Oriol Rubio was only 17 when Barca Hockey Gel (the ice hockey team of FC Barcelona) won the Spanish Cup competition, Copa del Rey, in January 2015. The reward was one he never would forget: Being able to step out on the pitch of Camp Nou, the iconic stadium of FC Barcelona´s football team, and receive a rousing ovation from the supporters.
"Walking out in front of 60,000 and all cheering for you is my favourite memory as a hockey player. We celebrated, in the same way, this year after winning the league. Sadly due to Covid-19 restrictions, there were no supporters allowed into the stadium for that occasion," said Rubio, the team captain of Barca Hockey Gel.
While football superstars such as Lionel Messi, Neymar and Xavi mesmerized a global audience and enjoyed phenomenal success wearing the Blaugrana jersey, FC Barcelona is indeed much more than just football.
A multi-sports club with several sections of different sports, some professional like football and basketball, others amateur like ice hockey.
Formed in 1972, the ice hockey section has to date won seven league titles and as many domestic cup trophies. Currently the defending champions of Spain, Rubio is living his dream skating in the colours of his boyhood club.
“I was born and brought up in Barcelona and I come from a family of FC Barcelona supporters. I am a fan and a member of FC Barcelona. I am used to going to all the Champions League games in football and I also watch our basketball and handball team. For me it is an honour to play for the club,” said Rubio.
He was six years old when the father of a current Barcelona teammate Niklas Puertolas introduced him to the sport. Since then Rubio has developed into one of the go-to guys for both his club and the Spanish national team.
Just as the football team of FC Barcelona is well-renowned for bringing through players from its acclaimed academy "La Masia" to its first team, the hockey team’s strategy is no different.
“The priority is for the lower age categories to develop to go to the first team. For instance, we now have eight players playing for the first team who once were part of our U15 team,” said Danylo Didkovsky, Technical director of Barca Hockey Gel.
Kyiv-born Didkovsky has now spent more than two decades in Spanish ice hockey. He was approaching his mid-20’s when he made an unorthodox decision to snub an offer from Germany and instead move from Sokol Kyiv to Spain. And he is working hard to try and popularize the sport.
“Ice hockey is not a big sport in Spain. We are experiencing hard competition not just from football, basketball or handball, but also from roller-, field-, and inline hockey,” said Didkovsky.
“Here in Barcelona there’s just one ice rink. It’s old and we’re sharing it with a lot of other ice sports. But there is a new project at the club to build a new basketball palace and ice rink, so I hope in two or three years we will have them in use.”
Another potential catalyst for the game to grow is the Pyrenees-Barcelona 2030 Winter Olympics bid. Spanning two regions in the north of Spain, it would give ice hockey a much-needed injection.
“Overall, we don’t have many rinks in Spain. They are in the north of the country, in Madrid and one in the south, Granada. But if we would get to host the Winter Olympics, there is a possibility that ice hockey will start to grow bigger as having a competitive Olympic team will be important,” said Didkovsky.
While Didkovsky battles on to widen the appeal of ice hockey there is every reason for optimism for Barcelona’s continued success as an ice hockey club. One important factor is the allure of representing a club with Barcelona’s esteemed history. According to Didkovsky, Barca Hockey Gel receives a steady stream of enquiries from players coming from near and far wishing to represent the club.
Didkovsky himself would be ranked right up there as one of the top imports ever to have played ice hockey for Barcelona. Having skated for Ukraine at the top division at the 1999 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Norway, he later played eight seasons at FC Barcelona. Another player fondly remembered for his contribution is Evgeny Semeryak, a Latvian national team centreman and a former teammate of Sandis Ozolins and Arturs Irbe at Dinamo Riga. On the coaching side former TPS Turku and current head coach of Slovakian powerhouse HC Kosice Kalle Kaskinen had a spell as head coach at Barcelona back in 2005/06.
With only three allowed to skate in each game, competition for places is fierce. Julian Edstrom from Skelleftea, Sweden, who previously played three seasons in Sweden’s competitive third tier, relocated to the bustling Mediterranean metropolis for the 2019/20 season.
“I had started to get fed up with chasing my dream as a hockey player. I also felt that it had been forgotten that sports also should be fun. I wanted to get out from Sweden and I am feeling great with life now and enjoy playing here,” said the 26-year-old Edstrom.
Combining a hockey career with an office job, Edstrom found time to pursue other interests than just hockey in his spare time. One interest is following the fortunes of the other FC Barcelona sections. One of the many privileges of being part of a big sports organization.
“We can get tickets for games involving most of the club’s other sections, so I was for instance at the home debut for the Barcelona basketball team. Another important benefit we enjoy as players are having access to the same healthcare as the other organizations of FC Barcelona,” said Edstrom.
“I feel great being in Barcelona. The camaraderie in the team is really good and they have been very helpful during a difficult time with Covid-19 lockdowns. Without such great teammates, I would never have stayed,” said Edstrom.
This week the Spanish champion will compete in the IIHF Continental Cup. Starting on Friday, they will play Lithuanian champion Hockey Punks Vilnius, Turkish champion and host Buz Adam Istanbul and Liege Bulldogs from Belgium in Group B. All games from both Group A and Group B will be streamed live.