Georgian hockey making strides
by Derek O'Brien|19 APR 2023
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Rubén Lago
Despite making its IIHF World Championship debut in a Division III Qualification tournament just a decade ago, Georgia has moved up three rungs on the ladder and debuted in Division II Group A this year in Madrid, Spain. And after winning their first two games – 4-1 over Iceland and 7-3 over Israel – it looks like they will be staying up. 

The win over Iceland was huge. Both teams were promoted from last year’s Division II Group B tournament, with host Iceland being the only team to beat Georgia. 

“We knew these first two games would be the most important ones for our team,” said Mikheil  Davitashvili, General Secretary of the Georgian Ice Hockey Federation, and also manager and occasional player for the Georgian national team. 

Davitashvili watched the Iceland game from upstairs, but looking ahead to what he thought was a winnable game against Isreal, the former defenceman “just wanted to play too badly” and added himself to the roster. For the 31-year-old, it was his first national team game since 2018. 

Unfortunately, a skate blade problem limited his comeback to just one shift against Israel. It was just another obstacle to overcome. 

With a population of around four million, Georgia has only one standard-sized indoor ice rink and only 152 registered adult male hockey players, but they have learned to make do with what they have. 

“They used to say that nobody wanted to make a standard-sized ice rink in Georgia because, if they did, there would have only been Georgians on the Soviet national team,” Davitashvili laughed. “It’s an exaggeration, of course, but there’s also some truth to it because Georgians love sports and if the infrastructure is in place, we do very well.”

Georgia gained its independence in 1991. Davitashvili’s uncle, Lasha Tsagareishvili, played hockey in the 1990s and was one of the sport’s pioneers in Georgia, inspiring 12-year-old Mikheil and some of his cousins to start playing. 

“I was one of the first ice hockey players in Georgia,” said Davitashvili. “At first it was mostly only our family, but then others heard about it and got interested in playing as well.”

Between 2003 and 2009, Tsagareishvili helped establish the country’s first league and the Georgian Ice Hockey Federation. But just as things were progressing rapidly, tragedy struck. 

“Unfortunately, my uncle was killed in a car accident in Turkey in 2009 along with his wife, (national team head coach) Denis Davidov, and three representatives from the Armenian Ice Hockey Association. The six of them were on their way to the IIHF Semi-Annual Congress in Malta,” Davitashvili said solemnly.

“Those people were responsible for a lot of the development that had happened in ice hockey and, after that, it went down in terms of development but we found every possible way to bring ice hockey back on the road,” he said. 

By 2010, the Georgian national team was back on the ice and things grew from there. Davitashvili was the on-ice leader but, before long, he felt he could best serve Georgian hockey in other capacities.

“I was a defenceman and captain of the national team, but then in 2017, I moved to the General Secretary position, so I didn’t really have time for training,” said Davitashvili, who was just 26 at the time. “My last World Championship was in 2018 in South Africa, where we won Division III.”

Davitashvili now finds himself lobbying the government for equipment, ice time, and other things needed to draw players to the sport and keep them. And despite his retirement from the national team, Davitashvili still plays in the Georgian Hockey League, but more to mentor young players. He knows he can’t do this alone. 

“In the past we had several (Georgian) players in Russia, but of course that’s not possible right now,” said Davitashvili. “So now those players are playing in our domestic league, and that helps raise the level of our league and they can share their experiences with our younger players about playing in leagues abroad and also for the national team.”

One of those players is Andrey Romanov, who in addition to playing for the Georgian national team and in the GHL, also coaches youth hockey.

Romanov was born and raised in Moscow, and played hockey from a young age for the famous CSKA Moscow club, where teammates included Calgary Flames defenceman Nikita Zadorov and former Florida Panthers forward Maxim Mamin. He has strong family ties to Georgia, however, going back to his great-grandparents, and has now resided there for several years, becoming a naturalized citizen. 

Now 27, Romanov represented Georgia for the first time last year. 

“I love being a player but I would like to teach someone to become a better hockey player than me,” said Romanov. “I would rather work with the young kids, explain to them what they’re going to face, what they should be prepared for because I know the system.

“I really hope they will take my spot on the national team.”
To develop players, Georgia needs rinks. Currently, the only standard-sized indoor rink is in Batumi, on the country’s west coast, with an outdoor rink in the northern mountain town of Bakuriani that is only available a few months per year and dependant on the weather. There are also a couple of undersized figure-skating rinks that can only be used for practices. 

For now, that’s it, but that’s going to change soon. 

Last May, IIHF President Luc Tardif visited Georgia and met with Georgian Ice Hockey Federation President Zakaria Khechuasvhili and Minister of Culture, Sport and Youth Thea Tsulukiani for the official announcement of a new IIHF-compliant rink to be built in Tbilisi within two years. The promise of this new rink has already landed Georgia the 2025 European Youth Olympic Winter Festival (EYEOF) and, beyond that, they would like to host IIHF events.

“We are using information from the IIHF about standards because we want this to be the best ice rink possible for the capital city, so we could possibly host World Championships in Division II and in the future, hopefully, Division I,” Davitashvili said optimistically. 

Currently, there are no junior national teams in Georgia, but hosting the EYEOF will necessitate their creation. 

“It will have a huge impact toward developing ice hockey in Georgia,” he said about the upcoming EYEOF. “We would qualify as the host country and we have a lot of good junior players who will be getting ready and we really hope to create our first U18 team in 2025.

“Our goal is to create U18 and U20 Georgian national teams to have continuous development.”

The youth numbers are encouraging, with over 400 registered players under the age of 20 in Georgia. And there are others living in Europe and North America who either have or are eligible for Georgian citizenship that could be called upon. 

“If we get the help we need, I think we could develop some very good players,” said Davitashvili. “I don’t think it’s out of the question that we could someday have a Georgian player in the NHL and if that happened, he would be a national celebrity.”

While in Latvia for Georgia’s pre-tournament training camp, Davitashvili met with members of the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation with the hope of forging strong connections. He uses Latvia as an example of what he thinks Georgian hockey could become. 

“Look at the population of Latvia – it’s about half of Georgia – but hockey is really big there,” he said. “We are having our camp there because they have everything we need there in one place. They don’t have a lot of ice rinks but more than us, and they have programs in place that develop good players and keep them in the top division (of the World Championships).”

After the games against Iceland and Israel, Georgia’s schedule gets a lot tougher. First up is host Spain on Wednesday, followed by Croatia on Thursday and Australia on Saturday. But Davitashvili is quick to point out that his team shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Last year, in our first game, we beat the championship favourite, which surprised everybody, including ourselves,” he said about the 4-3 win over Belgium. “Our next opponents will be very tough to beat, but nobody thought we would beat Belgium last year.”