Balkan looking ahead
by Henrik Manninen|21 AUG 2019
Action in front of the net in the game between host Bulgaria and Turkey during the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group A. This week juniors from these and other countries from the Balkan region will come together in Sofia.
photo: Kostadin Andonov

Following the recent gold medal haul in the lower divisions for national teams from southeast Europe, inspiring the next generation will be in focus this week as the Balkan Festival gets underway in Bulgaria. 

Last season saw a drastic upturn of fortunes for men´s national team programs across Europe´s Balkan region. Serbia´s struck triple gold at Division II level of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program with its U18, U20 and seniors. Neighbours Bulgaria celebrated gold with their U18 and senior program at Division III level, while Romania caused a seismic shock when their men´s team took a step up to the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A, the second tier of international hockey where they will play countries like Austria, France and host Slovenia.

Aiming to continue its winning ways, the Balkan Festival, brings together 90 youngsters and coaches from eight countries of the Balkan region to Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. 

Taking place between 22 to 25 August, participants from Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Turkey will snub the scorching summer sun for days of fun and festivities inside Sofia´s main ice arena, the Winter Palace.

The Balkan Festival is organized as part of the Partnership for Progress program launched by IIHF last year. Aiming to bring bigger and smaller organizations together to co-operate and help develop the sport, the event in Sofia is hosted by the Bulgarian Ice Hockey Federation and financed by Growing The Game Fund of the IIHF and its marketing partner Infront.

IIHF’s Membership Development Manager Aku Nieminen will be coordinating the event in Sofia. He is joined by two compatriots from Finland, instructors Vesa Lehtonen and Jari Ruottinen, while Matej Matusek of Slovakia will be the goalie coach. 

In what promises to be three hectic days out on the ice, the players and coaches are first put into four mixed teams. Each morning will then start with ice practise, followed by a round-robin format tournament and evenings dedicated for coaching feedback.

“Keeping it fun” will be emphasized during Day 2 of the Balkan Festival, with a skills competition taking place. The games between the mixed teams can also be followed live by friends and family back home through a live stream (see below).

“Everyone should be able to benefit and enjoy hockey while being here. That is the main goal. For the Balkan Festival, we have also Greece, North Macedonia and Bosnia & Herzegovina showing up. We are hoping that this can also help them to make a junior national team in the next years,” said Stoian Batchvarov, executive director of the Bulgarian Ice Hockey Federation and also a member of the IIHF Youth & Junior Development Committee. 

A sterling national team playing career spanning two decades saw a 24-year-old Batchvarov skate at the 1992 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Pool B in Klagenfurt, Austria. Bulgaria who then finished 17th in overall world standings had back then long benefited from regular training camps held in former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Bulgaria´s overall world ranking may have dropped considerably since those days, but Batchvarov feels events such as the Balkan Festival can help future generations to prosper once again. 

“Our goal is that all players will have competitive games against each other. So for instance, during the games we play at the Balkan Festival we have the Croatian, Romanian and Serbian playing on lines against each other to make the games as even as possible,” he said.

“In two years players taking part here in Sofia will be national team players. So for us, it is very important to motivate them, educate them properly and help them take the next step and continue preparing them for the seniors,” Batchvarov continued.

Participating with ten players and two coaches at the Balkan Festival, the event can mark the start of exciting times for hosts Bulgaria. In January next year, the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division III will be contested in Sofia while the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games will take place in Lausanne, Switzerland. Two events where Bulgaria hopes to break new ground this season.

“Last year we had the seniors and U18s both going up, so now as hosts we want to do the same with the U20. But we also target to have one girl and one boy taking part at the Winter Youth Olympics,” said Batchvarov.

Game Schedule & Stream Balkan Festival

22 August

17:00 Red vs White
19:00 Yellow vs Green

24 August
17:00 Green vs White
19:00 Yellow vs Red

25 August
17:00 Red vs Green
19:00 White vs Yellow