KRYNICA – With the final round of games coming up in the Division I Group B, Romania's survival is a family matter for the Gligas.
"It's very important for us to stay up. No matter what we are doing in terms of development, we still need to win games to show that all the hard work is for a purpose. Performance is after all our biggest goal," says Marius Gliga, General Secretary of the Romanian Ice Hockey Federation ahead of today’s relegation decider against Australia.
While Marius is pulling the strings off the ice these days, his son, 18-year-old forward Roberto, is part of the next generation of players Romania put their hopes to as they seek to continue pushing forward the fortunes of the senior team, following last year's promotion from Division II in Zagreb, Croatia.
Despite his tender age, Gliga Jr is already playing his third consecutive senior World Championship after making his debut in Narva, Estonia in 2010. As the sole Bucharest-raised skater on the roster, and currently the only one playing his club hockey abroad, Roberto is the odd one out on the Romanian team.
The opportunity for Roberto to continue his career with Tingsryd in Sweden arose two years ago thanks to Ulf Weinstock, a Swedish coach who worked in Romania between 2009 and 2010. There spotted the young Romanian's raw talent. Currently playing in Sweden's top U20 division, SuperElit, Roberto felt a move from the Romanian capital was required for him to continue his progress.
"Coming from Romania to Swedish hockey was a big difference at first. The game was much tougher and I just had to start moving the puck much, much faster," says Roberto, who was first introduced to the sport at the age of four when his father first took him down to the ice rink in Bucharest.
Roberto's dad Marius, a former stalwart on the Romanian national team that featured in World Championships between 1986 and 2000, was at the peak of his career in the early 1990s when Romania was playing in the B-pool of the World Championships. Marius golden years of his career coincided with the direct effects of the Romanian revolution at the end of 1989, which were to affect all aspects of Romanian life.
"It was a process that brought with it changes not only to the social life in Romania, but to sports as well. There was not much money left, the budget diminished and the interest for ice hockey was going down. The coaches were no longer having the same interest to make the kids better," says Marius.
In the football-crazy Romanian capital that two million people call their home, ice hockey was once upon a time a thriving sport with two clubs, Dinamo and Steaua being perennial subscribers to the league title and the silky skills from a player such as IIHF Hall of Famer Doru Tureanu of Dinamo kept the fans on the edge of their seats.
Even at the international level Romania enjoyed considerable success, participating in two successive Winter Olympics (1976 and 1980) and defeating the U.S. at the 1997 IIHF World Championship in Vienna.
These days the hockey landscape in Bucharest is very different. Dinamo, once the team of the interior ministry, folded altogether around ten years ago, and Steaua, still linked to the army, has lost its glow and plays its home games in the faded Mihai Flamaropol rink in East Bucharest in front of a small number of loyal supporters.
"The problem with Bucharest is that there is only one ice rink. If that would change there is a lot of potential there and there would for sure be more teams. Up until ten years ago, Bucharest was a very good centre for hockey, but the level of interest and the budget have since gone down," Marius says.
The Romanian roster during the World Championship Division I Group B in Krynica makes interesting reading. Apart from Roberto Gliga, current Steaua player Yevgeny Pysarenko, born in what then was then Soviet Union and now is Ukraine, are the only two players with no direct link to the undisputed centre of Romanian ice hockey, the predominantly Hungarian-speaking county of Harghita.
20 out of 22 players on the Romanian roster hail from here, with 15 of them currently playing for HSC Csikszereda, the team from the Harghita county’s capital, Miercurea Ciuc, a town of around 40,000 people some five hours north of Bucharest.
"Although the sport has lost players in Bucharest, they have a lot of players in Harghita as ice hockey is the main sport there," says Marius.
"All the kids want to play hockey there and the community is heavily involved with the sport. It is good for us, because they keep the pace now, but hopefully we will also be able to change things in Bucharest. But we cannot build ice rinks ourselves, it will have to come from a political level."
With a population of around 19 million, Romania has currently six indoor ice rinks, but is in need to add more in order to move the game forward.
"The coaches are becoming better and I am happy with how the kids are developing," says Marius. "But the ice time is limited and we don't have as many teams as we wish, so all we need right now is getting more ice rinks and then start bringing more kids to those rinks."
Staying in the Division I Group B would be a great boost for Romanian hockey and Roberto Gliga, who can look back at a solid season in Sweden with 29 points in 45 games, believes Romania has got what it takes to beat Australia in today's relegation decider.
"Our main goal was to stay in this division and I think we will do it," says Roberto, who will return to Sweden for next season looking to continue his progress. "My goal is to play in a really good European league, so Sweden would be a good choice."