Balkan neighbours.
"I think the point with his camp is more to meet up with new people, unite and bond with the different countries from the Balkans so we can play or organise other tournaments together in the future," said Dragovic about the groundbreaking initiative for which the IIHF was named the International Sports Federation of the Year by the Peace and Sport Awards 2012.
Seven of the nine member nations - Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey - are taking part in the Izmit camp. And while a youngster like Croatian forward Smolec has played hockey nearly all his life, other such as his Greek goaltender teammate during the Balkan Hockey Development Camp have only recently discovered the game.
Two and a half years ago, Alexandros Agrafiotis was introduced to the game by a friend. A level-headed netminder, the 16-year-old has been used to have to cross many boundaries in order to play, as there is no IIHF-sized ice hockey rink in his home-country, Greece.
"Unless we go somewhere else to play, there is only a temporary small ice available to us around Christmas," he said. "But we have good inline facilities, so that is what we play, inline hockey."
Agrafiotis practices four-five times a week as an inline goalie in the port city of Thessaloniki. The closest IIHF officially sized rink for him is in Sofia, Bulgaria, 300 kilometers up the road, so when the chances arose to practice on ice he was keen to make the most of it, and he is of full of praise for the recent recurrent IIHF-initiatives around the Balkans.
"It is very nice that we all are here together and I love it," he said about being in Izmit. "Some of the goalies that are here are very good and know exactly what they have to do. Then there are some intermediately skilled and then some others that are on a bit of lower level like me."
"But as all the other kids that are here have an ice rink to practice in, they get to learn the basic techniques of goaltending, like for instance how to stand, how to move, but since I am training inline for me it is a whole different technique," said Agrafiotis.
In November last year, he was taking part in his first ever BIHU-event, the Goalkeeper Clinic in Sofia, Bulgaria, which saw 21 goalkeepers and nine goalkeeper coaches from eight nations take part in the five-day program led by two IIHF goalkeeper mentors and instructors. "There I've learnt techniques and movements on the ice I never knew," he said.
And it seems like he is picking up fast. "I got to know Alexandros during the camp in Bulgaria a few months ago," said IIHF Goaltender Coach Peter Skrabelj during the ongoing camp in Izmit. "It's fun to work with him as he is always trying to do better and he is quickly improving."
An example of Agrafiotis' eagerness and ability to learn was on show during the 2013 IIHF Balkan Hockey Development Camp in Izmit when the Greek youngster not only played his first every game on ice, but shutout his opponents playing one period between the pipes.
"Ok, everybody wants to be a good player and go to the NHL, but eventually most of them finish playing hockey. I will not stop. I will continue to practice and then I will see," said Agrafiotis.
The 2013 Balkan Hockey Development Camp takes place between 30th of January - 3rd of February 2013 in Izmit, Turkey with seven of the nine member nations - Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey - taking part.