Three recent collaborative partnerships aim to give hockey a boost at all levels in Europe's Western Balkan region.
The European Rookie Cup, Ice Rinks for All (IRFA) and Hockey Partnership for Progress (HPP) are three separate projects bringing Western Balkan hockey communities closer together and making the sport accessible to a wider public.
The duration of the projects, spanning from 2015 to 2021, sees EU-funding being used for the first time to benefit the development of ice hockey in the region. The IIHF supports two of these Erasmus+ ice hockey projects as an associate partner in.
The troika of initiatives come in the wake of the fine ground-breaking work made by Balkan Ice Hockey Union (BIHU), a development program in the region established in summer 2011 which saw thee IIHF being named International Sports Federation of the Year by the Peace and Sport Awards 2012.
While the primary goal of the BIHU was to promote peace and friendly relations among the Balkan nations, the cooperation has since become ready to move on to the next stage of development.
First to get underway was the European Rookie Cup, which saw 14 organizations from nine different countries come together for a string of youth hockey camps and tournaments. Mixed teams of boys and girls aged 14-16 from the Western Balkan nations Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia took part in cup competitions which also included teams from Austria, Germany, Hungary and Italy.
With the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga in Austria being the project's lead organization, these get-togethers also highlighted learning more about dangers such as match fixing, doping and intolerance.
150 workshops were held in total for the participating 950 players, 75 coaches and 30 referees during a three-year period which each year culminated with a final tournament.
“We organized workshops on match fixing, anti-doping and intolerance for all teams each tournament weekend. At the final tournament, we did the same for coaches and referees. The players were really active during the workshops and asked a lot of questions, showing that they do care what is happening in their sport,” said Axel Bammer, Project Coordinator of the European Rookie Cup.
Having attracted plenty of interest from other countries across the region, the project experts continue to collaborate and exchange ideas for future cooperation.
Age, gender or social status should not stand in your way when wanting to explore the delights of ice hockey. Ice Rinks For All (IRFA) is a collaborative project searching for ways and methods to popularize ice sports and make them easily accessible.
The 24-month long project, first launched in January 2018, saw its kick-off meeting for the project take place in Maribor, Slovenia, in March 2018 with Akademija Rudi Hiti and its Ambassador, IIHF Hall of Famer Rudi Hiti, playing an integral part in attracting a wide range of partners to the project including the Danish Ice Hockey Association (DIU), the European Federation of Recreational and Veterans Association (EUROHA), HDK Maribor (Slovenia), IFK Stavanger (Norway), the European Association of Sports and Medicine Associations (EFSMA) and the National Sports Academy Club (Bulgaria).
The project aims to include partners wishing to promote Ice Rinks For All to the wider public through their own communication channels. In return, the growing popularization of ice sports hoping to be generated by Ice Rinks For All, the participating clubs, organizations and associations will be directly influenced by the positive effects generated by the project.
With Ice Rinks For All following the European Union's Physical Activity Guidelines of 60 minutes of healthy recreation or sports activity for children, special attention will also be put on targeting cooperation with schools and educational institutions to include as many children as possible. Offering mentorship through organized open dates for ice sports and focusing on lowering entry costs by subsidizing of equipment, Alenka Hiti, IRFA's Project Coordinator is content with the progress so far.
“We are positively surprised by how many attended our open practice lessons in the different rinks that implement the model in Slovenia, Slovakia and Bulgaria,” said Hiti, who highlights the first event held in Bled, Slovenia, which exceeded all expectations.
“In the project description we planned that a maximum of 20 people would attend, but almost each age group extended the number. Taking part were 90 kids, 45 teenagers and 35 adults, so this is already a big promotion,” she said of a project looking to expand its scope.
“During our expert meeting in Copenhagen in May 2018, we spoke with many representatives of other IIHF associations wishing to participate in our project such as Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Luxemburg, Belgium, Spain, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.”
The latest of the three projects hoping to pay long-term dividends to the region's development is Hockey Partnership for Progress (HPP). The development initiative was first presented at the 2018 IIHF Annual Congress and aims to bring bigger and smaller organizations together to form partnerships between national associations, leagues and clubs.
For the Western Balkan region, five national ice hockey associations have since decided to put their efforts together. The Slovenian Ice Hockey Federation being the Hockey Partnership for Progress project's coordinator aims to bring the cooperation of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, North Macedonia and Serbia to the next level with a strong focus on improving the governance of the game at all levels. Rok Snoj from the Slovenian Ice Hockey Federation spearheads the 36-month long project aiming for a change.
“My opinion is that long-term success of every sports organization depends on management ability, among others, to plan, organize, lead, monitor and fine-tune the key processes. For example, it takes proper management to be aware of how allocating budget to coach development would lead to safer and more attractive youth programs, which should result in higher enrolment and also higher probability that the players would reach their full potential,” he said of the region's Hockey Partnership for Progress project which started on 1 January this year.
“In addition, higher enrolment means a larger pool of talent, higher competition between players and clubs, leading to better competitions and a stronger national team. This should attract higher fan attendance and media coverage, which should lead to more interest from sponsors. With more sponsors additional investments can be made into the sports ecosystem and further improving conditions for player development,” said Snoj.
Until the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, all five national associations were united under one flag. Having since picked up the pieces as independent states, there has been recent positives in terms of cooperation, such as the launch of the International Hockey League (IHL) including senior teams from Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia. But for too long, developing the region's hockey landscape has been hampered by lack of resources and short-term solutions. In order to turn the vicious circle of negative consequences into a new positive direction, the need for a new generation of young, aspiring sport managers with new ideas and enthusiasm for long-term development will also be crucial.
“Without financial means, our only option is to educate, develop management skills and capacities of the people involved to be more effective and efficient, to make the hours they put into sport count more and result in better outcomes, not just sport results, but other, perhaps even more important at this level, such as, better support from the government or media,” said Snoj.
With The Sport Institute of Finland and Austrian Ice Hockey Association being on board as two of its expert partners, the HPP project gets underway at the premises of a third such partner. The Good Governance Seminar saw the five associations and experts from beyond gather on 15 February at the University of Ljubljana's Faculty of Economics to get the ball rolling in a project lasting until 2021.