Romania’s defensive hope in Karlstad
by Henrik Manninen|16 DEC 2021
After years in Sweden Daniel Gheorghiu has the chance to represent his country on home ice at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A.
photo: Daniel-Maximilian Milata
The closure of Bucharest’s only full-sized ice rink in 2012 extinguished the dreams of generations of future Romanian hockey players. For Daniel Gheorghiu, it meant the start of a new chapter.

As Romania hosts the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A in Brasov this week, it would be hard to find a player prouder to wear the blue, yellow and red colours of Romania than 18-year-old Gheorghiu.

Thrilled at making his U20 national team debut in front of family and friends, Gheorghiu is back on home ice in the country he left at the age of 13. The Bucharest-born blueliner had back then departed the bustling Romanian capital for a new life in small-town Sweden. Five years on, he has steadfastly improved progressing through the junior program at Farjestad Karlstad in Sweden.

“I was impressed when being told the story of the enormous sacrifices his entire family made for their son to be able to play hockey,” said former NHL blueliner Ole-Kristian Tollefsen. The Norwegian is Gheorghiu’s assistant coach at Farjestad Karlstad’s U20 team.

“I like players who are competing and always wanting to improve and that’s what Gheorghiu is all about. He has also made great strides this season and I’m happy to see how the hard work is paying off.”

Skating already at the age of three, Gheorghiu’s father had harboured great sporting hopes for his son right from the outset. He was six when joining one of the many youth hockey teams active in Bucharest at the time. The decision was influenced by a tale his father once heard about a former Romanian national team football player, Danut Lupu, who in his youth had been a keen hockey enthusiast.

But ice sports were by then living under constant threat as Bucharest’s dilapidated ice arena Mihai Flamaropol was standing on its last legs. In 2012 the rink bolted its doors before finally being demolished a few years later. With the nearest full-sized indoor ice rink located a six-hour round-trip up the road, Gheorghiu instead found salvation in Scandinavia.

“My parents thought I would have the best opportunities to develop as a hockey player in Sweden. But they also believed education was better there, so the decision to move was a combination of the two,” he said.

The decision to uproot did not come of the blue. With relatives already living in Sweden, Gheorghiu had during previous visits got a taste of Swedish hockey. He had joined the local team at ice practice, but also before his move attended two hockey camps hosted by Farjestad Karlstad.

Being 13 and suddenly waving goodbye to friends and relatives from a world you have known your entire life can be a daunting task. The transition to a new country was greatly eased thanks to Gheorghiu’s positive nature and hockey. Upon his arrival, he had successfully passed a try-out with Farjestad’s U14 team. A new life could now start.

“My first year in Sweden was pretty hard as I didn’t know the language. But during the summer, between my first and second year, I started to speak Swedish,” he said.

“Playing hockey also helped. Right from the very first practice my new teammates started to talk to me and I felt welcome right away. In terms of hockey the differences between Sweden and Romania were huge even though I was only 13 at the time. Everything just went much, much faster in Sweden.”

Diligently progressing through the respective age categories at Farjestad Karlstad’s junior program, Gheorghiu was 16 when his father one day was contacted by a former coach from Bucharest. Romania was competing at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division II Group A in Elektrenai, Lithuania and Gheorghiu’s name was on the final roster.

“It was a powerful moment to play for the national team but also to be able to score on my debut. It’s something I will remember for a long time,” said Gheorghiu on the fine start of his national team career capped by a second-period goal against Poland on 7 April 2019.

Two players from Gheorghiu’s last club in Romania, Steaua Bucharest, had still been part of that Romanian U18 national team setup skating in Lithuania. Both have since failed to make the cut for the U20 national team. Did Gheorghiu ever think about how his hockey life would have looked had he stayed put in Bucharest?

“That’s a very good question. I honestly don’t know if I would have continued with hockey, so coming to Sweden was the correct decision which I don’t regret,” said Gheorghiu.

Turning 19 at the end of next month, Gheorghiu will soon be at the crossroads of his career when junior opponents will be replaced by rugged seniors. How does his coach at Farjestad Karlstad assess Gheorghiu’s qualities and what lies ahead for him?

“His main strengths are in defence and he works very hard in one-on-one situations and penalty kill. He is a solid defenceman and should continue honing those skills that he does so well,” said Tollefsen.

“Gheorghiu is at that age now where the next few years of player development are really hard to predict. He could continue to play another season with the junior team or he could try to play himself upwards with a senior team.”

“But a defensive player with his style of play is not as easily noticeable as one with flashy skills. So he will probably need to go down the hard road, starting at a level in senior hockey which might be lower than he feels he is capable of. From there he then needs to work himself upwards. It’s a hard job, but if there is one person who will not give up then it’s Gheorghiu,” he continued.

The arrival of a defensive-minded player of Gheorghiu’s qualities should be welcomed with open arms by Romania’s men’s team currently on the up and to be competing at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Ljubljana, Slovenia. If Gheorghiu can continue his development, a distinguished career at the national team level will undoubtedly lie ahead for the 18-year-old who hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“I plan to go as far as I can get in my hockey career, but I like to think that I would return and play my final year in my career at Steaua Bucharest. Even if Steaua was not where I first started, it was the club I later played for and influenced me the most at the start of my career,” he said.

In 2016 ice hockey was finally able to return to the capital area of Romania with the construction of a full-sized indoor practice rink in Otopeni, near Bucharest’s international airport.

In January 2017, construction of a new indoor rink on the site of the demolished ice arena Mihai Flamaropol also got underway. Construction was halted in 2019 following the termination of the contract with the construction company. Its estimated date of completion has since been up in the air.