As Bosnia & Herzegovina's senior national team will compete at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Qualification played in Abu Dhabi between 31 March to 6 April, they do so on the back of a burgeoning interest shown for the sport at home.
Last month, the ninth edition of the Happy Hockey Days saw around 500 boys and girls aged from U8 to U14 travel from near and far to congregate for a festival of hockey in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Soon after, as Sarajevo hosted the 14th European Youth Olympic Festival (EYOF), around 5,000 turned up at the final of the hockey tournament. When the finalists, Czech Republic and Belarus, stepped out on the ice, they were joined by local skaters who recently picked up the game much thanks to an initiative instigated by the equipment manager of a TPS Turku junior team in Finland, Ernad 'Edi' Sinanbegovic.
“I have not the words to thank 'Edi' enough,” said Dino Pasovic, head of youth development at HK Sarajevo Medvjedi and national team netminder of Bosnia & Herzegovina. “With the high prices of equipment, hockey is not something people look at as an opportunity for their kids. 'Edi' has done an amazing job and a pretty big deal of the equipment he got for us was out the ice with the kids ahead of the final of the EYOF,” he said.
Born in what was then a country called Yugoslavia and today is in the entity of Republika Srpska in the north-eastern part of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Sinanbegovic was seven when he together with his family escaped the ravages of war in their home town of Prijedor for the safety of Finland in 1992.
Growing up Finland skating became a part of the staple diet, but hockey only entered Sinanbegovic's life in his 20's thanks to a persuasive work colleague in Turku in south-western Finland.
“At that time I was more into football, but my work colleague kept on asking me to come along to watch a game of TPS Turku and I liked it. At the time my son was four-five, so I decided to enroll him in skating school. I then volunteered to start as an equipment manager for my son's team and I have been involved with them for ten years,” said Sinanbegovic, on his work with TPS Turku's C2 Academy team where his son Belmin is showing promise.
Almost a quarter of a century since first setting foot in Finland, Sinanbegovic's interest for hockey in Bosnia & Herzegovina was ignited one day as he sat in front of the computer.
“I was interested to know the level of Bosnian hockey. Where they play, how many teams they have and so on. I was also interested to know whether there were any summer camps in Bosnia that my son could take part in. That is how I got in contact with Dino,” recalled Sinanbegovic.
Dino Pasovic had around that time entered Bosnian hockey folklore. Edging Hong Kong 5-4 at the 2015 World Championships Division III in Istanbul, Pasovic had been in the net and recorded 31 saves when Bosnia & Herzegovina won their first ever match at that level.
“I started to talk to Dino to learn more about Bosnian hockey,” said Sinanbegovic. “At first I wanted to invite his team to come and play a tournament here in Turku, but he said the level was too high. He told me more about the challenges facing them in Sarajevo, one such being equipment as there was no hockey store in the country,” said Sinanbegovic.
Mulling over how he could be of any help, Sinanbegovic got down to work in Turku at the start of this season and soon came up with an idea.
“I had noticed that a lot of equipment was being left over and ended up being thrown away. I talked to Dino about it and he said it would be a big thing for them. In Sarajevo, parents don't have money to buy the equipment, skates, helmet and so on. I agreed with the senior equipment manager at TPS Turku's junior section that I could take all the gear which was left over or not used,” said Sinanbegovic.
Meanwhile, in Sarajevo, Pasovic did his bit and managed to get an international haulage company to step in and sponsor a proposed shipment from Finland to Sarajevo. With delivery costs now being out of the way, Sinanbegovic spread the word of his initiative further up the ranks at the TPS Turku hierarchy. The General Manager of the club's junior organisation liked the idea. Soon even the TPS Turku's Liiga team donated sticks and shortly after a local hockey supplier also got involved eager to help Sinanbegovic out.
“Very soon I had my garage full of stuff. I then had to make a list of what I had, get a signature from the club that it was for charity and not for onwards sale and off towards Sarajevo it went,” said Sinanbegovic.
In early November last year, the equipment arrived in Sarajevo and became a massive boost for Pasovic's work at HK Sarajevo Medvjedi. Just over two years since Pasovic started the youth program, they now have two youth categories, U10, and U8 as well as with skating school with more than 50 kids being involved.
HK Sarajevo Medvjedi is today sharing facilities with the largest club for youth development in Sarajevo. HK Vukovi Sarajevo has been in operation for almost ten years with over 100 kids in different age groups. Its U14 team is each month locking horns against opponents from Croatia and Serbia with favourable result despite since long having outgrown their limited facilities.
With the Olympic Hall Juan Antonio Samaranch (aka Zetra Olympic Hall) having ice for only around two months each year its lack of facilities is severely hampering the sport from its growth which also a lot of girls in Sarajevo have shown an interest for.
“A small rink next to Zetra is the base for us at this point. Two years ago we only had 45 days of ice during the year. Now we have six months thanks to that small rink. It is an excellent playground which works well until the age of 10. But as an Olympic city Sarajevo should at least have one full-sized hockey rink for nine months a year,” said Pasovic.
“Of course I believe it. All hockey players in Bosnia are believers. We have been playing hockey for 17 years with only 45 days of ice. So what are we then if not believers?” said Pasovic, who at the age of 33 will be one of the goaltenders who aims to lift Bosnia & Herzegovina back to Division III where they competed between 2014 and 2015.
“With my senior career almost at the end, I will do my best for our kids and to and give it all to put hockey in a place where I think it deserves to be,” said Pasovic as support from one of their most fervent supporters in south-western Finland is set to continue.
“I have been talking to Dino and also with the senior equipment manager of TPS Turku's junior organization. The season is soon coming to an end so if we once again manage to get a sponsor to take care of the shipment, there would be even more equipment we could get hold of which could be sent down to Sarajevo,” said Sinanbegovic.